INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – At the end of 500 miles around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was a former Formula One driver who took the checkered flag.
He even drove for Andretti Autosport.
It just wasn’t Fernando Alonso.
Takuma Sato became the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday when he denied Helio Castroneves a record-tying fourth victory as the two traded the lead in the closing laps.
“This is going to be mega big” in Japan, said Sato. “A lot of the Japanese fans are following the IndyCar Series and many, many flew over for the Indianapolis 500. We showed the great result today and I am very proud of it.”
The Andretti family has struggled for decades to win this race, but as a car owner, Michael Andretti certainly knows the way to victory lane.
Sato’s victory gave Andretti a second consecutive win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” An Andretti driver has now won the 500 three times in the last four years, and five times overall dating to 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon.
Last year, it was with rookie Alexander Rossi. This time it is with Sato, who joined the team just this season and had largely been overlooked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Andretti camp expanded to six cars for the 500 to add Alonso, a two-time F1 champion who brought massive European interest to the race.
Six cars never seemed to spread the team too thin, and the main issue facing Andretti Autosport was the reliability of its Honda engines. Alonso put on a thrilling show and even led 27 laps – third most in the race – but he was sent to the paddock when his engine blew with 20 laps remaining.
“We didn’t build the thing that was smoking down the front straight,” said McLaren boss Zak Brown, who engineered Alonso’s trip to Indianapolis. Part of the reason Alonso was able to skip F1’s showcase Monaco Grand Prix earlier Sunday for Indy is because the McLaren team – and its Hondas – have grossly underperformed this season and Alonso is not a current title contender.
Alonso did have a spectacular race and simply fell victim to his engine late in the race. The crowd gave the Spaniard a standing ovation as he climbed from his car.
“I felt the noise, the engine friction, I backed off and I saw the smoke and, yeah, it’s a shame,” Alonso said. “It’s a very nice surprise to come here with big names, big guys, the best in open-wheel racing and be competitive.”
He still drank from a carton of milk to close out his experience at Indy, and didn’t rule out a potential return.