What’s up with the last row of the Indianapolis 500’s starting grid, and why isn’t it the Hawksworth/Coletti/Clauson trio who actually qualified last? Well, it’s IndyCar’s reminder that driver changes are for Le Mans, not the 500. Here’s who swapped seats with who, and why.

IndyCar has a much more sensible rule for driver changes after qualifying than certain other single-seater series (cough, cough F1 achoo). Are you being swapped in for the race after a different driver qualified the car? You can still start from the back of the field.

Advertisement

Two Dale Coyne Racing cars and one Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car make up the new back row of Ryan Briscoe, Tristan Vautier and James Davison.

Ryan Briscoe is being swapped into the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of James Hinchcliffe following Hinchcliffe’s accident during Monday’s practice session. While Hinchcliffe is still recovering from injuries sustained to his leg and pelvis, the team picked Australian hotshoe Ryan Briscoe to fill in driving the number 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Honda.

Briscoe is a former Toyota Formula One test driver who moved over to IndyCar after F1 and now drives for the Corvette Racing GTLM-class team in United SportsCar. This will be Briscoe’s tenth Indianapolis 500 start, however, he told IndyCar that the seat came as a bit of a surprise:

First and foremost, I feel absolutely terrible for Hinch. I wish him the best and a speedy recovery.

You sort of prepare for this race a year out. You visualize how you’re going to go through practice, all the prep you’re going to do, and something like this comes up and you throw that all out the window. I feel with my experience and the experience the team has, the experience that Hinch has had with (race engineer) Allen McDonald putting this car in really good condition for the race, I feel really confident that even with a few laps I’ll be able to find my groove again.

Fortunately for him, IndyCar allowed him a one-hour familiarization session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway right after he was announced as Hinchcliffe’s replacement.

Advertisement

Racer caught up with Briscoe after that session to get his thoughts about filling in for the 500 at the last minute:

As someone filling in for a beloved driver after an accident, Briscoe may have the toughest fill-in role of the three.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team worked frantically to get the number 5 car back together and ready for Briscoe to use. Team co-owner Sam Schmidt explained to Racer:

[Dealing with a situation like this is] the toughest thing you have to do in this occupation other than find money. We have an amazingly experienced group of individuals. You bring them dinner and you bring them Long’s donuts and you stuff them full of coffee and say, hey, I’d like to say you could have a week off after this, but you can’t. We are all racers. Their wives are racers, their families are racers. We’ll do what we have to do.

My days haven’t ended before midnight, and haven’t started later than 5 a.m. Thinking of everyone here, I’m not worried about Ryan getting up to speed, but I’m a little worried about just the exhaustion factor over the last three months.

Briscoe was the least of the team’s worries, having a best IndyCar season finish of third place in 2009. However, the team’s morale improved dramatically when good news of Hinchcliffe’s recovery started to come out.

Advertisement

“Obviously, the first day or the day of the accident was different, but once the good news started coming out, everybody just said, OK, let’s go out and get the car back on the track,” Schmidt told Racer. “They are doing what they usually do. Everybody’s mood is pretty good – just because everybody’s happy how Hinch is doing. That helps a lot.”

Lining up with Briscoe on the back row will now be Tristan Vautier and James Davison, who both present an interesting case. Vautier actually got to qualify in the number 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda of James Davison, as Davison was busy racing in the Pirelli World Challenge race at Mosport. This got Davison’s car on the grid despite Davison not being there.

Advertisement

Per Speedcafe, the Dale Coyne number 19 car is a one-off entry, as Davison’s main focus is elsewhere this season.

According to ESPN, no one had used a substitute driver for Indy 500 qualifying like this since 1981, when Mario Andretti was away racing in Formula One, and Wally Dallenbach qualified his Indy 500 car in his place. Andretti started 32nd, but ultimately finished second in the race. It can be done! We have faith in you, back row entrants. Make a podium finish happen, and amuse us all.

As Davison didn’t qualify himself, however, he will now start from the back row.

Advertisement

Vautier, however, will be swapped in the place of a different Dale Coyne Racing driver for the race itself: Carlos Huertas. MotorSportsTalk reports that an inner ear condition sidelined Huertas last night, causing questions to be raised about his stamina for the race. Huertas will be required to undergo additional evaluation before being cleared to return to IndyCar competition, just to ensure that his ears are back to normal.

Dale Coyne Racing’s substitute driver of choice was already heading back Europe to race in the Blancpain Endurance Series this weekend. However, this grants Vautier his second ever start in one of the most famous races in the world, so he’s en route back to Indianapolis.

Advertisement

According to AP motorsports reporter Jenna Fryer, Vautier was waiting for his flight to England at Chicago’s O’Hare airport when he got the call. “I just went to Alamo and rented a car,” Vautier told Fryer.

Vautier will now drive the number 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda in the race, but like Davison, because he didn’t qualify in this car, he has to start from the back row.

Per MotorSportsTalk, the order of the cars that go to the back row after a driver swap is determined by the entrants’ points. The number 5 SPM car that Briscoe will drive ranks eighth going into the Indianpolis 500, the number 18 car Vautier will drive ranks 22nd, and the Davison’s number 19 car ranks 24th. This explains why Briscoe, Vautier and Davison start 32nd, 33rd and 34th, respectively.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, Bryan Clauson is probably happy to start a row ahead of where he qualified without having to do anything at all.

Photo credit: AP Images


Contact the author at stef.schrader@jalopnik.com.