On Lap 256 James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Honda) reached first place after battling his way from an eleventh place start, including passing Josef Newgarden (Team Penske, Chevy) for the lead, a feat which is impressive on its own. The race had seen one caution earlier on Lap 139 when Zach Veach (Andretti Autosport, Honda) had brushed the wall in Turn 4 spreading some debris on the track. Then on Lap 294, with six laps to go in the race, Ed Carpenter (Ed Carpenter Racing, Chevrolet) got loose in Turn 2 and was clipped by Takuma Sato (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Honda) resulting in parts of Carpenter’s car being scattered in an area of the track.
Race Control had a decision to make. Six laps to go, in a race where the fastest lap was 18.6422. Just using 17 seconds per lap as a time, six laps would take 1 minute and 42 seconds at race speed. The way I see it, as a …well I’m partial to Replay Aficionado they had three options: throw a red flag to clean up the track and get in a restart, throw a yellow and hope the cleanup doesn’t take too long, or throw a yellow and extend the race to get a shoot-out at the end.
The first option is to throw up a red flag to stop the race entirely and park the cars in pit lane. Following the completion of the cleanup, it would then create one or two laps with a yellow flag and ending the race with approximately one or two laps on green, a white flag, and then checkered. Lap numbers are a bit fluid as it would depend on how many laps it takes to get everyone into the pit, out of the pit, and ordered correctly. On a short track that may take up a lap or so. This option would keep the cars parked on pit lane and, with 20/20 hindsight, may have helped clear up confusion as the track and IndyCar officials would have that time when everyone is parked to clearly communicate what would happen.
The second option is to yellow flag the race during clean up. It’s standard protocol for an accident of that nature. Get the debris cleaned up and go back to yellow. Laps still tick away and (as we all know what happened) you run the risk of running out of laps before you can get the track cleaned up. The third option is to extend the race a set amount of laps to ensure some sort of fast finish at the end.
Race control had a decision to make, and while we’re all Replay Aficionados, let’s remember all the factors that also were involved in the decision. Foremost is safety, the reason any flag is thrown is because there is an accident on track and needed to clear all the debris from the track before the cars can get back to speed. You can’t release the track from the flag until every single thing is picked up, because a car can cut a tire and become another safety issue on the track. There is also the issue of the teams and their strategy. It was at the very end of the race, with six laps to go, many teams may have been near the end of the fuel strategy and old tires if they are going to extend the race teams will need to be alerted ahead of time so they can adjust strategy. If you go red to yellow to green there’s still strategy adjustments that need to be made. The last consideration is – an exciting race. This race ended with 955 passes, taking out the caution laps (when passes cannot happen) that means there are about 3.35 passes per lap. Race Control and IndyCar officials had all of this to consider as they made their decision.
We all know by now that the decision was made to throw the yellow for track inspection and clean up. The race ended under caution with James Hinchcliffe winning, with both Newgarden and Robert Wickens (Schmidt Peterson Motorsport – Honda) diving into the pits once they opened up for fresh tires. Jay Frye (President of Competition – IndyCar) told Jim Ayello of the Indianapolis Star that they had every intention of going green, but track clean up lasted longer than anyone else anticipated. What we all saw on the television turned out to be a larger debris field. In that same article, Kyle Novak (Race Director – IndyCar) reiterated that they wanted to go green and the intention was to go green, but it didn’t work out that way.
The final question is, was that the right call? They had to clean up, so a flag had to be thrown. Even if they went Red, that would entail a yellow to green transition. There were six laps left, some teams would dive into the pits for tires, some would not. The second option would be extending the race. Okay…how long would you extend it for? What’s the SOP for it? If you’re doing an extension after Red you’ll have to figure out when you’ll open the pits during the yellow transition, and are you doing yellow then for a set number of laps before green. If it’s a yellow then the extension of the race, you’ll need to tell the teams immediately. Also, any communication needs to be clear and immediate.
I think they made the right call. Sounds like at the time of the call they believed there would be the option to go green with at least two laps to go. Then when they got there to examine the debris field it must have been larger than they thought. No one likes races to end under yellow, but they couldn’t suddenly extend the race with mere laps to go when that isn’t something that they normally do. I’ve always been somewhat of a strict interpreter, and 300 laps is 300 laps. If they are going to discuss the extension of races, this is something that would need fully developed and explained to teams. I’m sure the policy writer in me is showing but teams would need to know what parameters would cause the race extension, how many more laps would be extended (just five laps after the green flag is thrown, or five laps after the final lap), and how would everyone know it’s going to happen.
This is one of those moments where it can truly be said hindsight is twenty/twenty.