The 2021 Indianapolis 500 was an absolute corker and it had something for everybody.
One of the main elements was strategy, but there was plenty of overtaking and a youth vs. experience battle for the win at the end.
For a multitude of reasons, drivers as far back as 22nd believed they should have been the ones in victory lane instead of Helio Castroneves. So here are those drivers and why they ultimately didn’t get to drink milk for winning ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’.
The 2019 Indy 500 winner was arguably defeated before the race even started – with his 25th starting spot coming as part of Penske’s qualifying woe – but nobody told him or the team that!
Quick pitstops from the #22 team helped put Pagenaud in a great position to fight at the end and who knows what could have transpired had he started further forwards, or had he not had to go to the back of the field because of an emergency pitstop for fuel under caution when the pits were closed.
He made the most of a mistake by Pato O’Ward, who had to lift off at Turn 2 on the last lap to take a podium, but there’s no doubt in his mind what the end outcome could have been.
“What a shame,” said Pagenaud, who drove brilliantly all day. “I really think we had the race car to get it done today.
“I’m hurting in my heart. I drove my heart out and my soul out of this race car. My team did such a great job.”
Rahal has been a favourite for the 500 since his form in the Indy 500 open test, and ran in the top 10 pretty much all day long. He and team-mate Takuma Sato were able to stretch 36-lap stints on fuel without losing too much pace on track, and that may well have set him up at the end had his team made the right adjustments.
We never found out though as his team made a crucial error in releasing him from the pits without the left-rear wheel attached properly. The wheel held on until halfway around the Turn 2 slip road and then disconnected, sending Rahal into a big crash in the outside wall. It’s lucky no one was hurt in the incident, particularly Rahal and Conor Daly, who hit Rahal’s errant wheel at speed.
“The Indy 500 ends in disappointment. A little more so today because I really think we had them today, I really do. We were good on one more stop and everybody else needed two,” said Rahal.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 30, 2021
“I can’t tell you how bad this one stings, but we win as a team, we lose as a team.
“The boys did an excellent job all month – I’m not disappointed in them. I know there is a lot of pressure on their shoulders.”
You may have expected to see Takuma Sato in this group too. The reigning winner went long on the second to last stint – with that fuel-saving prowess – “hoping for a miracle” caution, but it never came.
He was just behind the lead group before making that decision, but perhaps a Hail Mary strategy to stay out for the win was a win-win situation as finishing seventh or something wasn’t going to do him or the team any good really, with him so far back in the championship order.
Conor Daly smashing into an errant wheel at around 150mph+ looked like something out of Rocket League or a demolition derby. But this is not the time for light-hearted comparisons or jokes, as Daly is lucky to be alive.
Daly – an Indianapolis native – led the race for the first time at his eighth attempt and led the most laps of the race, but his and Rinus VeeKay’s strategy at Ed Carpenter Racing to get out front and lead laps cost a lot of fuel.
P8 in my second #Indy500. Led 32 laps and was right in contention to win the race. A few unfortunate moments on the last pit cycle sent us back down the field. After all, awesome month of May and really proud at everyone @ecrindy, the #Bitcoin car was insanely fast! pic.twitter.com/L9uzIx9XfU
— Rinus VeeKay (@rinusveekay) May 30, 2021
Hitting the wheel damaged Daly’s front wing and took Daly out of win contention.
“The reason we did not win was because of our front wing,” Daly said.
“After Graham Rahal crashed, a giant tire just fell out of the sky! It is about par for the course for my luck and we had to work with what we had from there.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 30, 2021
“The car started understeering quite a bit, but it was nice to be out front in the first half.
“We proved today that we are capable and belong up there. Everything has to go perfect so if you hit a flying tire, it’s tough!”
VeeKay also reckoned he should have won the race. His team claimed he was caught behind a slower car entering the pits on his last stop. He did work hard at the end to fight back to eighth and claim valuable championship points.
Alright, Dixon hasn’t flat out said he should have won the race, but he was the pre-event favourite, the pole-sitter and the one everyone had already convinced themselves was going to win. So we’ve added him to the list.
Sadly for him he had to pit for emergency fuel on the first caution, and then his team couldn’t restart the car for what felt like forever.
Epic strategy across the race almost managed to cut out a pitstop compared to the leaders, but he was so slow on track saving the fuel to do it that it took him out of contention.
“I don’t know what to say,” Dixon told SpeedSport.
“Unfortunately with the yellow, we shouldn’t have been running it that close on the fuel and it caught some of us out. I still took the penalty because if we ran out of fuel, we would’ve lost more than a lap.
“It was a rough day. We tried to go off strategy, needed some luck there, but nothing went out way.”
Another pole (now four), still only one win in the Indy 500. It’s the Bermuda Triangle of IndyCar stats.
Hunter-Reay’s last two years have been littered with bad luck and driver errors, and today it appeared like something exactly in between those two ends of the spectrum ruined his race.
He had been top five all day long and Andretti’s best hope as it felt like he was last year, but a pitlane speeding penalty on his final stop – he pitted just behind Alex Palou, who finished second – ruled him out. He blamed the brakes.
“It was a really unfortunate way to end the race today,” he said. “We were up there the whole day and we really felt like we could’ve been fighting with those guys at the end.
“The brake pedal just went all the way to the bulkhead when they called me in, which is nothing but metal. I had to do a few pumps to get it back up. I’m not really sure why that is or why it happened.
“It’s just unfortunate, because the DHL Honda was good today. That’s all it takes though, one little misstep like that. That’s Indy though, I guess.”
Interestingly you’d think Hunter-Reay’s front row starting team-mate Colton Herta would be in this group of drivers thinking they could win, especially as he was in the lead group all day before falling away at the end. However…
“There wasn’t much we could do today, unfortunately we were just slow,” said Herta.
“The balance wasn’t right and we just struggled. We struggled with the scuffed tires and that kind of threw us off. Then we were trying to correct the balance with scuffed tires then went back to new tires.
“It was just diabolical.”
As Penske’s top starter in 17th, rookie McLaughlin had a rollercoaster induction into the drivers who have raced in the Indy 500. He had worked his way into the top 10 and was hovering around there when a slow second stop cost him places, and then on the third stop he was too fast entering pit road.
“One mistake just eats you. You can’t make mistakes here,” said McLaughlin. “I just made a simple mistake. Didn’t quite pump my brake pedal up enough. Had a pretty stone cold set of rotors going into pit lane there. Couldn’t pull up.
“I would have loved to have been a little higher. Feel like I could have been in the front group. Don’t know if I would have won the race, but I certainly feel I could have been a factor in the top 10.”
OK, it’s not quite ‘thought he should have won the Indy 500’, but he certainly didn’t rule out that he could have when asked if that was feasible after the race.
There’s more to come with Palou on The Race in the following days, but he ran up front, banished the demons of his crash in his rookie year and looked every bit someone who is leading the IndyCar championship by a mile and capable of winning the Indy 500.
Ultimately ,Castroneves played the traffic perfectly and timed his pass on Palou like a four-time winner, and there’s no shame in that for Palou. If anything, dicing with Castroneves is going to make him an even stronger proposition with the lessons learned for next year.
“It hurts a lot,” said Palou, “I didn’t expect that a second place would hurt that much until I crossed the finish line.
“But I’m super proud, super happy. I think the No. 10 NTT Data car was super fast. I had the best car for sure.
“Helio has three, and I don’t know why he wanted four. He could have gave me one…!”