If you’re here, you probably watched the GMR Grand Prix on Saturday, so I’m not even going to attempt to recap all the various twists and turns Saturday’s race took. There is no chance I would be able to describe it even if I tried. In 34 years of watching Indy car racing, I have never seen a race unfold quite like this one did. From starting on a wet but drying track, to a dry track, to a damp track, to a flooded track, this race was truly the definition of team racing with drivers having to utilize every last ounce of driving skill just to keep their cars on track while their teams burned through pencils, calculators, and laptops trying to create, adjust, adapt, and ultimately just guess on strategy.
In the end, Colton Herta put on a masterful display and was able to overcome what seemed like multiple occasions when luck and strategy seems to go against him to pull off one of the most impressive and difficult wins I have every seen.
When it comes to how each of the drivers ended up in their spot in the final standings, I have no clue how almost anyone arrived there. I know how Herta finished first, and I know how Josef Newgarden finished 25th. I have absolutely no idea how Pato O’Ward recovered from being spun and taking damage when getting collected by his teammate Felix Rosenqvist. I have no clue how Pagenaud ended up second after starting 20th. Marcus Ericsson spun at least once and somehow still managed to finish fourth, though for a time it appeared that Ericsson could pull of the win and replicate his crash-and-win performance from Nashville last season.
So instead of trying to unwind the tangled web of the finishing order, I think it more interesting to just look back at the race and the event as a whole and deal with some overall general impression of things we’ll remember.
Colton puts on a clinic
When the NTT IndyCar Series’s Official YouTube channel posts 15 minutes of in-car camera footage from your car, you know you’ve done some pretty slick driving. The entire clip seemed like the footage of Marco Andretti a few years back at Detroit when he was the gusty one to go to red slick tires first on a quickly drying track. Except the track surface at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wasn’t so kind as to just go from wet to dry. It constantly bounced back and forth throughout. And in so doing, Colton Herta truly gave one of the most masterful car-control performances of all time.
The number of highlight reels Herta’s Lap 4 drift save will end up on will be astronomical. Herta and Takuma Sato were the drivers to abandon the rain tires early on Lap 3 while the the track was plenty wet, particularly on the back side fo the course. Herta struggled with all he had to keep the car on the track, but it just appeared the car was on ice and he could get no heat into his tires. The move paid off handsomely, however, as Herta jumped to the lead from his 14th place starting positions. It wouldn’t come without drama, though, as on his second lap out of the pits, Herta caught Pato O’Ward at the end of the backstretch entering Turn 7. In the short straightaway between Turns 7 and 8, Herta’s rear tires broke loose and sent him into a complete drift slide all the way through Turn 8. The astonishing in-car replay showed Herta steering back into the slide with full left lock and somehow catching the slide and continuing on. And he not just continued on, but he actually passed Pato for the lead just one turn later. Unreal.
The drama didn’t end there for Young Herta though. Later in the race, when it appeared more rain was coming and was hitting some portions of the track but taking its sweet time covering the entirety of the facility, Herta and his crew debated back and forth between taking rain tires for a still partially dry track or trying to continue on slicks. Their last-second decision to stay on Firestone reds seemed questionable at the time and even more so only a couple laps later when Herta returned to pit lane to abandon the slick-tire strategy and change to the rain tires. Herta lost valuable track positions pitting again but not nearly the track position he would have lost by spinning on track or having to re-pit under green.
Somehow, given all the chaotic twists and turns of the race, and how many times it looked like strategy was genius and how many times strategy looked like the #26 Gainbridge team was sunk, Herta was ultimately the strongest car and came out on top. No matter how he got there, I always think it’s a good thing when the best car wins the race.
How long WERE those caution periods?!
It’s probably a good thing the race ultimately ended up being a timed race because it put an actual limit on how long race control could keep the race under yellow flag conditions.
If you were one of the many people I saw voicing an unfavorable opinion on the length of the yellow flag brought about by Jimmie Johnson’s spin on Lap 57, I feel your pain. The caution period lasted for NINE LAPS. NINE!! For those keeping score at home, nine laps of a 75-lap race in 12% of the race. For a car that spun, didn’t make any contact, and quickly got going again. Absurd!!
I’m sure somewhere in all the press releases or INDYCAR post-race speak someone blamed the interminable length on rearranging the positions and getting everyone back in place and all the other standard speak that gets used for the ridiculous length of full course yellows. Maybe there is some element of truth to that, but looking at the official race results, the only two infractions between Lap 57 and 65 were to Jack Harvey and Graham Rahal for contact on pit lane and avoidable contact, respectively. Both of those incidents occurred on Lap 64, LONG after the track should have gone back to green for such a mundane, harmless spin.
I have said it so many times, but I will continue to say it until I am blue in the face and am six feet under. Caution periods should be used to clear the race track only and give safety crews time to return to their positions following work. Yellow periods should not be extended for the sake of those who choose to pit. If it takes only one lap to get the track cleared and safely ready for competition, then throw the green flag after one lap. If someone gets caught on pit road because they chose to pit, too bad.
The entire current caution procedure is an abomination. Once the track is yellow, the entire field has to pack up behind the pace car and race control has to confirm the running order. Assuming that goes quickly, it’s at least one lap until pit lane opens. Then pit lane opens and cars are allowed to pit. Then everyone bunches up again. Then the wave around happens and tail-enders have to scurry around for a complete lap to catch the back of the field. Then the restart order is confirmed. Then the field is given the one lap to go signal. It’s obscene and it’s all because yellow flag periods have been morphed into a time out to essentially allow pit stops.
Not only is this whole procedure massively disruptive to the flow of the race, it also creates an exceptionally dangerous pit lane because most of the field is now pitting at the same time. Dozens of cars are swerving and merging entering and exiting their pit lanes while exposed and defenseless pit crew members are literally entrusting their lives to the actions of drivers and other pit crews.
The entire yellow flag procedure is awful and unnecessarily disruptive and dangerous. It has been this way since the current yellow flag/closed pit procedures were put in place many years ago. Drivers hate it. Teams hate it. Fans often complain about it. And INDYCAR seems to not care. So I’ve just wasted five minutes on this soapbox. It’s not the first time I’ve railed on it, and I feel quite certain it won’t be the last time.
Time to toot my own horn
Despite what some people might say, I am not generally one to toot my own horn. However, I actually got one call correct in my GMR Grand Prix-view before the race. (Actually about one-and-a-half if you could that overall lackluster day Chip Ganassi Racing had.)
And no, I don’t mean telling you to watch Pagenaud and Power. Given they were racing on the IMS Road Course, that’s just too easy of a pick. BUT, about 30 laps into the race when Takuma Sato was sitting pretty in fourth place, I thought I was looking like a bit of a genius. Of course, that kinda went south when Sato got involved in a bit of a melee in Turn 1 on Lap 41. Nonetheless, as I thought might happen when I saw rain was predicted for the race, Sato and Dale Coyne Racing made a great strategy call, and with Sato going on the same brave option as Colton Herta to take slick tires on Lap 2, they salvaged a nice seventh-place finish from his 17th place starting position. Not stellar, but still a really nice result for a team that was really in need of a good finish.
All in all…
…it was a solid weekend all around with a chaotic and interesting/exciting race. No cars were severely damaged, so no teams will have to spend a significant amount of time they really don’t have putting together a car again to be ready for the twin bill in Detroit the week following the Indianapolis 500.
Mostly importantly, all the preliminaries are out of the way and now it is truly time to turn all attention to the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Practice finally gets underway in just a few hours!!