Four talking points from the 2021 Indy 500

01st June 2021
Damien Smith

‘Spider-man’ climbs again! At 46, a dozen years since he last won the Indianapolis 500, Hélio Castroneves rolled back the years on Sunday to see off the challenge from a man nearly half his age and join AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears as a four-time winner of the great American motor race. The Brazilian then clambered up the debris fence in signature style to scream with joy at the roaring masses, who had returned to The Brickyard after Covid-19 kept them away last year. A perfect motor sport moment in every way.


The vet beats the new-gen

The 105th running of the Indy 500 had been billed as a scrap between a horde of veterans versus the exciting new generation that are breaking through IndyCar right now, and so it proved as the race entered its closing stages. Driving a Honda-powered entry for Meyer Shank Racing, Castroneves had been a contender all month and qualified in the middle of the third row – then when it counted his experience made the difference as he and Chip Ganassi Racing’s 24-year-old Alex Palou duelled for the lead over the final 24 laps following the last round of pit stops.

The Brazilian and the Spaniard seemingly forgot that passing is supposed to be tough in this restricted aero era as they passed and re-passed each other time and again as the laps ticked down. With two to go, Palou once again weaved on the drag to Turn 1 in his attempts to break the draft, but Castroneves’s black and pink #06 Dallara swept around the outside to claim a lead that this time he would not lose – despite the pair catching a gaggle of backmarkers.


Unforgettable scenes as the crowd go wild

The celebrations were off the wall – or more accurately, on the fence. Known throughout his career for his signature move of climbing the debris fences following a win, ‘Spider-man’ was back where he belonged as rivals, comrades and friends from down the pitlane joined the Meyer Shank crew to congratulate a hugely popular racing driver. Brazilian Castroneves has managed what few open-wheelers have managed in the past 30 years by cutting through into the mainstream in the USA, thanks in part to his winning performance in Dancing with the Stars, America’s version of Strictly Come Dancing. His popularity coupled not only with the great story of a 46-year-old writing a special piece of Indy history but also with the context of this being the first 500 since Covid. Script writers would have struggled to come up with such a beautiful ending.

“I love Indianapolis!” cried the overjoyed winner when the interviewer finally managed to grab a word. “From the beginning I was so comfortable and happy, I knew the car was good, that I’d be in the fight and would have to get my elbows out. I’ve done two races this year and I’ve won them both! It was good to teach the new guys a lesson.”


Pagenaud saves face for Penske

Behind Palou, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud saved Team Penske’s blushes after a difficult month of May for IndyCar racing’s most famous and successful team. Of the team’s four drivers, Australian V8 Supercar king Scott McLaughlin had made the best fist of qualifying, lining up 17th on the 33-car grid. But come the race, experience counted as 2019 Indy 500 victor Pagenaud rose from 26th to finish third, passing Arrow McLaren SP’s impressive young Mexican Pato O’Ward in the closing stages to chase Castroneves and Palou home. “I was coming for you!” said Pagenaud with a huge grin as he congratulated the winner in the 500’s aftermath. Indeed the Penske entry looked the quickest car on track in those final laps – but it was too little, too late for The Captain’s crew after a tough Indy 500.

Veteran and Indy specialist Ed Carpenter completed a strong month with a fifth place finish behind O’Ward, with Americans Santino Ferrucci and Sage Karam surprising with great runs to sixth and seventh respectively. Front row starter and early race leader Rinus VeeKay dropped away to finish eighth, ahead of two more returning veterans, two-time 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and 2013 race winner Tony Kanaan.

As for pole position winner Scott Dixon, the six-time champion was out of luck early on when Briton Stefan Wilson crashed in the pitlane. It forced Dixon to stay out longer than he planned as the pitlane was closed to clear the accident, before the Chip Ganassi driver stopped anyway for emergency fuel. He ran dry on the way down pitlane and lost a lap as the team struggled to restart his Honda engine. Dixon fought hard and played a canny game to gain his lost lap back, but could only finish in 17th.


Daly’s lucky escape

On a day when few accidents interrupted the action, one major incident so very nearly developed into something truly ghastly. It began when Graham Rahal lost his left rear wheel which had not been tightened fully at a pit stop. As the American’s car hit the wall, the wheel bounced down the track and was collected by Conor Daly’s Ed Carpenter Racing entry. The son of ex-Tyrrell Formula 1 driver Derek Daly led 40 laps, more than anyone on Sunday, only to drop to 13th at the flag. But after this escape his disappointing result surely didn’t matter too much. The Firestone pinged off the nose of his Dallara, leaving incredibly minor damage in the circumstances – but it so easily could have landed on his head.

In such moments, it’s hard to argue against IndyCar’s wrap-around Aeroscreen that was introduced last year to protect drivers in such moments. The screen wasn’t fully tested on this occasion, but Daly still must have been so thankful that he experienced this terrifying moment looking through it.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Helio Castroneves

  • Indy 500

  • Indy 500 2021

  • IndyCar

  • IndyCar 2021

  • Scott Dixon

  • Alex Palou

  • Pato O'Ward

  • Simon Pagenaud

  • Conor Daly

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