Defending 2016 IndyCar Series Champion Simon Pagenaud survived the first oval of the year and won his very first oval race, as well as his first race of the 2017 season at the Desert Diamond Phoenix Grand Prix in Arizona.
And although Robin Miller may have had something going with the race possibly being a rendition of The Hunger Games, the race really played out more like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Starting with the very first turn after the green flag. Schmidt Peterson’s Mikhail Aleshin loses his back end and takes out Dale Coyne’s Sebastien Bourdais, as well as Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti who spun to try and avoid the carnage. His spin caused enough smoke that it made it difficult to see the track for Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal, who hit Andretti while trying to avoid the last victim, Chip Ganassi’s Max Chilton. All were cleared and given an okay after being checked out, but five Honda cars were immediately eliminated from the 23-car field in less than one lap into the race.
And the luck went out from there.
Ryan Hunter-Reay would experience his first problem of the race during the yellow caution, having suffered tire damage from running through debris from the initial incident. He continued to fight understeer problems the entire race. After he hit the wall in the last 40 laps, he suffered enough damage that he was retired after pitting. He would be the last Andretti car to retire from the field.
As for the other Andretti drivers–Alexander Rossi had been experiencing some vibration issues halfway through the race. After pitting on Lap 131, his new, cold tires would appear difficult to control and he grazed the wall on his exit lap from the pits. The impact was enough he literally scrubbed the letters from the tire wall. He would re-pit again, and although they were working on trying to fix the damage, he would also retire.
Andretti’s Takuma Sato would suffer the same fate with cold tires on the exit lap landing him into the wall. His front right tire came completely off the rim–something you don’t really see after grazing a wall. Sato also retired.
So, yet another race where not a single Andretti team member made it to the checkered flag. Luckily, this was not a byproduct of electrical gremlin issues, but the harshness of the oval track.
Marco’s retirement from the incident in the first lap was exceptionally painful. Andretti was starting 9th on the grid, which was an incredibly high qualifying spot for him (lately). He’s been quicker and racing so much better, yet luck was not on his side and that crash took him out before he even had a chance to fight and really show what he was capable of doing.
A.J. Foyt Racing’s Conor Daly was the only other victim of the “series of unfortunate events”–having lost 60+ laps due to a gearbox issue with his car. He finished behind Hunter-Reay (although retired) due to number of completed laps.
So, only 13 of the 21 cars that started the race finished, and luckily one of them was Ed Carpenter, who himself, made a joke about actually finishing a race.
The rest of the excitement, (and way less disappointing) was the front of the race between the four Penske drivers and Ed Carpenter’s J.R. Hildebrand. There may not be enough words to describe the somewhat unbelievable performance of Hildebrand with that broken left hand. But he eagerly set himself up to run a good race, exclaiming that his hand felt good and he was surely “ready to rock and roll.” He did just that, landing a third-place podium finish. He was one of the only drivers making considerable progress on the field the entire night too, as many of the cars were just not able to pass.
Hildebrand’s story also very much mirrors now Penske’s Josef Newgarden’s success after his return to Iowa last year, while recovering from his broken right hand and clavicle injuries sustained in Texas.
As I have stated before, maybe, just maybe there is something there with a broken hand strategy. Maybe not–but the coincidence is just too great.
Speaking of Newgarden, he was struggling all evening. He held a a steady top-5 position most of the race, but after three wing changes and a few other adjustments, he just couldn’t keep up. The car was not having it and he finished 9th.
Pagenaud though, did phenomenal. A genius strategy call to wait for his pit stop while leading the race landed him the opportunity to pit under the caution set by Sato’s crash. The pit would leave him one lap ahead of the grid, and in the last 50 laps of the race, he and a handful of drivers (Will Power, Hildebrand and Helio Castroneves) would remain on the lead lap with the rest of the field at least one lap or more behind.
After Pagenaud’s win though, he is now the Championship leader, with a few contenders not too far behind. But the fight isn’t even close to over yet. Interesting is that last year, there was a combined eight different race winners throughout the season. This year, we have had four different drivers win for the four different races. It could be setting an interesting precedent for the remainder of the season, lending to all sorts of interesting victories and a scramble for the Championship title. But it’s still again, too early to speculate too much.
Though, it would make for an intriguing season.
And now “The Greatest Month in Racing” has arrived and expect more updates (and photos) for the next couple of weeks from Indianapolis.
Final Phoenix Results:
1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. J.R. Hildebrand
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Scott Dixon
6. Tony Kanaan
7. Ed Carpenter
8. Charlie Kimball
9. Josef Newgarden
10. Carlos Munoz
11. Ed Jones
12. James Hinchcliffe
13. Ryan Hunter-Reay (DNF)
14. Conor Daly
15. Alexander Rossi (DNF)
16. Takuma Sato (DNF)
17. Mikhail Aleshin (DNF)
18. Marco Andretti (DNF)
19. Sebastien Bourdais (DNF)
20. Max Chilton (DNF)
21. Graham Rahal (DNF)