Wednesday, May 31, 2023

INDYCAR: Indy 500 sees Katherine Legge take 33rd in drawn-out last-place battle


by William Soquet Staff Writer

Katherine Legge finished last for the 2nd time in her NTT IndyCar Series career in Sunday's Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when her #44 Hendrickson Honda retired with damage from contact after completing 41 of the race’s 200 laps.

The finish came in Legge’s 12th IndyCar start, and was her first since Sao Paulo in 2012, 184 races ago. Across IndyCar Series history, it was the 202nd due to contact, the 217th for Honda and the third for the #44.

Legge’s previous last-place finish in 2012 came during Lotus’ ill-fated effort to become a third IndyCar manufacturer. Stepping in when a new engine and chassis were introduced, Lotus was markedly off the pace in most events and wound up stepping out of IndyCar after that lone season. This was just another in a long line of opportunities gone south for Legge. After running out of money in the British formula racing scene, she moved to America in 2005 to race Toyota Atlantic with the backing of Cosworth. That led to two seasons of CART right before reunification. These years yielded modest success with a best finish of sixth with Dale Coyne Racing on the streets of Las Vegas in 2007. From there, Legge transitioned to German DTM, where she ran from 2008 to 2010. The aforementioned 2012 season was when she returned to American open-wheel racing, signing with Dragon Racing as part of the Lotus effort. After Legge's last-place run in Sao Paulo, Dragon ditched Lotus for Chevrolet and downsized from two teams to one. Legge became the team’s oval driver, while Sebastien Bourdais became the road and street-course driver.

After that season, Legge has remained active in multiple racing series. She has started every 24 Hours of Daytona since 2014. Racing in both the prototype and GT Daytona classes, Legge has driven for teams like Meyer Shank Racing and has been paired with drivers such as Alexander Rossi, A.J. Allmendinger and Stefan Wilson. She recorded a second-in-class finish in 2018 with Shank and finished fourth-in-class this year with Gradient Racing in GTD. She also made a brief detour into NASCAR, running three Xfinity Series road courses and Richmond for JD Motorsports in 2018. Of these, she nabbed a best finish of 14th at Road America.

On February 9th of this year, Legge was announced as the driver of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s fourth entry for the 2023 Indianapolis 500. Hendrickson, a suspension component manufacturer, was also announced as primary sponsor. The move was a reunion of driver and team, as Legge had previously driven for RLL in the Jaguar I-PACE Series. Legge completed an oval refresher test at Texas the weekend that IndyCar raced there in early April and then went to work on the open test in late April. The open test, however, did cause concerns. Legge was just 33rd on the speed charts, ahead of only rookie Benjamin Pedersen. She was 1.5 seconds off the pace set by eventual race winner Josef Newgarden and was five spots behind Jack Harvey, the next RLL driver. Practice in May did not go much better. Showings of 31st, 34th and 29th came before time trials as the entire RLL effort struggled. Qualifying was barely better, as Legge was sitting outside of the locked-in zone before an attempt near the end of the time period slotted her into the final guaranteed spot in 30th.

The last row of the race was set on the Sunday before the race. In a shootout that included four cars for three spots, Christian Lundgaard, Sting Ray Robb, and Jack Harvey secured their spots in the race. That left Graham Rahal as the only driver on the outside of the grid. However, that changed early in the week. During open practice on Monday, a group of drivers were doing a race simulation in a train when the group checked up coming off of turn one. Legge did not check up as much and ran into the back of Stefan Wilson. While Legge was not hurt in the crash and required only a backup car, Wilson suffered vertebrae issues and was sidelined from the race. Tuesday morning, Wilson’s Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team made the call that Rahal would step in as relief driver. With that, the team forfeited the 25th-place starting spot that Wilson earned and would start shotgun on the field.

Rahal on pit road as the race start.
PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles

On Sunday, trouble started even before the drop of the green flag. When the grid fired up from its 11 rows of three on the frontstretch, two cars did not leave the grid with the rest. One was Helio Castroneves, in his second attempt at winning a fifth Indianapolis 500. After a few panicked moments, his car did eventually get into gear and took its place. The other car was that of Rahal. After a week of trying times for the Dreyer & Reinbold team, yet another obstacle was popping up in their way. After several attempts, the car still would not fire. The driver indicated that it was a battery issue, and the car was then pushed behind the wall. Being an Indy 500-only team, the crew scrambled to find a backup battery. During the final pace lap, the crew had the back cover off and was working on swapping out the battery.

