By Patrick Stephan and Steve Wittich
From Steve regarding the finish:
When we talked to Robert Wickens after the race he told TSO:
“The series said there was going to be a green/white checkered, so we pit for new tires because we know how big the advantage is We honestly thought we could make things happen. We thought we were going for the win or at least P2, and it didn’t work out. Obviously, there is a lot of explaining to do, and I wish I knew more before I talked to you guys. I’m kind of lost for words at what happened and why it happened.”
After chatting with Wickens, we went in search of more answers and found Schmidt Peterson Motorsports General Manager Piers Phillips waiting to talk to the officials at the series trailer.
After Phillips left the trailer, Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations and race director Kyle Novak graciously took the time to walk TSO through what happened after the yellow flag came out.
Frye started out by saying:
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to end the race under green. That’s 100%. We’re not going to go to overtime, but we want to end under green.”
The lap 294 cautions came at an inopportune time as far as timing, with Frye telling us:
“We have a general red flag window that we utilize. The red flag window closed when that incident happened. So it’s the perfect time. Perfect in a bad way.
“We saw a piece of debris from race control, and it looked like it was just a big piece that we could just go pick up quickly and get going. Open the pits, and restart the race with two to go. So you would restart the race with on (Lap) 298. The debris was much more than we thought it was, and we just ran out of time.”
Race director Novak went into further detail, saying:
“We’re always looking to stay green. The (No.) 20 (of Ed Carpenter) gets sideways, and we see it in race control, He gets it going in the right direction, what a save. At that moment in time I’m thinking let’s, let’s stay, let’s stay, let’s stay. Flashback to the incident and we see endplate pieces there. Yellow, Yellow, Yellow. No choice.”
Regarding the team telling Wickens that they were going to go green, Novak went on to explain that:
“There is never a timetable given to the teams because that timetable is uncertain. What we have is a process that has benchmarks to that process. There are many of them (benchmarks) in our complete yellow procedure – even the truncated version is a page and a half – from the moment the yellow is called until the moment we call green, green, green. All those benchmarks may happen instantaneously, or one benchmark may take a lap and a half.”
The way that Novak explained those benchmarks to TSO makes them sounds a lot like a checklist that pilots would go through before taking off. Getting the cars slowed down to pace car speed, opening the pits, running the lapped cars through the pits and reordering the cars, among other things, are all factors that play into the length of a yellow.
Before leaving the trailer, Frye and Novak reiterated to TSO that they would never give the teams a precise timeframe for a yellow, only that they would do everything possible to go green without utilizing overtime.
INDYCAR officials followed their process and simply ran out of time to go back to green. With lives on the line, shortcutting that process should never be an option. Kudos to Frye, Novak and the rest of race control for not circumnavigating that for “the show.”
Phillips and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (and Tim Cindric and Brain Campe from Team Penske) timing stand made the same decision I would have made. Wickens would have had a chance to win and would have finished no worse than second if there would have been two green flag laps. Hinchcliffe, Pigot, and Sato would have been sitting ducks to Newgarden and Wickens as the difference between fresh Firestone Firehawks, and 50+ lap rubber would have been significant. Both teams rolled the dice for a win, and unfortunately, it came up snake eyes.
Patrick’s opinion on the last yellow and some thoughts from the podium drivers
On the finish under yellow. On principle, I am ok with finishes under yellow – or more specifically I am against changes to the race distance. But, at a place like this where the yellow flag laps only take 30 seconds, it can be hard to get everything organized. Perhaps if race control had gone to a red flag immediately and never even tried to let people pit, then we might have gotten a 2-3 lap shoot-out.
And the more I’ve thought about it since the yellow and checkered flag flew, the less it bothers me that the race didn’t get back to green. Sometimes races just end under yellow. I’d be far more bothered had INDYCAR done something extraordinary and we got a last lap demo derby and a different winner. Hinch was the fastest car coming to the end, and I remember a long time ago Tony Kanaan telling me that you should never get too upset when the fastest car wins.
What did the Top 3 driver’s think about getting back to green?
Hinchcliffe said of a green – white – checkered rule for the finish, “If the track is clean with two laps to go, then yeah, I’m all for them. I’m not a big fan of like doctoring the length of a race just to make sure it ends under green. I get it. I get why it’s done in NASCAR, but it just — it complicates things. For me there’s too many races that are fuel mileage races for us that we have guys that — I mean, they sweat, they lose five years off their life making sure that we hit the right numbers and we run out of fuel crossing the line, and if all of a sudden a yellow flag comes out with two to go and it ends up becoming a green-white-checkered, your race is done, and I don’t think that’s fair. We go into it knowing how long it’s going to be, and that’s what we plan for, so that’s what I want to run.”
