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Analysis
IndyCar Indy 500

How Newgarden rose to be a thorn to Ericsson's double Indy 500 bid

Despite the thrilling and, at times, terrifying action at this year’s Indy 500, the race boiled down to a one-lap shootout which saw Josef Newgarden dethrone last year’s winner Marcus Ericsson. In a race tinged with controversy, here’s how it played out and left many feeling what could have been

Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet, Santino Ferrucci, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet

For the majority of the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500, the race lived up to its grand billing as 'The Greatest Spectacle in Racing'. Run at a searingly fast pace, and with just a couple of minor shunts to disrupt its flow, it became bogged down by a sequence of late-race, multi-car accidents and a trio of red flags. Its denouement was the Indy 2.5, a final-lap shootout straight out of the pits for a NASCAR-style green-white-chequered finish, which Josef Newgarden mastered to pass last year's winner Marcus Ericsson to claim his maiden 500 win, and team owner Roger Penske's record-extending 19th.

Newgarden started the day in 17th on the grid, admitting that his team had "fallen short" and "not done a good enough job" in qualifying. "Indy is not easy," he mused. "I don't care how many Indy 500s you have, what team you are, there are no guarantees when you show up here. For whatever reason this cruel mistress, she's just tricking us."

Newgarden made solid progress early on, nudging his way into the top 10 as early as one-quarter distance. Drivers bemoaned the latest aero package on the Dallara DW12s, which had extra downforce that appeared to be doing the opposite of what was intended in terms of improving overtaking opportunities. But Newgarden ignored that and got passes done when he had to and benefited from some pitstop perfection by his well-drilled crew.

In the second half of the race, the 32-year-old involved himself in the conversation over the leading positions. Remember, at this point, the race was cracking along at a fair old rate -  on course to be one of the least-interrupted editions in its long history. The first yellow was for the elaborately named rookie Sting Ray Robb, who got into the marbles in a turf war with Graham Rahal at Turn 1 on lap 92 and came off second best. "I need to pay more attention to the stereotypes of this series," he complained, refusing to call Rahal by his name. "It was just way too aggressive of a move."

The second caution, on the stroke of the three-quarter race distance, was for Romain Grosjean. He'd earlier been speared in the pits by Andretti Autosport team-mate Colton Herta in an intra-team muddle, and the lure of the Turn 2 barrier pulled him into its grasp just like it did 12 months ago.

By this point, Chip Ganassi Racing's Ericsson and Penske's Newgarden looked to be the strongest horses in the field, but there were still some other pre-race favourites that they'd have to conquer. But polesitter Alex Palou and Rinus VeeKay had delayed themselves in the pits when VeeKay half spun and clattered Palou into the wall, breaking his front wing.

"I was next to Alex when I got wheelspin," rued VeeKay. "I lost the car and hit him. I think I just used too many revs, you don't wanna hit anyone so it's just unfortunate."

It was a fast but not so furious start to the Indy 500, with a record pace set before the late-race chaos

It was a fast but not so furious start to the Indy 500, with a record pace set before the late-race chaos

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

The other front-row starter, Arrow McLaren's Felix Rosenqvist, was right in the hunt towards the end. His team-mate Pato O'Ward was also a contender, albeit hamstrung on strategy by a fuel filler that refused to give him a full tank.

But this wasn't to be McLaren's day, in spite of its cool triple crown throwback liveries. Rosenqvist was the first to depart, admitting that he misjudged the wake off Newgarden's car as he was passed by the Penske driver at Turn 1 with 17 laps to go.

Rosenqvist's 1984 Monaco GP colour scheme had a very un-Alain Prost-like trip into the wall on corner exit. What's worse, as he tried to scrub off speed to a place of safety, something broke as hit the apron entering Turn 2, and he spun back onto the track with the pack approaching at over 200mph.

Cars took avoiding action in all directions, but Kyle Kirkwood clipped Rosenqvist with his left-rear wheel, which was catapulted over the catch fencing and towards a grandstand. The crowd held its breath – a portion were compelled to collectively duck – as the spinning wheel flew over their heads… and hit a building before landing on a fortunately unoccupied Chevy parked between the stands. Tragedy averted, but that was a close one.

"I got on to the apron to give him [Ericsson] room and I got squeezed. There were seven laps to go and I was going for it. I was way too nice. I'll make sure that he comes with me next time. Yeah, I won't forget that one" Pato O'Ward

Kirkwood went on a wild ride, slamming into the Turn 2 wall and flipping over. He slid upside down for what must have seemed like an eternity. "Being up in the fence is never a good thing in an IndyCar," he deadpanned. "The scary part was seeing the sparks and just being stuck at that point."

There were just 15 laps to go when that happened, and the red flag was flown for the first time – but not the last…

It's at this point that the race turned sour. Maybe it was the long wait on the pitlane for the restart, but drivers appeared to get suddenly agitated and overamped their moves from this point, and it all got very messy. The signs were there when O'Ward, whose pit strategy was saved by the yellow for Grosjean, brought the field to green impossibly slowly through Turn 4 and then jumped ahead – only to be greeted by an extension of the caution and a warning not to do it again.

O'Ward got in hot water with race control as he misjudged the restart

O'Ward got in hot water with race control as he misjudged the restart

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

The reason for him trying this on was proved at the restart proper, as first Ericsson popped out of his draft and then Newgarden swept ahead of both of them on the charge to Turn 1. O'Ward decided to retaliate on Ericsson with a late move on the inside of Turn 3, with echoes of their confrontation on the last lap of the 500 last year at Turn 1. On that occasion, O'Ward backed out of his big run, allowing Ericsson to win, and you felt that had been playing on his mind for the past 12 months.

