INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Andretti had the perfect setup heading into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.
His cars were fast from the moment they hit the historic 2.5-mile oval, his drivers took half of the top 10 starting spots including the pole and with two former winners and pole-winner in Andretti’s six-car stable, the team was the clear favourite.
Then on the most unique race day in event history, the old struggles came roaring back, leaving the Andrettis empty-handed one more time.
“It’s too bad for the team,” Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe said. “We were all kind of clumped together around the top 10, but we wanted to be a little higher than that.”
That certainly was the expectation after the first 10 days went as scripted, right down to the Andretti warmup lap parade — Mario driving the two-seater, Michael driving the pace car and Marco leading the 33-car field to the green flag after capturing his first Indy pole.
From there, it wasn’t pretty for the popular racing family still chasing a second 500 after more than half a century.
While Mario Andretti held onto the champion’s ring he was awarded in 1981, the official victory went back to Bobby Unser after a 4 1/2-month appeals process. Michael Andretti still holds the distinction of leading more laps than any other non-winner. His cousins, John and Jeff, made 15 combined starts with neither finishing higher than fifth.
But even with five Indy wins and four series titles under the Andretti Autosport banner, this appeared to be Marco’s best shot since he finished second to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
Those hopes didn’t last long.
Scott Dixon, who started second and finished second, passed Marco on the race’s first turn and he never made it back to the front. He’s the fist pole-winner since Scott Sharp to not led a lap and Andretti’s team was cited for a pit safety infraction on his second stop before finishing 13th.
“We lost five positions in the pits and nothing we did worked,” he said. “The restarts could have been better. It’s frustrating, but I think you’ve got to look at it like started out pretty good.”
Things only got worse, though.
When Hinchcliffe’s car wouldn’t kick into gear on his second pit stop, he lost precious seconds, falling to about to 20th. The 2016 Indy pole winner never contended again but did manage to finish a team-high seventh.
Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, the 2014 and 2016 race winners, weren’t immune either. Hunter-Reay moved up three spots in the first five laps and ran primarily in the top five for most of the first 50 laps before fading to 10th.
“We know what we’ve got to fix at the shop,” he said. “I really thought we had something today but the further we got buried in the back, the less chance we had.”
Rossi and Dixon, meanwhile, continued running near the front and were swapping the lead midway through the 200-lap race as both tried to conserve fuel.
But when it appeared this race might be a two-car duel over the final 70 laps, Rossi tapped the wheels of Takuma Sato’s No. 30 Honda as they left the pits on Lap 131. Rossi was sent to the back of the field for an unsafe release. Thirteen laps later, he hit the wall in the second turn. He finished 27th in a season filled with bad luck.
Sato, meanwhile, drove to his second 500 win.
Rossi didn’t appreciate the call nor the implication he was trying to run his way back into contention.
“The nail was already in the coffin, we weren’t going to win the race,” he said. “No cars were damaged and it was just a tiny little bump.”
Andretti’s other two drivers, Colton Herta and Zach Veach, wound up eighth and 15th.