The 2016 Indy 500 was a special race, for many reasons. One was that it was the 100th running of the iconic race, the jewel in the IndyCar crown. Another was that the polesitter was a man who nearly lost his life at the track just a year ago.
And the winner was a rookie, someone who had been chasing the F1 dream, but for whom that victory at Indianapolis would change his life, forever.
The 2016 Indy 500 was the 100th running of the great race, and that was reflected in the build-up and the general hype the race held. And the polesitter couldn’t have seen a more fitting man start there.
A year previous, James Hinchcliffe nearly lost his life in a horrific practice crash for the 2015 running of the race.
But, he made a full, incredible recovery, and a year later, he took the pole for the biggest race in the world and truly laid to rest the bad memories from the previous year. If Hinchcliffe ran off with the race the following week, no one would have begrudged him that.
The story of the race
Hinch though did not run away with the race, as what ensued was another classic drafting battle throughout the whole race. Hinchcliffe though was one of the leading contenders in the race, along with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell.
Those three seemed to have the strongest cars in the field. Carlos Munoz and Josef Newgarden were also strong, Munoz though coming good towards the races end. Newgarden had started on the front row alongside Hinchcliffe, and had a strong car all race.
Meanwhile, rookie Alexander Rossi was quietly working his way forward. He had started just outside the top ten and had been quick throughout the month of May.
He only missed out on the pole shootout marginally, being bumped out of it at the last second by Mikhail Aleshin. But he was showing good pace and was inching towards the front of the pack.
Troubles for the #98
Then, disaster struck. At two of his pitstops, Rossi’s refueling jig at his pit stall malfunctioned and he had two horrifically slow pitstops. These dropped him right down the order, enraging Rossi and frustrating the whole team. He had been running as high as sixth before this.
As he tried to claw back the lost places, ironically an incident involving Aleshin caused another full-course caution. This was the break the #98 team had been looking for.
They rolled the strategy dice and when others came into the pit, the #98 Andretti – Herta car of Rossi stayed out. Bryan Herta had merged his operation with the Andretti team over the offseason, and his strategic gamble would turn the race on its head.
Rossi had just set the fastest lap of the race, so they knew a fast car was on that track. Now they just needed to use it.
The strategy plays out
Rossi’s teammates at Andretti, Hunter-Reay, and Bell had taken each other out in the pitlane so were now no longer a factor.
On the conventional strategy, Munoz, another Andretti car, and Newgarden were the leading contenders for the win. Neither of them though had factored in that Rossi could be there at the end.
Another yellow then came out, for Buddy Lazier losing a wheel. This was the make or break moment for Rossi. The #98 came in with 36 laps left in the race.
To reach the end of the race, they needed 4.71mpg and the assistance of yellow flags, to get there with no problems. But the yellows would not come out. Everybody else knew that the whole field would need to make a splash and dash to reach the end of the race.
Impossible fuel mileage
Well, they all knew that. But the #98 was not going to do so. The longest stint had been 31 laps, and Rossi had to do five more.
Suddenly though, with the team calculating that he would run out with just half a lap to go, Rossi started making the mileage. He was hitting the numbers that the team needed.
Rossi would later go on to explain he stumbled upon a ‘fluke’ behind Scott Dixon, which meant he could reach 4.74mpg. Whatever this was, it kept that car on track to make the strategy work.
One by one, the field came in. Munoz pitted from the lead. And Rossi stayed out. Three laps to go, and he followed Hunter-Reay around who was drafting him to the end. At some point, though he had to let Hunter-Reay go, and Rossi started to get slower, and slower, and slower.
If he wanted to win the 2016 Indy 500, he would have to coast over the line. It was going to be incredibly tight.
Coasting to the line
On the last lap, as he clutched and coasted around the track, the engine gave out through the final two turns, and as he exited turn four, it shut off completely.
At the start of the lap, Rossi’s advantage over Munoz had been around 20 seconds. As he crossed the line to win, it was just over five. Somehow, Herta and Rossi had done the impossible.
They had just won the 100th running of the Indy 500. And Rossi had done so, as a rookie, on an impossible strategy. He couldn’t believe it. Somehow, he had just won the 2016 Indy 500.
He didn’t know what it meant at the time. He had no idea what that win meant and he was still thinking about F1. Many said ‘it was a fluke’ and that he won through luck.
Indianapolis – Rossi territory
But over the last few years, Rossi has made IndyCar his own, become a championship contender, and made Indianapolis his playground with daring overtakes and strong race pace.
He qualified third in 2017, engaged in an epic duel with Simon Pagenaud in 2019 and just missed out on the win. No one called it luck anymore. And who can forget the incredible moves he has pulled off at the track over the last couple of years? Indianapolis truly is Rossi territory.
And what of Hinchcliffe? The man who started on the pole? He finished eighth. The pole position was almost forgotten, as IndyCar saw a new winner of its greatest race. But Hinchcliffe was proud.
Proud of how he had come back from near death, to play a starring role in the greatest spectacle in racing. For him and Rossi, it was one of the memorable races of their lives. The 2016 Indy 500 will live long in the memory.