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Helio fumes as penalty hands win to Dixon

25 July 2010

As the race got underway on the converted airstrip temporary "street" circuit in Edmonton for the second leg of IndyCar's Canadian mini-season, Will Power led team mate Helio Castroneves ahead of Ganassi duo Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Milka Duno - put on probation this week by the IRL series for consistently failing to achieve acceptable pace - spun out even as the green flag was still waving, while a lap later Paul Tracy managed to knock Raphael Motos into a spin and a quick trip across the grass. Fortunately neither incident brought out a caution, Matos able to limp back to the pits for a change of tyres after acquiring a puncture in the incident. Tomas Scheckter was another premature visitor to pit road, coming in on lap 10 to replace his front wing and losing a lap on the leaders in the process.

As pit stops loomed around lap 34, Will Power was running serenely problem-free in the lead, but some confusion handling lapped traffic cost the Ganassi duo dear when Ryan Briscoe got the jump on them both to make it a potential podium lock-up for Penske. Further back, Paul Tracy pulled off a typically strong-arm move on Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato to briefly climb into the top ten before pitting moments later.

The pit stops were trouble-free for almost everyone, the Ganassi duo managing to eke out a lap more fuel use than the other leaders before coming in on lap 35. Once the stops had cycled through, Power was still in charge ahead of Castroneves and Briscoe, with Dixon, Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay filling out the rest of the top six.

Justin Wilson hit problems shortly after the pit stops, a broken right rear shock absorber sending him spinning. After pitting for repairs, he was soon back in again after the left rear shock appeared to go the same way showing how incredibly rough and bumpy this temporary circuit was, and what wear and tear it was inflicting on the cars. Dan Wheldon also reported a broken shock on the team Twitter feed. Meanwhile Danica Patrick - never a natural street course racer - ended up going for a country drive across the grass after trying a weak move down the inside of Bertrand Baguette on lap 39, but eventually recovered to the tarmac.

The first full course caution came out on lap 46 for Alex Lloyd, who had spun and stalled on the grass. It came at the perfect time for Marco Andretti who had been labouring with a damaged front wing that had just got dramatically worse, causing him to nearly trigger a midfield pile-up as frustrated drivers behind tried to charge past him. The yellow allowed him to pit for repairs, but the rest of the field stayed out - a midrace stop not working with any race strategy anyone could devise.

The race went green on lap 51 and almost immediately went back to a full course caution when Simone de Silvestro - so impressive so far this weekend, qualifying and running in seventh - got shunted into the tyre wall at turn 1 by EJ Viso, who then almost took out his team mate Paul Tracy on the rebound. Tracy pulled off the pass on Viso instead and found himself up in a very comfortable seventh place as the caution flags were deployed. Viso got handed a penalty for causing the accident which dumped him down to tenth place.

The restart came on lap 54, and lasted no longer than the previous attempt: Tony Kanaan and Alex Tagliani battled for a corner and made light contact which went Tag into a power spin that sent up clouds of rubber smoke that ironically contributed to his downfall: blinded, Mario Romancini had no way of seeing what he needed to avoid and ended up ploughed into the recovering Tagliani, seriously damaging both cars and putting them out of the race. Kanaan's car looked unharmed by the initial contact, however, and he continued in 12th.

Now it was lap 58, tantalisingly close to the lap 60 milestone that would allow the cars to pit and make it to the end of the race, but still everyone held their nerve and stayed out. This time the restart was successful and we were properly back to green flag racing, and it immediately proved costly to Ryan Briscoe who lost both the spots he had gained from the Ganassi boys earlier in the race, while just behind Ryan Hunter-Reay fell to Paul Tracy and lost sixth place to the local favourite.

Now pit stop strategy became paramount: Takuma Sato tried a cheeky early final stop on lap 63, with Hunter-Reay and Paul Tracy coming in over the course of the next five laps, hoping that a caution might close up the field and leave them at the front when everyone else pitted under yellow. But there's never a full-course caution when you really, really want one and by lap 75 when the leaders came in for their own final stops, nothing had materialised.

That meant the race went into its final stage with the order pretty much as it had been from the start: Power, Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti and Briscoe, with Tracy now up to an impressive sixth place having started 15th. But just when it seemed that Penske were giving Will Power a red carpet to the chequered flag, Helio Castroneves pounced with 19 laps to go: taking advantage of their coming up on traffic, and with Power on the harder tyres and having already used his push-to-pass and needing to wait out the reset time, Helio pulled off an exemplary, safe and smooth pass to take the lead, only the third driver of the day to assume control of the race. Now Dixon was shaping up to take a shot at Power: like Helio he was on the grippier but shorter-life red wall tyres and clearly fancied his chances. But after an initially fast sprint the tyres seemed to fade and inconsiderate traffic got in the way - Dixon slipped back again, the moment seemingly past.

Just when the afternoon appeared a done deal, Simona de Silvestro - who was still running in 11th despite her earlier misfortune - suddenly slowed up and came to a halt out on the grass, seemingly out of fuel, and this caused a final full course caution to come out. There would be a three lap dash for the chequered flag at the restart, and so there was still everything to play for.

Will Power was still smarting at being overtaken by his team mate, and threw everything into an attempt to put the matter to rights. He mounted a strong charge going into turn 1, but Helio ran wide to just squeeze him out. Scott Dixon watched all this unfold before him, and he was alive to the opportunity: he lunged down the inside and slipped in between the two Penske cars in second, but not quite able to take Castroneves in the same move. He would have to settle for second, but that would do nicely.

And then a shock penalty was handed down from race control: Castroneves had moved from the designated line into the corner, and the move was deemed to be illegal blocking. He was handed a drive-thru penalty which handed Dixon the lead and the victory. To say that Helio was incandescent was to understate matters. He went storming off to find someone to berate and was intercepted by security, a huge man who dwarfed the tiny Brazilian - but that didn't stop Helio, who gripped the security guy's lapels looking on the verge of throwing a punch at the slightest provocation. To their credit the security team kept smiling, and let the Helio supernova burn itself out, but there was still steam coming out of Castroneves' ears when he gave an interview to the waiting TV crew, threatening to talk to his lawyers in a sarcastic throwback to the legal problems that threatened to derail his motor racing career for good in 2009.

After a strained pause while everyone waited to find out what was going on, Dixon accepted the victory in a slightly low key celebration. He'd had the ideal seat to see the "blocking" that Castroneves was accused of, and seemed not exactly completely convinced: all the commentators and pundits, meanwhile, were speechless at the ruling and failed to see any offence as they poured over the replays of the incident from all the available angles.

Not that it mattered. Race control had ruled, and that was that.


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