Pagenaud Survives Brutal Indy Grand Prix

Simon Pagenaud (77) had just enough fuel to win Saturday's Grand Prix of Indianapolis at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Dave Heithaus Photo)
Simon Pagenaud (77) had just enough fuel to win Saturday's Grand Prix of Indianapolis at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Dave Heithaus Photo)
Simon Pagenaud (77) had just enough fuel to win Saturday’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Dave Heithaus Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS – When the idea of having a road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just two weeks before the Indianapolis 500 was announced, the intent by IndyCar and IMS management was to have a show-stopping event; something that would generate attention to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the weeks leading up to its biggest race.

But after Saturday’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis concluded with popular driver from France Simon Pagenaud winning the race, it’s unlikely the creators of this race expected this much action.

It was a brutal race that began with a vicious crash at the start that injured Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who was hit from flying debris. The crash was triggered when pole winner Sebastian Saavedra stalled in his grid box as the rest of the field zoomed by at high-speed on the standing start. But Saavedra was helpless and ultimately Carlos Munoz plowed into the back of the stalled car at a very high rate of speed sending debris flying.

Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin also ran into the back of Saavedra’s mangled heap of a race car on the front stretch, landing on top of the crippled car.

Once the race resumed leading contenders such as Scott Dixon (spin on course) and Will Power (penalty for running over an air hose during a pit stop) knocked themselves out of contention.

Franck Montagny was involved in a crash with Martin Plowman after Plowman’s car hit the turn seven curbing and went airborne. Montagny was in the same car that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch is supposed to drive in Sunday’s opening day of practice for the Indianapolis 500. Andretti Autosport is confident the car will be ready in time for Busch to practice on Sunday.

The most serious incident, however, happened to popular driver James Hinchcliffe, who took a direct hit in the helmet from debris and pulled off into the turn seven runoff area. He was taken by stretcher to the IU Health Infield Care Center and then to Methodist Hospital where a CT Scan showed that he had suffered a concussion.

Hinchcliffe will be re-evaluated Sunday by the IndyCar medical staff. E.J. Viso is standing by if Hinchcliffe is not cleared to drive, but no decision on the driver of the car for the Indianapolis 500 will be made until after Hinchcliffe’s evaluation on Sunday.

With all of that serving as a storyline, the racing drama was whether Pagenaud’s fuel strategy would pay off with a historic victory or whether Ryan Hunter-Reay or Helio Castroneves would be able to run full-throttle and take the victory away from the Honda driver.

But Pagenaud proved that his Honda engine was good to the last drop as he made it to the finish of the 82-lap race .890 of a second ahead of Hunter-Reay’s Dallara/Honda to score his first win of 2014 and the third win of his IndyCar Series career.

“This car was making fuel,” Pagenaud said. “Honda was unbelievable. I was worried about Helio coming back and I didn’t know what Hunter-Reay was doing, either. But it worked out for us. The care they gave me was amazing.

“It’s pretty cool. It feels awesome. We work on this every week in and week out. Here, looking at the Pagoda, it’s great. My father is here. It’s amazing.”

The Frenchman was cheered by a bigger than expected crowd filled the spectator mounds and parts of the grandstand to witness this inaugural event – estimated at more than 40,000. And while that may appear sparse considering the massive grandstands seat nearly 300,000 spectators the real action was on the infield portion of the road course that gave the throng of fans that watched the race from that vantage point.

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves was third in a Dallara/Chevrolet, 1.8244-seconds behind.

“Helio drove a great race and the guys did a great job,” said Roger Penske, who owns the driven by Castroneves. “We’ll take P3 and come back in two weeks and get ready for the big one.”

Sam Schmidt was the winning team owner as the former driver won an IndyCar Series race at Indianapolis for the first time in his career although it’s not his first trip to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Simon is on a mission this year for sure,” Schmidt said. “Indy is special. We’ve won a lot of races here in the Indy Lights Series. This all worked out.”

Another driver from France, Sebastien Bourdais, was fourth in a Dallara/Chevrolet for KV Racing.

“We knew it was going to be a crashfest and it sure turned into one,” Bourdais said.

Charlie Kimball of Chip Ganassi Racing rounded out the top five in another Dallara/Chevrolet.