Fresh off the back of an excellent top three finish in the iconic Indianapolis 500, Ed Jones proved his oval racing prowess once again at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, until a rival’s mistake removed him spectacularly from contention as he was running competitively inside the lead pack.
The reigning Indy Lights Champion was one of only two drivers in the fiercely-contested Verizon IndyCar Series never to have driven the 1.5-mile superspeedway prior to the weekend, and with just one 75-minute practice session to get to grips with the notoriously tricky circuit before qualifying, Jones knew he would need to learn fast.
After putting 51 laps under his belt, the talented Dubai-born ace was the second of the 22-strong field to qualify, with Dale Coyne Racing adopting a conservative approach by running a high downforce level. A two-lap average speed of 217.315mph – dipping underneath the existing lap record in the process – secured Jones 19th on the starting grid as he provided the team with valuable feedback.
The IndyCar rookie subsequently leapt up the order in the final practice session – placing an impressive seventh on the timesheets – leaving him in confident mood going into the 248-lap race under the Texan floodlights, the halfway point of the 2017 campaign.
Belying his lack of experience to climb into the top ten early on – featuring as high as sixth at one stage behind the wheel of his 720bhp Dallara-Honda single-seater – Jones was firmly in the fight for the podium positions when disaster struck shortly after a full-course yellow.
Four laps on from the re-start, a coming-together between Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe just ahead sent pursuing cars scattering in all directions. As he tried to avoid the incident, the 22-year-old Brit backed off slightly but found himself collected from behind, putting him out on the spot – quite simply a case of wrong place, wrong time.
Whilst thankfully uninjured, Jones was understandably disappointed at having been denied the opportunity to vie for another top three finish at the pinnacle of US open-wheel competition when he clearly had the pace to challenge. The former European F3 Open Champion, however, has already turned his attentions towards the next outing on the calendar – the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on June 25.
“Although I’d watched a lot of the previous races, it was my first time actually competing at Texas Motor Speedway,” he explained. “I was excited to be returning to an oval after our performance at Indy, even if I was well aware that it wouldn’t be an easy weekend and that it would take a little bit of time to get used to initially.”
What’s more, as the only team that hadn’t been able to test there in April, we went into it with a lot of unknowns – and with some extra work to do to catch up to the others.”
“I immediately loved the circuit and if anything, it was the most comfortable I’d ever felt on an oval from the get-go. I focussed my efforts on building up confidence quickly and adapting to the required driving style, but the limited track time counted against us and in qualifying we ran with too much downforce.”
“Things were a lot better in the race, and we were picking off cars and looking strong when the guys ahead tried to run three-wide just before two-thirds distance. I think Tony [Kanaan] didn’t leave them enough room, which caused them to crash.”
“I backed off and hit the brakes, but then I got collected from behind and there was nothing I could do – it sent me into the wall and game over.”
“That was super frustrating because we had an extremely fast car, had come from 19th and I think we had a chance to win – that’s what hurts most. I feel bad for Dale [Coyne – Team Owner]. He’s put so much work into this team and we’ve been so quick this year, but there have been a lot of incidents – even if this was the first major one on my side of the garage. Still, we keep coming back – and we’re coming back stronger every time.”
“I should be up there.” Those were virtually Ed Jones’ first words in his post-Indy 500 press conference after finishing as the fastest rookie and claiming third spot on the podium.
The Dubai-born British driver pointed to the results of the 101st running of the iconic event on a television screen and dropped a hint that he felt he should have been holding the Borg-Warner Trophy.
After producing the best drive of his blossoming career to date in his maiden Indy 500, those five words go a long way to showcasing the determination the Dale Coyne Racing star has to be the absolute best.
Sitting alongside him in front of the world’s media was Helio Castroneves – the experienced three-time winner of the event who had just pipped the UAE resident to second place.
“You are up there, man. Are you kidding? Third place,” the Brazilian, who is 20 years older than Jones, butted in when hearing his fellow driver’s remarks.
While Jones may have been disappointed that he didn’t quite have enough on Sunday to pass eventual champion Takuma Sato at the front of the field, when he takes stock of his performance in Indianapolis – he should be a very proud man indeed.
After all, it’s been some year already for the young driver following his step-up from IndyLights and his championship title last year.
However, when you actually analyse Jones’ race, it’s clear to see why he felt things could have gone differently – especially if fate had been more on his side.
Indeed, after starting fourth row, 11th on the grid, he actually ran over debris during lap 53 that had come from the horrific crash between Jay Howard and Scott Dixon.
Jones revealed that damaged his rear wing and created a hole in the bottom of his car floor, but such was his scintillating drive he managed to get himself neck and neck with Castroneves on lap 184 for a chance to overtake Sato and secure the lead.
That in itself was an incredible effort from the Dubai driver as he climbed from the back of the grid in a race that saw 50 laps run under caution.
He said: “The last yellow, we actually pitted right before it, so it put us near the front. But then I had some back luck again. I actually damaged my front wing, had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. It created a lot of drag.
“I was really good in the corners catching up to the other cars but it was difficult in the straights. I couldn’t pull up to them. We lacked that straight speed, I’d say, for the last 40 laps. It was really hard for me to defend or even attack, which was really frustrating because I think we had the car to win.
“It’s so frustrating again, I’ve had five podiums or five top 3s on Oval circuits now and I haven’t won one,” Jones added.
“It’s really frustrating not to get one but I’m working my hardest to get it next time. It was big learning process for me.
“Great job to Sato and Helio. I don’t know how many opportunities you get to be in that battle.”
He may not have thought it at the time, but expect there to be many more for Jones.
THE BIGGEST SPORTING EVENT
My race day started with a 5am alarm call as myself and media colleagues who travelled to Indianapolis on behalf of ESPN received a police escort to the circuit – with wheels up from 6am.
All teams, commentators, officials and workers staying away from the venue were afforded that luxury given the traffic in the city and the hundreds of thousands of racegoers all heading in one direction to the 500-mile extravaganza.
We were all certainly grateful for the stress-free journey to our press box seats.
Arriving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – what struck me immediately was the sea of people, everywhere, getting ready for the biggest of days ahead.
It’s hard to compare it to any other event – but just imagine attending a big music festival, multiply its size by a 1000 or so and add in engines and cars. From there, you get somewhere close.
It was Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis – an occasion where war veterans are honoured and remembered in the United States. I really enjoyed seeing people come together with pride and happiness to truly do justice to the most important few days in the midwestern state’s calendar.
Having been fortunate enough to experience this race, I can safely say it’s well and truly up there as one of the most enjoyable sporting days out.
BUZZ OF THE PITLANE
Strolling down the pitlane, taking in the smell of engines getting revved up and the excitement building up to the green flag was something special indeed.
My video (above) should provide you with a first-hand insight of the high doses of energy pulsing through Indianapolis.
One of Dubai’s very own did everyone proud by finishing as the fastest rookie.
It was a spellbinding performance from the 22-year-old Brit and the fact he was disappointed not to win the historic race goes a long way to show what kind of character he is.
The Dale Coyne Racing man has a very big future ahead of him and this is just the start I’m sure – it was a pleasure to watch his classy performance on Sunday.
MOMENT OF THE DAY
There were gasps of despair among us journalists when Scott Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing Honda car flew wildly through the air and caught fire after an ugly collision with Britain’s Jay Howard.
Fortunately (and remarkably) both drivers emerged unscathed. Don’t look at the Tweet below if you’re squeamish.
Until next time, thanks Indy!