This time, he kept it lit, only attempting to back out as Ericsson squeezed him towards the turf at the apex. "I got on to the apron to give him room and I got squeezed," said a bitter O'Ward, who brushed against Ericsson and then spun hard into the fence. "There were seven laps to go and I was going for it. I was way too nice. I'll make sure that he comes with me next time. Yeah, I won't forget that one."

Adding insult to non-injury, Scott McLaughlin rammed Simon Pagenaud into a spin, and Agustin Canapino spun into the wall – and his brake-less car then collected O'Ward's stricken McLaren.

The race was red-flagged again to clear up this mess. At the restart, it seemed we would have a four-lap sprint to the finish, but the outbreak of craziness was underlined by a wreck on the start/finish straight before the yard of bricks – involving Ed Carpenter, Rahal, Christian Lundgaard, Marco Andretti and Benjamin Pedersen – bringing out the caution yet again.

It was at this point that Ericsson was so angered by what Race Control decided next. IndyCar had the chance to red flag the race before they drove past the wreckage, and it looked for a moment like we had a repeat winner on our hands, with Ericsson leading the pack. But, after dithering, IndyCar threw the red again – which meant the race would be decided over a single lap, without the flexibility to add in even a warm-up lap out of the pits.

"We've never done a restart straight out of the pits," Ericsson railed afterwards. "It was an unfair and dangerous end to the race. I don't think there was enough laps left to do what we did, I don't think it's safe to go out of the pits on cold tyres for a restart when half the field is trying to get out on track as we come to green. I don't think that's a fair or right way to end a race. I don't agree with it. I think it should have finished under yellow."

Of course, his opinion could have been tainted by what happened next. Coming to the green/white flag as the leader, Ericsson was always going to be prone from attack, and he did his utmost to catch Newgarden napping by hitting the gas earlier than he was expecting in Turn 3.

That kept him out of reach through Turns 1 and 2, but Newgarden picked up his draft and had built some incredible momentum. As Ericsson swerved low out of Turn 2 to defend, it was already too late as Newgarden motored past on his outside along the backstretch, leaning hard on his Chevrolet horsepower.

Ericsson couldn't fend off Newgarden on the final-lap restart - which drew comparison to F1's Abu Dhabi 2021 drama

Ericsson couldn't fend off Newgarden on the final-lap restart - which drew comparison to F1's Abu Dhabi 2021 drama

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

Now it was Ericsson's turn to catch the draft through Turns 3 and 4, which led Newgarden to perform a huge weave towards the pitlane entry as he exited the final corner –  way below the white line –  to starve Ericsson of his hole in the air.

Ericsson was gaining, gaining, gaining… but the yard of bricks arrived too soon and he missed out by 0.0974 seconds. It was Newgarden's turn to taste the milk for the first time in 12 attempts. His winning margin was the fourth-closest in the race's history.

"I wasn't looking to take anyone else out of the race, but I was going to put my car on the line to win," said Newgarden, who celebrated by rushing into the grandstand at the finish line. "I was either going to win the race or I'd end up in the wall. I was here to win. So I just did everything I could at the end there."

Best of the rest was Santino Ferrucci, who threatened the leaders on several occasions to give AJ Foyt another victory at the track that made the legend's name. He was in the hunt all day, and conjured another Houdini-style escape to add to his showreel when he missed Rosenqvist's spin by inches.

"We were in a position, at one point, where it looked like the race was in our hands. But through all of those restarts, red flags, and, to my mind, stupidness, it kind of got away from us. It sucks" Alexander Rossi

"All three of us could have won it at any point in time," reckoned Ferrucci. "It's bittersweet. We ran out front all day long. It's definitely one of the more difficult races that I've ever run, and we knew that we had a really good car. When you finish third, knowing that you led into [Turn] 1 with three or four to go, it's tough. But at the end of the day, I'm really happy with the way that things played out. This place does pick you as a winner."

Palou rebounded even more impressively than he did last year to finish fourth, ahead of McLaren's top finisher Alexander Rossi and the third Ganassi car home, of Scott Dixon.

"He bumped me and it took me out of the fight for the win," said Palou of VeeKay (of whom he sarcastically sneered "absolute legend" over the radio in the immediate aftermath). "I was really disappointed for one lap but I switched my mind to getting the most out of the day. We were very unlucky and I know he didn't do it on purpose. We kept going and made a huge comeback, and we snatched another top five for the team."

Newgarden's maiden Indy 500 win came in his 12th start at the legendary race

Newgarden's maiden Indy 500 win came in his 12th start at the legendary race

Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images

Rossi, who won the 100th running here in 2016, believed this was a big opportunity missed for McLaren: "Today was just so disappointing. We're only coming away with a fifth, but we were in a position, at one point, where it looked like the race was in our hands. But through all of those restarts, red flags, and, to my mind, stupidness, it kind of got away from us. It sucks."

After a bold start, Dixon was blighted by a huge tyre vibration in his opening stint that sent him to the rear of the field inside the first 30 laps. "It was kind of a frustrating day," the six-time series champion rued. "That first set of tyres just went out of balance so badly. The car got massively loose, and we adjusted for that, but it also made the car a bit weird with a clutch alarm that we had to figure out."

Two-time winner Takuma Sato made it four Ganassi runners in the top seven places, finishing ahead of local hero Conor Daly (Ed Carpenter Racing) and the rebounding Herta and VeeKay – who at least had the decency to apologise to Palou for ruining his chances.

Newgarden also became the first repeat winner in the 2023 IndyCar season - can he turn it into a title charge?

Newgarden also became the first repeat winner in the 2023 IndyCar season - can he turn it into a title charge?

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

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