The soap opera surrounding McLaren’s failed bid to qualify Fernando Alonso for the Indianapolis 500 is over. The spotlight is there for the taking.
The McLaren debacle dominated the first week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and dwarfed every other team and driver trying to make Sunday’s race — including plenty of contenders ready to star in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing and engine-maker Chevrolet have shown the most consistency, while Honda and its flagship Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing teams have work to do before the 500. Penske is on the pole for an 18th time with Simon Pagenaud and Chevrolet earned the top four starting spots in qualifying as the ECR trio of team owner Ed Carpenter, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones took spots two through four.
Only 1.8040 seconds separated Pagenaud from Kyle Kaiser, the final qualifier, to set the closest field in Indy 500 history.
“I think all the cars are so close these days,” Pagenaud said. “(You) can see that all the teams are raising the game, all the drivers are raising their game. It’s honestly tremendous to be in this era of the sport because you get better and better every weekend and it never stops.”
The fight to make the race was dramatic up and down pit lane. The Ganassi cars, with five-time series champion Scott Dixon and rookie Felix Rosenqvist, have been nothing special so far and Rosenqvist needed a total rebuild of his confidence following a crash three days before qualifying.
Rosenqvist was coached by three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who shadowed the Swedish driver and got him back up to speed and into the race.
“We all tried to keep him calm,” Franchitti said. “He had that look on the third (qualifying) run of, ‘I really don’t want to do this.'”
Rosenqvist qualified the car 29th, narrowly avoiding Sunday’s stressful “Last Row Shootout” that eliminated Alonso. Of all the drivers who crashed during last week’s practice and went to backups, Rosenqvist was the only one to make it into the race on the first day of qualifying.
“I feel probably as calm as I’ve been after that crash I had,” Rosenqvist said. “And I also had a feeling we could have gone much quicker, as well.”
Sage Karam had similar struggles even as he attempted to qualify for his sixth Indy 500. The American didn’t like his car and was clearly spooked; teammate JR Hildebrand had to shake the car down for Karam and assure him it had no gremlins.
Karam rebounded Sunday and was the fastest qualifier among the six vying for the final three spots in the race. He edged James Hinchcliffe, who didn’t make the race last year and crashed in Saturday qualifying to put him in a desperate hole on Sunday, while Kaiser of tiny Juncos Racing snagged the final spot in the field and sent Alonso and McLaren home.
“The pressure, yeah, I mean, it’s insane,” Karam said. “I never want to go through this again.”
Kaiser crashed Friday, a day before qualifying, and team owner Ricardo Juncos had every employee work through the night to prepare a car. The team lost both its primary sponsors right before opening day, practiced all week in a plain white car, and Kaiser turned four flawless laps to earn his second Indy 500 start.
“We have a good momentum and a lot of companies started calling us, a lot of people,” Juncos said. “You won’t see a white car now this weekend because we already have something on the table.”
The drivers aren’t back on the track until Friday’s “Carb Day” and it will be a final chance for Andretti Autosport to see what they’ve got for the race. The team placed only one driver, Alexander Rossi, in the Fast Nine qualifying group and it has been a very quiet week for Marco Andretti, former winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and Zach Veach. The fifth driver, Conor Daly, is in the best car he’s ever had at Andretti and posted the fastest lap of the day Friday.
He will start 11th, one spot behind Marco Andretti. Hunter-Reay qualified a disappointing 22nd.
Honda understood it didn’t have the same qualifying speed as Chevrolet, but fuel mileage and durability could give the Honda teams and the Andretti camp a race-day chance. Colton Herta has been the top Honda driver at Indy and the highest qualifier at fifth.
“The reliability has improved tremendously and we’re really pushing this engine almost beyond where it was originally designed,” said Ted Klaus, head of Honda Performance Development. “While our performance on the track has been great, and while I don’t wish either manufacturer any reliability issues, don’t underestimate the challenge that’s actually going on. They’re really pushing to get more power. Sometimes they don’t know if it’s going to work or not. So they’re almost putting their reputation on the line. When it doesn’t work, we all get to see the drama unfold.”