Sunday, June 18, 2023

INDYCAR: Engine failure dooms Malukas at Road America

ALL PHOTOS: William Soquet, @WilliamSoquet

by William Soquet Staff Writer

David Malukas scored the 2nd last-place finish of his NTT IndyCar Series career in Sunday’s Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America when his #18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports Honda lost power after completing 24 of the race’s 55 laps.

The finish came in Malukas’ 25th career start and was his first since St. Petersburg in 2022, 24 races ago. Across IndyCar Series history, it was the 42nd due to engine problems, the 218th for Honda and the 24th for the #18.

The last time that David Malukas finished last was his debut race in IndyCar. It is safe to say he's improved since then. His immediate rebound was an 11th-place finish at Texas, and later strung together top-twelve finishes at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Belle Isle, Mid-Ohio and Toronto, putting himself firmly above Kyle Kirkwood in the Rookie of the Year hunt by summer. His real breakout, however, came at Gateway. Malukas made the Fast Twelve but started at the bottom of that group. He then steadily improved throughout the race and was able to challenge for the lead in the final segment of the race, eventually finishing second. Paired with finishes of 11th at Texas and eighth at Iowa, Malukas looked poised to be the second oval specialist in the DCR lineup next to teammate Takuma Sato.

However, Sato would leave the team at the end of the season and another rookie, Sting Ray Robb, took the #51 car. While Malukas is 24 days younger than Robb, he is now considered the veteran at Coyne with a full season of IndyCar under his belt. Initially, it seemed as though Malukas was living up to the billing. He followed a 10th at the season opener with a fourth at Texas, sitting sixth in the point standings after the race. However, Malukas and the team as a whole came down to earth after that, finishing no better than 19th over the remainder of the races up to this point. Robb fared no better, taking home back-to-back last-place finishes at Barber and the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Malukas came into Road America needing a solid result. He hails from the Chicagoland area, so Road America almost constitutes a home race for him and his family’s HMD Motorsports team that partners with Dale Coyne. Additionally, the last time that Malukas finished a race was Barber. He was collected in a Robb spin at the Indianapolis road course, was the first in a string of late crashes in the Indianapolis 500 and crashed coming to a restart in Detroit.

The one notable entry list change came out of the Ed Carpenter Racing stable. A mere three days after the Detroit race, ECR and driver Conor Daly said that they "mutually agreed to part ways," although it was probably a little less friendly than that. Speculation about the cause of the split ran from poor on-track performance to bad interpersonal relationships with the team. Whatever the reason, Daly was out. While Daly would soon pick up a drive with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in Travis Pastrana’s Nitrocross series, Carpenter announced only a day later that veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay would take over the #20 entry for the remainder of the season. After not being renewed by Andretti Autosport at the end of 2021, RHR drove a couple endurance races for the Chip Ganassi Cadillac team in IMSA and also ran full-time in the Superstar Racing Experience, finishing seventh in the point standings. He recently resurfaced in IndyCar, taking a one-off drive with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the Indianapolis 500. There, he piloted the #23 car to an 11th-place finish.

During practice, it seemed as though this would be the weekend Malukas needed to get his season back on track. He was second in first practice, coming within a tenth of session leader Alexander Rossi and a second-and-a-half ahead of Simon Pagenaud, the slowest car in the session. That was backed up by a strong fourth place in second practice, about four-tenths off Rossi and 1.7 seconds ahead of Agustin Canapino, the last car that made a lap at full pace.

Qualifying was the midpoint of the weekend and was also the midpoint of Malukas’ performance. He missed out on advancing to the second round of qualifying by a mere tenth-and-a-half, leaving Santino Ferrucci in and Malukas relegated to 13th.

Hunter-Reay would start last on Sunday. He was in the second group of knockout time trials and was in position to provisionally qualify somewhere in the 20th to 24th range. However, RHR went off-course in Turn 7 on his final flying lap, bringing out a red flag in the session. That resulted in a lap deletion penalty, with his next valid time two seconds off the rest of the field.

Last place changed hands quickly at the beginning of the race. Sixth-place starter Kyle Kirkwood got a little too impatient with Pato O’Ward in the opening corner of the race, nudging the Arrow McLaren driver from the outside lane into the runoff and spinning himself in the process. Kirkwood stalled the car and brought out a full course caution, although he was refired by the safety team in time to not lose a lap.

