Briscoe win denies dream start for underdog duo
6 April 2009
Ryan Briscoe kicked off the 2009 IndyCar Series season with victory in the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg, but the win could happily have gone the way of drivers signing late deals with teams not usually expected to run at the front of the field.
Briscoe led for 46 of the race's 100 laps and, having passed Justin Wilson's Dale Coyne Racing entry at a late restart, went on to hold off Vision Racing's Ryan Hunter-Reay by 0.4619secs at the flag. Wilson eventually finished a series-best third for the Coyne team after leading a race-high 52 laps. The win was Briscoe's third, and Team Penske's 30th, in the IndyCar Series, and makes it two in a row for the Australian, who also took Penske to victory in the non-points race at Surfers Paradise last season.
“At the end there, I was able to get Justin down on the inside," Briscoe said, having added to Penske's two previous St Pete wins from 2006-07, "The team gave me a great car today. Roger Penske calls my strategy, and it was just absolutely perfect. This is our first race of the season, and it's such a great feeling to kick it off with a win.
"The conditions were tough – it was very tricky on restarts. The tyres would get very cold, and it would be very slippery. It was a challenge to keep it between the white lines and off the wall. I had some strong challenges from behind, but my car was very strong today, and I was able to hold them off.”
Wilson took the lead at the first corner, coming from second on the grid as the field went four wide into the first corner. Graham Rahal, who a day earlier became the youngest pole winner in IndyCar Series history, was not so lucky, however, and, having seen Dario Franchitti come scything down his inside, was then hit and spun sideways by Tony Kanaan.
The #02 Newman/Haas/Lanigan car - which, ironically, Wilson had campaigned in 2008, ended up on the grass and fell back to 21st as Rahal headed to the pits for repairs to his front wing, which had been trodden on as Alex Tagliani attempted to take avoiding action. Having been placated by his crew - which reminded him that he had spun early in the 2008 edition, defending race champion Rahal then proceeded to drive back through the field to an eventual seventh-place finish.
“The race started bad right from the beginning," he sighed, "I was conservative on the start, and I'm guessing it was Kanaan that punted me. It's absolutely ridiculous, and you would expect a guy like that, with experience, to know it's the first corner of the first lap of the first race of the season. Why make moves like that?
"From there, it was just battling back all day, trying to find a way to get the car back up to the front. We certainly inched away at it to get back up to seventh from last place, and I'm pretty happy with that, but I think the results should have - and could have - been better."
Wilson led the first 34 laps on Firestone's alternate 'red' tyres, only handing the initiative to Briscoe when finally forced to pit, but grabbing the lead back at the next round of stops, when the Coyne team got him out in front. The Briton was still the leader at the lap 86 restart, but Briscoe moved to the inside of the #19 heading into turn one and pull off the decisive pass for the lead.
“It's been a fantastic weekend, and the Sonny's Bar-B-Q car has been working fantastic, but, on that restart, I just got out-dragged on the front straight," Wilson reflected, "There's not much you can do. You can't block. It's just one of those things. I was just disappointed because you can't do any more.”
Hunter-Reay capitalised on the loss of momentum by passing Wilson for second in turn four, turning in the best finish ever for Vision Racing just one week after signing his deal with the team.
“It was a good, clean race for us but, late in the race, I was thinking long-term with points," RH-R admitted, "You couldn't step a foot off line without jeopardising your car, so I kept it in line for the team. It's been a long week for everyone on the team, and everyone who worked on getting the car here deserves the credit.”
Franchitti was a factor throughout his first championship round with the Ganassi team but, having run second to Wilson early on, had to settle for fourth after losing track position in one of the pit-stop windows. The Scot came home ahead of former Andretti Green team-mate Tony Kanaan, who survived his brush with Rahal to round out the top five.
The race looked good for Britain in the opening stages, with the Power-Franchitti 1-2 being backed up by Darren Manning vaulting to fifth at the start on his debut with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The series veteran, who only signed his deal in the days before the event, eventually finished eighth, but there was worse news for rookie team-mate Mike Conway, who found himself tipped into the turn two wall as the Rahal/Kanaan melee sorted itself out. The DRR pilot was towed back to the pits, but rear suspension damage left Conway 99 laps short of full distance.
There were also disappointing ends for Mario Moraes, Danica Patrick and Raphael Matos, who all retired due to contact on lap 31. Moraes' incident was separate, but Patrick and Matos suffered a heavy impact after the reigning Indy Lights champion tried an optimistic lunge up the inside of the #7 AGR entry at one of the fastest parts of the track. Despite appearing to be almost alongside Patrick, he found the feisty female turning in to the corner and both skated off into the waiting wall.
Ed Carpenter and reigning series champion Scott Dixon both found similar sections of tyre wall later in the race, while Hideki Mutoh, Dan Wheldon and Marco Andretti were all ruled out by contact, allowing some less-fancied names to claim useful points.
Behind Kanaan, Will Power claimed sixth on his debut with Penske, while Vitor Meira and Tagliani rounded out the top ten, ahead of rookies Robert Doornbos and Stanton Barrett. EJ Viso retired with mechanical problems at three-quarter distance, having run as high as third.