One year ago, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ driver James Hinchcliffe was clinging to life, the victim of a horrendous crash in turn three the day after time trials weekend concluded at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Saturday afternoon, the Canadian provided further proof that he is not only fully recovered from the shunt, but in condition to win races on the Verizon Indycar Series circuit. Taking advantage of an additional hour of qualifying added by track president J. Douglas Boles after rain showers delayed the start of time trials on Saturday, the driver known as the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” the veteran posted a four-lap average of 230.946 MPH to lead a group of nine drivers who will be eligible to battle it out for the pole position on Sunday afternoon, seven days before the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Hinchcliffe, who initially failed to make the top nine in his first attempt to qualify on Saturday, withdrew the run in order to immediately make a second attempt after qualifying resumed in furor at around 5:45 p.m. eastern time, continuing till the track closed for the day at 7 p.m. The second run for the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda was both fast and consistent. It would end up being the only qualifying attempt on Saturday to feature three laps in excess of 231 MPH. Only a fourth lap dropping to 230.5 MPH prevented Hinchcliffe from achieving a 231 average for the run.
The day was equally satisfying for team owner Sam Schmidt, who in addition to Hinchcliffe also has a second challenger in Sunday’s pole shootout in Russian sophomore Mikhail Aleshin, whose third and final attempt on Saturday finally secured his spot in the top nine. Schmidt’s last major success in Indianapolis 500 Time Trials came five years ago, when the paralyzed former IndyCar pilot placed two cars in the top four including eventual pole winner Alex Tagliani.
Tying into the theme, Schmidt’s second driver in 2011 the Indy 500 specialist Townsend Bell was the focus for most of Saturday’s qualifying up until the final flurry of action. Making his tenth appearance as a member of the powerful Andretti Autosport Honda squad, Bell held the title as fast qualifier through the first period of efforts with a solid a 230.452 MPH average in his No. 29 Robert Graham/California Pizza Kitchen Honda, including a first lap at 231.582 MPH, the fastest single qualifying lap posted on Saturday. As for Andretti Autosport’s pole position hopes, Bell will be joined in the shootout by teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz, who each posted 230 MPH plus four-lap average efforts likewise. RHR’s effort came however, at the expense of teammate Marco Andretti, while the team’s fifth driver in Indy 500 rookie Alexander Rossi was the last driver to be eliminated from pole shootout contention by the aforementioned run by Aleshin.
While Honda had a solid day, the Chevrolet runners were equally effective with Team Penske placing three drivers in the shootout led by Will Power’s 230.736 MPH run, the third fastest on Saturday. Helio Castroneves also used a solid second effort to make the cut, while Simon Pagenaud was the first to secure his place for Sunday’s final phase, albeit eventually ending up as the slowest driver among the nine finalists.
The final driver to make Sunday’s pole shootout was Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden who like Pagenaud secured his spot in the first few efforts on Saturday when qualifying started at 2:20 p.m. eastern time.
While the fast nine final session is now set, the pole contending session will be minus several notable drivers. In addition to Andretti and Rossi, Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya missed qualifying for the shootout for the second time in the past three years, while archrivals Chip Ganassi Racing failed to qualify any of their four drivers for the shootout, with last year’s Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Scott Dixon coming the closest. Back-to-back Indy 500 pole winner in 2013 and 2014 Ed Carpenter also fell short of making the cut as did Schmidt Peterson’s Oriol Servia who despite posting a 231 MPH lap on his first run was bumped from the top nine in the final hour of Saturday action and failed to reverse the fate in his second attempt that followed.
The action Saturday was also halted by two accidents at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s tricky turn two. The first, which occurred during pre-qualifying practice claimed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton, while Dale Coyne Racing’s Pippa Mann did likewise on the first lap of her qualification attempt. Neither driver suffered injuries and both will be back to participate in the consolation qualifying period on Sunday.
Sunday’s festivities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway begin at 2:45 p.m. with qualifying for spots 10-33. The battle for the pole position among the top nine Saturday runners will commence at 5 p.m.