But, did the race winner think we’d get back to green today? “When we were doing the math in our head, I mean, there was still only a couple laps to go. We still had to get the lapped cars back through pit lane, and we’re just doing the math, thinking!”
“I don’t even know if we have time to go green, and if we do, it might be like a green-white-checkered kind of deal, and I don’t hate my odds if it’s a lap, if it’s two laps.”
“It was a tough call. It really was, because we’ve seen it go the other way so many times, but ultimately the right call was made, and man, if we had pitted from the lead and it didn’t go green again, I wouldn’t have slept for a week. This is a bad week to not sleep going into Toronto because I’m very busy this week!”
(Note, he made some off mic jokes that he is already missing a flight and possibly an appearance because winning the race has delayed his departure to Toronto!)
On getting the race getting back to green flag conditions, Pigot said, “I didn’t even know what was going on to be honest! I saw people diving off in front of me, and I thought they were guys that were laps down, and I thought I kind of saw Josef’s car and was a little confused there for a second. And when I crossed the line, I didn’t really know where I was, and I was talking with the guys seeing if they wanted me to pit or not, and they said stay out, and obviously it was the right decision!”
“If it had gone green again, it would have been really tricky to hang on at that point because I think we probably pitted on the early end on the last stop to try and jump Takuma and James, but yeah, it would have been tough. I’m glad it didn’t go green again.”
Finally, what did Sato think of that late situation, which he was actually directly a part of, “I think I must send him a big check not to be in the spin!”
“It was a big moment with Ed, and it was already closing stages…I thought I was going through it, but he basically snapped it and was coming back towards me. We clipped him a little bit and had really gentle contact, which got him back going straight, and I had a little bit of body damage, but the car was absolutely fine.”
“If it becomes a restart closing the race for two laps, I would be able to compete with these guys!”
More random and disjointed thoughts from a whirlwind of a race. Really felt like I was watching a bunch of toy cars fly around a salad bowl – whew! (I also had a tornado analogy – but haven’t gotten that one all put together in my little brain yet)!
Scott Dixon 411
Josef Newgarden 378
Alexander Rossi 370
Ryan Hunter-Reay 359
Will Power 358
The difference between 4th and 2nd in the INDYCAR point system is 8 (40 to 32). So pitting at the end didn’t cost Newgarden a chance to take over the point lead today, but that could be important when we get to Sonoma!
For Spencer Pigot, even if he had not picked up 2 spots as Wickens and Newgarden pitted, this would still be his best career finish, besting a 7th at Mid-Ohio in 2016. And don’t forget, he started 18th.
In fact, none of the Top-3 had a single digit starting spot. Hinchcliffe qualified 11th, Sato 10th and again Pigot 18th. And it’s not like they worked timely yellows to make it to the front.
On some cars making such big position moves, Hinchcliffe said, “In terms of being surprised at guys coming from further back, it doesn’t really surprise me a ton. I’m surprised that some of the guys that qualified really well didn’t finish as well as I thought they might have. But in a race that’s all about managing your tires, we’ve seen it at Texas, we’ve seen it other places, you can qualify anywhere, and if your car is hooked up, you can work your way to the front.”
Unofficially, Hinch passed 83 cars, Pigot 65 and Sato 54. Newgarden made 63 passes and Wickens was very impressive out there today in making 64 passes – a huge number considering he’s a rookie here. Hinch’s 69 was tops for the entire field, followed by Ed Jones 69 and Zach Veach’s 67. And yet there were still only 2 yellow flags!
Said Hinchcliffe, “It’s funny, we had that conversation before the race, you know, what did we think the caution frequency was going to be. And it’s so funny because we’ve seen it — in practice — if you just like went on how the car felt in practice, you’d be like, yeah, there’s going to be tons of cautions; guys are going to be crashing all over the place because these things are really hard to drive right now.”
“But what happens when tires start falling off and that starts happening is guys really start taking care of themselves and each other a lot more. You don’t have as much confidence to throw it down the inside and make a stupid move, and it’s contact that usually leads to accidents and the cautions. We thought it was going to go one of two ways; it was either going to be a crash-fest, or it was actually going to be a pretty clean race, and obviously ,it was the latter. We were glad to see that. I think that’s better for the fans. I think it was a good ebb and flow with the different tire strategies.”
In race changes to the cars were crucial, and certainly helped get Hinchcliffe to victory lane.
Said Hinch after the race, “In the first stint, the car was really good. We just made a tiny change to try and dial in a little more understeer. It was pretty free in that first stint. We overshot it and had way too much understeer in the second stint. So as we tried to go back on it, we went too far, and we were really loose in the third stint.”