Nevertheless, the field took the green flag without Rahal's #24 car on track. This brought Jack Harvey back to his original position as last car on track. However, by the end of Lap 1, Harvey had jumped up to 29th. He passed R.C. Enerson, Sting Ray Robb, and Legge, the latest of which trailed the field after a lap, 7.9 seconds back of the lead.

Work continued on the Rahal car, and as the field was completing its second lap, the machine finally came to life and Rahal got going again. He came out of pit lane in the hinterland, about two-and-a-half laps back of the lead. As the first stint progressed, the back end of the field stayed much the same. Rahal kept plugging along without the help of a draft, while Enerson, Robb and Legge remained the last three cars on the lead lap. As the train formed, the three were just shy of 15 seconds behind the leader for most of the run.

Green flag pit stops commenced for the first time with Scott Dixon coming in on Lap 26, although the majority of cars pitted while the lap count was in the mid-30s. Legge cycled up to 24th on Lap 31 before coming to pit road on Lap 32. She slowed abnormally much heading into pit lane, almost reminiscent of the two times in practice during the month of May that she ran out of fuel on an access road. Despite that, she made it to her pit stall, where the Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew performed normal service on her car. 

Exiting the stall, Legge spun the rear tires and got loose, arcing around the entrance lane on pit road and back into a later empty pit stall, barely grazing the wall of the stall just before that of Ryan Hunter-Reay. Legge immediately returned to pit road, but this time, it was an extended stop. The crew inspected the area where she grazed the wall, and reports indicated that a toe link swap was going on in the left front, where the car hit the pit wall.

Eventually, the #44 machine was moved off pit road and into the garage area. The broadcast announced Legge as “out” around Lap 68 before interviewing her. In her interview, Legge said that she thought something in the suspension was broken, but she was unsure of its nature. The bigger note she provided was that despite the announcement of her retirement, Legge thought that there was a chance her crew could fix the issue in time for her to make a number of laps.

At nearly the same moment that Legge’s interview was concluding, R.C. Enerson came to pit road. Enerson's Abel Motorsports entry also remained parked on pit lane for a number of laps before work went back to the garage area. In a race that had plenty of action up front, NBC, in a similar vein to the Legge interview, found the time to talk to the Indy 500 rookie about his situation. On Lap 88, Enerson said that he was unsure of what was wrong with the car, offering the clutch as a possible culprit. When asked about returning to the race, he too was up in the air about his return plans.

That left the unusual situation of two cars in the garage with potentially terminal issues with an undefined timetable on both. The suspense did not last very long, however, as the first confirmed retirement of the race came mere laps later. 

On Lap 92, Sting Ray Robb was running 27th, one lap down. Rahal was still the last car on the track, running in 31st at the time. Rahal made a move to the inside of Robb going into Turn 1, leaving the #51 car to take the outside lane. Robb's tires then caught the marbles and ceased to turn, going straight into the outside wall on the exit of the corner. Robb finishing last would’ve been quite the story. Since the inaugural running of the current IndyCar Series in 1996, no driver has finished last in three consecutive races. The closest anyone ever been to the record was Sebastien Bourdais, who finished last three times in a four-race stretch during 2011.

The gap between Legge and Enerson was 34 laps, and the gap between Legge and Robb was 49 laps. As the remaining circuits ticked by, there was no indication that either car would return to the track. After Romain Grosjean crashed to bring out the caution on Lap 150, the next circuit went by under caution with no Legge, eliminating Robb from last-place contention. On Lap 166, the lap Legge would need to rejoin the race to beat Enerson, went by during the next green-flag run with no sight of either car, locking Legge in 33rd. Neither Legge nor Enerson ever returned to the track.

*The finish marked the first last-place finish for the #44 in IndyCar Series competition since October 16, 2005, when Thiago Medeiros did not start at Fontana.
*All three drivers that have finished last in the #44 have been from different countries: Davey Hamilton in 2000 (USA), Medeiros in 2005 (Brazil), and Legge in 2023 (United Kingdom).
*Honda has now finished last in five straight races.

33) #44-Katherine Legge / 41 laps / contact
32) #50-R.C. Enerson / 75 laps / mechanical
31) #51-Sting Ray Robb / 90 laps / contact
30) #28-Romain Grosjean / 149 laps / contact
29) #18-David Malukas / 160 laps / contact

1st) Chip Ganassi Racing, Dale Coyne Racing (2)
2nd) A.J. Foyt Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1)

1st) Honda (5)
2nd) Chevrolet (1)


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