A stunning 39-lap final stint on a single tank of gas and set of tyres was the secret behind Carlos Huertas' stunning success in the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader on Saturday.
The 23-year-old from Bogotá, Colombia is in his first season of racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series, having transferred to Dale Coyne Racing following a two-year stint in Formula Renault 3.5 in Europe. No one - least of all the driver himself - had expected success to come this early in his US open-wheel career.
"It was a great day," smiled Huertas. "I'm very happy I won. In every series I've won at least once, so it's great. And winning in a professional series like this one is incredible."
The day hadn't exactly started out promisingly for Huertas, who admitted that he'd not been at all comfortable in the first half of the race when conditions were at their worst.
"It was a really long race and I really struggled on the wet," he said. "I had no pace, so I decided to stay very calm, and normally I'm calm but today I had to stay more calm because people were passing me, and I just didn't have any grip.
"Then when it started drying up, I thought maybe we had a chance, and then I kept asking how many laps to the end of the race because I thought we could make it on the fuel," he continued.
"Funny enough, before the race on the strategy meeting, I asked the team if it was possible to do the race with just one stop - and they started laughing!" he added. "They said, if you have a pace of 80 seconds, then for sure, but I wouldn't recommend it."
But with the race reduced to 80 laps by a time cap, and with 17 of the last 44 laps run at safety car pace because of a number of accidents, that's exactly what transpired. Heurtas and his team mate Justin Wilson inherited the lead by staying out when James Hinchcliffe, Sebastien Bourdais and the other leading cars pitted under caution on lap 59. Huertas was a fairly sure that he could make it to the finish if there were enough yellows to help him out, but for Wilson it was just too far to attempt.
"I was worried when Justin wasn't pitting because I think he was trying to make it to the end, but then they realised they couldn't make it," acknowledged Huertas.
"We kept at it and were leading there for a while but we needed one more caution to make it to the end and it didn't come," sighed Wilson of his so near, yet so far day. "That is just the way it goes. [But] I am very pleased for the team and it is great for Carlos to get his first IndyCar win and I think that was fantastic. I am happy for everyone and hopefully we can have a decent shot at it [in race 2 on Sunday]."
Even once it was clear that Huetras was going to make it on fuel, he had another big problem on his hands: his fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya had moved into second place and was ready to pounce.
"I was warming the tyres really well and the brakes, and then I saw him in my mirrors," Huertas recalled. "He got really close, and then I just second gear, full throttle, I had a good gap. And as soon as I came out of the corner, he did the overtake, and I knew he didn't have anything left. There was a big gap, and then they said yellow came out, and I was like: 'I have to do this again!'"
With a one-lap sprint shoot-out on the cards looking set to decide the race it was a nail-biting moment for Huertas. However the final restart was aborted after Graham Rahal spun Tony Kanaan, and that meant the last lap became a parade which allowed the moment to sink in - although Heurtas, being a typical racing driver, sounded like he'd have preferred the thrill of a one-lap shoot-out.
"It would have been nicer to win the race full speed, but anyways, it's a victory, and I'm happy," he smiled.
Also very happy was team owner Dale Coyne, celebrating the team's first win since Wilson found victory lane at Texas Motor Speedway just over two years ago. He was certainly more than satisfied with his new driver signing's development in the IndyCar Series thus far.
"It's great," he beamed. "He's done a steady job all year. He's never crashed, he's never spun, he's never gone off in the run‑off area, but he's been very steady and very fast. He gets mad in the race car once in a while, but that's good, and he performs.
"We used a good strategy today to get him to the front, but then he showed he can stay in the front," Coyne added. "We put him up there and there was a lot going on behind him, and as soon as Justin had to pit, and as soon as that happened he was able to pull away, so it shows what he's made of as a driver."
Almost more remarkable than Huertas' shock win on Saturday was the fact that it was at the head of an all-Colombian podium, with Montoya holding on to second spot and Carlos Munoz being handed third place after Rahal was penalised for spinning Kanaan out before the final restart attempt.
"It's going to be a huge day," agreed Montoya. "Three Colombians, I think the first time in the history of motor racing in the world that three Colombians are on a podium top at the IndyCar level, a top motorsport level, it's unbelievable. It's really exciting."
"We show what Colombians are made of," said Munoz. "I think we show the bad image people have, because they don't know about Colombians, they only know about one thing. You know what I mean? Finally we showed that we have plenty of talent in Colombia, not only in motor racing but there's a lot of Colombians in other sports."
The success in Houston will inevitably be somewhat overshadowed by events in the World Cup in Brazil, where the Colombian national side was playing (and beating) Uruguay in the first round of knock-out games at exactly the same time that Huertas and his compatriots were battling it out in track.
"Obviously the football - as you guys say it, soccer - is huge in Colombia," said Huertas. "I was there last week for every game, and every time the game starts, like the whole country stops. People don't even work.
"My win is just a little bit, I hope they're happy, and the people that watched it back home, my girlfriend, my friends, my family, my mom was sitting there watching it, I hope they're very happy, because it means a lot to me.
"Maybe you guys don't see how happy I am, but believe me - I'm happy!"