The fuel crisis never hit closer to home than it did on a balmy Sunday afternoon for Rahal Letterman Lanigan at the Indianapolis 500. Bertrand Baguette (#30 RACB/Aspria Dallara/Honda/Firestone) used a strong race car and shrewd pit strategy to hold the lead in the Indy 500 with three laps to go, but had to pit for a late splash of fuel that forced him to give up the point, leaving the Belgian to finish a strong seventh in just his second Memorial Day classic.
Jay Howard (#88 Service Central Dallara/Honda/Firestone) also had a good day and was running as the fastest rookie of the race before he fell victim to a loose wheel after a lap 62 pit stop. Howard came from 20th on the starting grid and had moved into the top 15 when the car lost a wheel coming out of the pits, forcing Howard into the wall and leaving him to finish 30th.
“Today’s effort shows that our team is still competitive with the best teams in Indy Car,” said team’s chief operating officer Scott Roembke. “To come in here with two strong cars and have a chance to win at the end gives us great reason to be optimistic for the future.”
Baguette and Howard both showed great speed early on, with both drivers making up five spots in the first 25 laps and holding their spots up until Howard’s fateful pit stop.
“We were having a great race, all the guys did a great job, we had a great car and I was having a lot of fun out there,” Howard said. “We lost a right rear wheel and that was it but it was shaping up to be a great day for us. Thanks to the Service Central guys and Rahal Letterman Lanigan for a good car.”
But the story of the day was the 25-year-old Belgian, who nearly joined team owner Bobby Rahal as an Indianapolis 500 winner. On an alternate fuel strategy, which ironically started as a result of Howard’s misfortune, Baguette grabbed the lead of the race with a Turn One pass of Danica Patrick with 11 laps to go, and held it until he had to pit with just three laps to go. His quick trip down Pit Lane allowed him to rejoin the field without giving up much ground, sparking him to a seventh-place finish.
“We had a great strategy and we really had a quick car today,” Baguette said. “It was crazy, to be leading the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, it was unbelievable! We knew that we couldn’t save enough fuel to get to the end, so I just had to go for it and hope for a yellow, but it didn’t come. It was a great day for us.”
Running 10th when the second round of stops started, Baguette had yet to pit when the caution came out for Howard. But he was low on fuel and had to stop before the pits were open, which meant that by rule, he had to come back in again once the pits opened. That dropped him back to 15th, and set the wheels in motion for the strategy that nearly gave him the race.
The strategy showed its first signs of paying off on Lap 139 when Baguette took the lead briefly before his Lap 140 stop. He then stopped again on a Lap 150 caution for Alex Tagliani and again on Lap 160 after a three-car incident, while the top nine cars stayed out. Those cars would eventually peel off for their needed stops, helping Baguette’s march to the front, but the Belgian also took care of business on track, passing five other cars on his way to the front. His seventh-place finish was the third top-seven in the last five years at Indy for the team, and his 11 laps led were the most for the team at Indy since 2005.