INDIANAPOLIS — Helio Castroneves bested Alex Palou in a thrilling late race battle that saw the two swap positions several times over the final 25 or so laps. The thing is, it wasn’t until six laps-to-go on before the duo’s battle was actually for the top spot.
See, Felix Rosenqvist, JR Hildebrand and Takuma Sato were initially trying to stretch their fuel load. Rosenqvist, last pit on Lap 158. Hildebrand was Lap 155 and Sato on Lap 157. By comparison, Castroneves’ final stop was on Lap 172 with Palou and Pato O’Ward on Lap 173 each.
So, while the full focus was on Castroneves, Palou and O’Ward for what most thought was shaping up for the win, you really had two battles. Rosenqvist, was holding off Hildebrand and Sato who each were trying to save enough fuel and hope to get a lucky caution in the final laps in order to safely make it to the end. With only two yellows all day, they’d not luck out.
Hildebrand bailed out from second place on Lap 186. Rosenqvist followed on Lap 192. Sato a lap later on Lap 193. That handed the lead over to Palou who had an intense fight with Castroneves on his hands after. Simon Pagenaud joined the fray and would later pass O’Ward for third place on the final lap. He’d say Palou was showing his hand too soon. Castroneves said that his car was best in Turns 2 and 4 and knew that those would be his spots to capitalize. That and losing three times in close fashion made him not want to do it again.
Plus, with lapped traffic ahead, remember what the drivers told me all month. The top few cars could pass with ease, fifth on back couldn’t. They were all towards the middle of a train in which Palou didn’t get enough of a tow from a car in front and allowed Castroneves to make his winning move by. With Ryan Hunter-Reay now in front of Castroneves but a few other cars in front of RHR, Palou was in that danger zone of dirty air and couldn’t make a pass work.
That’s why you kind of saw what you did on Sunday. Some may have wondered why the passing up front early on was few and far between. That’s because fuel saving was so crucial and the leader was wasting too much fuel while being out front. No one wanted to lead. So, it was a high speed parade for a while. The drivers settled in and wanted to let the race play out naturally.
Plus, the cars fifth on back had a difficult time passing. So, with fuel saving up front when the cars behind could clearly pass, treacherous conditions behind, the first half of the race was an event on pit strategy.
In the end, you got two different strategies in what overall was a generally thrilling race.