This is supposed to be a Honda-oriented blog, but you can’t talk about the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio last week without talking about Sage Karam.
Going into the race weekend, Penske’s Juan Montoya was leading the points race with Graham Rahal second, 42 points behind, and Ganassi’s Scott Dixon six points behind Rahal.
To understand what happened in the race it is helpful to understand something about bicycle racing. That is: racing is a team sport. And you do what you can to help the team leader. In this case Montoya is the Penske team leader at this point in the season. While Dixon is the Ganassi leader. Rahal is on his own. Or is he? We’ll talk more about that in a bit.
First, let’s look at qualifying. In the first group, Ganassi’s Sage Karam seemingly went out of his way to ruin Rahal’s best lap, relegating him to 13th on the grid. On a track where it is Difficult to pass. Montoya ended up 10th, and Scott Dixon was on the pole. Rahal was incensed, to put it mildly. The stage was set for Dixon to win the race, take second from Rahal and pull within 11 points of Montoya for the Driver’s Championship with two races to go.
But that assumed that there would be no yellow flags.
Because they were both buried in the pack, Montoya and Rahal pitted earlier than the leaders, playing for a yellow flag that would vault them ahead of the front runners, including Dixon. And on lap 22, Stefano Colletti tore a piece off the rear of Takuma Sato’s Honda Aerokit, leaving a big ol’ piece of carbon fiber in the middle of the racing line.
That yellow flag put Montoya in first place, Rahal in third with Andretti’s Justin Wilson, who also pitted early, close behind.
The race stayed green with Montoya first, Rahal third and Dixon moving up to seventh. Then Dixon pitted on lap 63, dropping back to 12th. Then Karam, his teammate, lost control of his car at turn 4-5 and kills the engine in the middle of the track causing a yellow.
Luckily for Rahal, he and Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (who was “covering” Rahal in bicycle-racing terms) ducked into the pits in the nick of time before they were closed (any time there is a full course caution in Indycar they close the pits). The resulting cycle of pit stops moved Rahal to first, Wilson to second, Pagenaud to third, Dixon to fourth and Montoya to 12th. It also immediately raised a lot of eyebrows. Had Sage Karam caused a yellow on purpose so that Dixon could close up in his fight for the Driver’s Championship?
Judge for yourself. The spin is at 1:33 of this video:
(NOTE: Indycar eventually ruled that there was no conclusive evidence of wrong doing by Ganassi. Montoya’s comment after the race: “Karma’s a bitch.”)
So then Rahal had the lead with 20+ laps to go, but he also had Pagenaud trying to push him off the lead so that his teammate (Montoya) retained a cushion in the race for the Driver’s Championship. And Dixon was trying to win the race so that he could close on Montoya. But what about Wilson in Second? Who’s side was he on? What was his agenda?
Well the rumor is HPD is helping pay for Wilson’s ride with Andretti for the rest of the season, in order to help HPD develop the package for all the teams, including Rahal’s. And when Wilson found himself in second place to Graham Rahal, HPD’s title contender and Wilson’s former teammate at Newman-Haas, his job became making sure that neither Pagenaud nor Dixon threatened. His job was to play the role of “domestique”, especially appropriate for someone who does as much cycling as Wilson does.
So, how come Wilson pulled ahead on the last restart (1:57 of the above video)? The way I saw it, Wilson was pulling along side of Rahal to block the outside lane of the track leading into the only good passing opportunity. When they got to the corner, Wilson politely tucked in behind and the race was over.
Rahal is now 9 points behind Montoya with two races to go, and 25 ahead of Dixon. We’ll see who helps Rahal and how effective his “team” will be. FYI: The Pocono race is worth 50 points to the winner, and the Sonoma finale is worth 100. So if Rahal finishes ahead of Montoya in both races, he has a damned good shot at winning the Driver’s Title.
For those of you not keeping score, after a terrible start, Honda has won three of the last four Indycar races. And miraculously has a driver in the hunt for the Driver’s Championship.