“That’s what allowed Sato to get by us was I think I caught somebody, wrong place, wrong time, got a big wiggle, went up the track, and he went by.”
“That was when I was starting to panic a little bit because we still had about 30 laps left in the stint and I was maxed right on the weight jacker, max on the front bar. It was kind of dire straits for a bit. We were surprised how far the balance went for a relatively small change.”
“So I just said, hey, look, the first stint was the best stint; let’s go back to whatever we did there, and that’s what we did, and the thing just came alive. We were able to run both lanes, and that really what helps you when you come up on lap traffic, and it’s all about lap traffic at a short track like this.”
Spencer Pigot sounded like he was pretty happy with his car and a little afraid to make any big changes that might mess it up, “Honestly the only changes we made were new tires. Never touched the wings. I think we might have done a little tire pressure. But they were asking me what I wanted, and I just said, leave it alone. It felt good.”
“I think we’re probably one of the few people out there that didn’t touch the front wing throughout the whole race, and maybe that was a good thing, maybe it was a bad thing. Definitely at the end there it seemed like James and Josef had a little bit more pace than us, but I was comfortable with the car and didn’t really want it to do anything different.”
After the race, Pigot passed along some funny news about his family trying to celebrate his first podium with him, “The first time I saw my mom after I got out of the car, she was screaming and running around, and she didn’t even know I was there. I was like, ‘Mom, I’m right here.'”
“She’s in the back (of the press conference). I think she’s a little embarrassed. But you know, it’s a huge family effort. They’ve been supporting me, my parents, since I started racing when I was nine years old, and it’s always been a family dream and a family goal to be racing IndyCars.”
But, now he’ll need to put in another big finish because his dad missed this one, “This is the first IndyCar race my dad hasn’t been here for, so he’s missing out, but he’ll be there in Toronto and looking forward to seeing him, and yeah, it’s just — it means a lot to everyone in the family.”
On the driving conditions overall for the race, Sato told TSO that it was a “Tough race out there, but I really enjoyed it. It was a tough field, but all the driver’s have to deal with it. It’s all relative. No one was able to run any corners flat today and I think I used the brake 20 times. Certainly, it was more challenging, but again, I really enjoyed it. I just wish I had one more stint.”
To pay off a few more driver’s stories.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was forced to pit road and eventually retire when he had camber shims come loose. The same thing (different wheel) that beset his teammate Alexander Rossi at Road America.
Sebastien Bourdais told us after the race that they were not going to try a two-stop race. They so badly missed the Center of Pressure (COP) on that opening stint that team owner Dale Coyne took a flyer to try and catch a caution. He was actually fairly happy with his 11th place finish considering how bad his car was in his opening stint.
We checked with the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda crew about his unscheduled late pit stop and were told that they had an issue with that particular set of tires.
TSO also caught up with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ed Jones after the race. Jones was happy with his car early in the first stint, running a solid eighth until his car “fell off a cliff” and picked up unmanageable understeer, forcing him to pit early. The sophomore told TSO that they added too much front wing during that stop and for the rest of the race the oversteer was significant.
Before I finish this, just another travel type note from Patrick!
I haven’t been to Iowa Speedway in several years as it always seemed to be easier for either Joe or Steve to cover, but now that I’ve been back, I want to make sure to get back again. The racing was great, and the people were even better. I had a lot of fun even though we got really busy away from the keyboard with some tours and stuff. As I’ve noted a bunch of times I have a lot of fun talking about racing, so talking to a bunch of people about racing – well, that’s even better!!!
I also had a ton of fun driving around Iowa. I still don’t know why I booked a hotel so far from the track in Ottumwa last night – probably didn’t think that through very well, but it all worked out. Running from Knoxville to Ottumwa in the dark took me through a bunch of small towns with old school small town squares. If I had more time I would like to explore the area in more depth.
BUT, the drive in this morning was probably more fun than allowed. The GPS said it would take like an hour and 16 minutes to get to the track. I looked and picked a route that was supposedly slower by two minutes but more direct. I elected to go that way and got treated to some rock and or dirt roads through amazingly beautiful farm country. I was also able to make up considerable time and remind myself what it must feel like to get an IndyCar ‘in the marbles’. Oh and I made up 11 minutes over the initially “suggested” arrival time. Actually went from rock covered road to the race track’s paved outer loop and then straight to the infield in about 2 minutes. Truly a “Field of Dreams” type appearance of the track. Way more fun than coming in off the Interstate!
As always, thanks for reading! We’ll be back quickly this week as Steve and I both have a quick turnaround and head up to Toronto for the next race weekend!