On the ensuing lap, most of the cars from 16th on back hit pit road. Robb, the slowest car in the first group of time trials and started 25th, dropped to last after the round of stops. Malukas was then listed as last as the field came to green the following laps. Malukas then passed Benjamin Pedersen on the opening lap of green-flag racing after the restart.

Pedersen qualified tenth, his best-ever IndyCar starting position. However, he was shoved into the grass in Turn 6 on the opening lap, before the caution for Kirkwood’s spin flew. What was a race with loads of promise turned into another uphill grind very early on. He fell 14 seconds back of the lead by the end of the fifth lap and looked to fall further behind until last place changed hands once again.

Augustin Canapino started 21st and was up five spots in the race before he lost control momentarily in Turn 14 on Lap 5, running through grass and gravel and falling back to last in the process. He was 16 seconds back of the lead, then 18, then 20 as Colton Herta took off and continued his pole-winning form.

Last place then changed hands for the sixth time in the opening ten laps as Felix Rosenqvist spun off the front wing of Rinus VeeKay in Turn 3 on Lap 8. Rosenqvist made a full loop in the grass, but managed to keep his car running and avoided causing a caution. He spent two laps chasing down Canapino before passing the Argentine, 26 seconds back of the lead on Lap 11.

During the following circuit, Romain Grosjean was running 17th when he got his left side tires in the grass between Turns 2 and 3, bringing his car into a spin. He wound up in the gravel trap and stalled his car, bringing out the day’s second caution. This time, the safety team was unable to get the Frenchman refired in time to keep him on the lead lap, pinning Grosjean as the only driver one lap down.

Jack Harvey's crew inspects the damaged front wing.

That would not stay that way for long. On the ensuing restart, Jack Harvey crashed. He was running 18th and accelerated to catch up to Helio Castroneves as they approached the final corner before the restart. However, Harvey came in with too much steam and swerved out of the way. He got the worst of both worlds, clipping Castroneves with his front wing and beaching his car in the gravel off Turn 14. Caution came out again, and this time Harvey would also be put a lap down before he rejoined the field. He hit pit road for immediate service, where the team performed a front wing change. On the Lap 18 restart, Harvey was behind Grosjean in the battle of lap-down cars. He did not make it past, and ran about two seconds behind for much of the next green-flag run.

The race’s fourth caution came before the halfway point on Lap 24. This time, Malukas parked his car on the outside of Turn 8, right before the carousel area of the racetrack. At first, IndyCar Radio speculated that he came in to hot and stalled the car, but Malukas eventually climbed out of the car while towing preparations were made. He was eventually dropped off at the IndyCar medical hauler and walked straight to his own hauler. The car arrived a handful of minutes later on the back of a tow truck operated by a local towing company. There were no visible marks on the outside of the car, meaning that whatever the problem was, it was entirely internal. 

The finish marked the eighth combined DNF for Coyne’s two cars this year, a far cry from where they were in 2022. DCR also currently leads the LASTCAR owners standing, with three of the seven last-place finishes so far this year, and its drivers hold the top two spots in the LASTCAR drivers standings.

The caution for Malukas was the last of the race, and Harvey and Grosjean remained one lap down at the end. Marcus Armstrong joined them in the lapped car club. The rookie Chip Ganassi Racing driver ran as high as second in the early goings before eventually falling off-sequence and fading to a lap down. Devlin DeFrancesco, who had a surprisingly good qualifying run in 12th, was the last car on the lead lap by the end of the race.

*The 2011 season is now the last time that the #18 never finished last in an odd-numbered year.
*Malukas is the first American driver to finish last in the #18 since Scott Mayer at Motegi on April 13, 2003. Seven different drivers - all from different countries - have finished last in the interim.

27) #18-David Malukas / 24 laps / engine
26) #30-Jack Harvey / 54 laps / running
25) #28-Romain Grosjean / 54 laps / running
24) #11-Marcus Armstrong / 54 laps / running
23) #29-Devlin DeFrancesco / 55 laps / running

1st) Dale Coyne Racing (3)
2nd) Chip Ganassi Racing (2)
3rd) A.J. Foyt Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1)

1st) Honda (6)
2nd) Chevrolet (2)


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