For the past 105 years, IndyCars had only gone one direction at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
On Saturday, the IndyCar Series began a new tradition of turning right — as well the usual left — at the track’s reconfigured 14-turn road course.
Frenchman Simon Pagenaud won the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis to put his name alongside 1911 Indianapolis 500 champion Ray Harroun, 1994 Brickyard 400 champion Jeff Gordon and 2000 United States Grand Prix champion Michael Schumacher as initial winners in major racing series at the Brickyard.
“I’m very honored,” Pagenaud said. “It feels like a dream come true for me. It’s a special moment.”
The IndyCar rising star, who finished third in the series standings in 2013, saved enough fuel on a successful pit strategy to hold off Ryan Hunter-Reay — by .89 seconds — and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves.
Pagenaud went the final 28 laps without refueling.
“The fuel saving was amazing. It was nerve-racking, a bit stressful,” he said. “Ryan was pushing me hard. I just kept working on my lap times. I don’t like racing on [low fuel].”
“Another lap, I had a shot,” Hunter-Reay said. “Hopefully, we’re saving that last step to the podium for the big race at the end of the month. Every day I wake up, the 500 is all that’s on my mind.”
The win was a popular one in the paddock. Pagenaud’s team owner Sam Schmidt was left paralyzed after a 2000 accident during testing at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida, and has been confined to a wheelchair since.
“Huge. Indy’s special,” said Schmidt, whose drivers Luiz Razia and Jack Harvey finished 1-2 in the Indy Lights race earlier in the day.
Despite finishing further back in the field than they would have wished, a pair of Indianapolis 500 champions said the Grand Prix of Indy should become an IndyCar staple.
“You’re starting off the month of May with a huge new race,” said 2000 Indy champion Juan Pablo Montoya. “The Indianapolis 500 is such a huge event, such a big deal, but adding the road course to the month [makes it] even bigger.”
“It’s May. It’s Indy. This is the place to be,” defending Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan said.
Castroneves said the new road course was a perfect fit for the IndyCars.
“It was awesome,” he said. “The race was very intense. It was difficult, but I thought it was great. It’s a great start to the month.”
“It’s a beautiful track. Very smooth,” Pagenaud added.
The new tradition started inauspiciously. Pole sitter Sebastian Saavedra, who had never started on either of the front two rows in an IndyCar race, stalled during the standing start.
Most of the field was able to weave around the Colombian. However, countryman Carlos Munoz — the 2013 Indianapolis 500 runner-up and Rookie of the Year who started 18th — plowed into Saavedra, causing four cars to exit the race before it began.
Mike Conway and Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin also were caught in the collision. Despite the ugly nature of the crash, none of the drivers were seriously injured.
“The start was a bit nuts,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “I expected something strange to happen and I narrowly missed him.”
Out of the caution, rookie Jack Hawksworth passed Hunter-Reay for the lead and dominated the first half of the race. The 23-year-old Brit led 31 laps until he pitted on lap 43. Oriol Servia inherited the lead with 11 laps to go when Sebastian Bourdais had to pit. Servia surrendered the lead to Pagenaud when he needed fuel with four laps left. Servia placed 12th.
Series points leader Will Power finished eighth after receiving a penalty for running over his air hose. His lead is now one point over Hunter-Reay entering the month of May, which up to the 500 on May 25. Pagenaud is six points back of Power in third.
“It’s been so competitive,” said Castroneves, who is tied for fourth in the IndyCar point standings with Dixon.
GRAND PRIX OF INDIANAPOLIS
At Indianapolis Motor Speedway
1. Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 82, running.
2. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 82, running.
3. Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 82, running.
4. Sebastian Bourdais, Chevy, 82, running.
5. Charlie Kimball, Chevy, 82, running.
6. Ryan Briscoe, Chevy, 82, running.
7. Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 82, running.
8. Will Power, Chevy, 82, running.
9. Takuma Sato, Honda, 82, running.
10. Tony Kanaan, Chevy, 82, running.
11. Justin Wilson, Honda, 82, running.
12. Oriol Servia, Honda, 82, running.
13. Carlos Huertas, Honda, 82, running.
14. Marco Andretti, Honda, 82, running.
15. Scott Dixon, Chevy, 82, running.
16. Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevy, 81, running.
17. Josef Newgarden, Honda, 80, running.
18. Martin Plowman, Honda, 80, running.
19. Mike Conway, Chevy, 42, mechanical.
20. James Hinchliffe, Honda, 56, contact.
21. Graham Rahal, Honda, 50, contact.
22. Franck Montagny, Honda 47, contact.
23. Sebastian Saavedra, Chevy, 0, contact.
24. Carlos Munoz, Honda, 0 contact.
25. Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 0, contact.