By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) – Simon Pagenaud steered clear of trouble on the track and in the pits, then out-duelled Alexander Rossi in a final lap shootout to win the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday and give team owner Roger Penske a second consecutive victory in the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.
The win might have saved the charismatic Frenchman’s job with rumors circulating up and down pit lane that Pagenaud’s seat with powerhouse Team Penske was in jeopardy.
It would be hard, however, to find any fault in Pagenaud’s performance in the month of May as the 35-year-old son of a grocery shop owner from Montmorillon recorded the Brickyard double following his victory at the Indianapolis Grand Prix two weeks earlier.
“What do you think? Absolutely,” said Penske, when asked if Pagenaud would be back. “He’s on our team. He’s one of our drivers.
“That was scuttlebutt.”
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations to the Frenchman and Penske, inviting them and the team to the White House.
“I got a call from the President as we were in the winner’s circle and he congratulated me, he said, ‘I must have been your good-luck charm’,” smiled Penske, who increased his record total of Indy 500 wins to 18.
“He was in Japan and Simon had a chance to talk to him, so hopefully he’ll be invited to the White House.”
Pagenaud’s clinically cool display was in stark contrast to a fired-up Rossi, who used a bit of road rage and pit stop frustration to fuel his last-laps challenge.
An exasperated Rossi was left pounding his steering wheel as his pit crew wrestled to engage an uncooperative fuel hose that dropped him from first to 12th, then vented his anger on Oriol Servia, shaking his fist at the Spaniard as they raced down the front straight at 230 mph when he would not give way despite being a lap down.
“When you come here four times and three of the times you can’t get fuel in the car, I think you can understand why I was upset,” fumed Rossi.
“It wasn’t a human error, it was a mechanical problem but still, it’s not something that we can have here. It’s the biggest race in the world, and 75 percent of the time we can’t get fuel in the race car.”
The winner of the 100th Indy 500 in 2016 was not nearly as understanding about his battle with Servia.
“I think it was one of the most disrespectful things I’ve ever seen in a race car, to be honest,” added Rossi. “He’s a lap down and defending, putting me to the wall at 230 miles an hour. It’s unacceptable.”
A five-car pile up with 23 laps to run, triggered when Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais came together, brought out a red flag that set up a mad dash to the finish with Pagenaud and Rossi swapping the lead over the final laps.
It was a dominant performance by Pagenaud, who started from pole and led for 116 of the 200 laps, then held his nerve when he needed it most by fighting off two former 500 winners in Rossi and Japan’s Takuma Sato, who completed the podium.
“It’s hard to believe right now,” beamed Pagenaud, who becomes the first Frenchman since Rene Thomas in 1914 to win the Indy 500. “It’s a dream come true. A lifetime of trying to achieve this.
“When you have a car like this, a team like this you just work your way.
“It is all about achieving and executing at the end and we did execute perfectly today.
“No mistakes, here we are Victory Lane.”
While Pagenaud cruised, two of his Penske Team stablemates, defending champion Will Power and three-times winner Helio Castroneves, both had difficult days.
Castroneves’s quest for a record-equalling fourth Indy 500 win suffered an early setback when the Brazilian was slapped with a drive thru penalty after running into Australian James Davison during the first pit stops. He finished 18th.
Power also had problems in the pits, bumping one of his crew and triggering a penalty that sent the Australian to the back of the field before battling back for fifth place.
Jordan King also added to the mayhem when he knocked over a crew member who was transferred to hospital with a leg injury.
(Reporting by Steve Keating; editing by Toby Davis and Tony Lawrence)