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Helio's fuel foresight pays off in Kentucky

4 September 2010

Another Saturday night, another night time IndyCar race. But this one had a rather startling look upfront, with Ed Carpenter - in only his third appearance in the series this season, and in a hybrid operation cobbled together from bits of Panther and Vision Racing - leading the field to the green flag. And then demonstrating that it was no fluke that he was on pole, by easily pulling away from Will Power at the green flag.

The best getaway was that of Tony Kanaan, who was starting from the back row of the grid but who made up some ten places in the course of the first lap by running a strong outside line. But when he came up on the Lotus of Takuma Sato, the Japanese driver suddenly lost the back end of the car, wobbled - and flew up to the wall, badly damaging the car and bringing out the first caution even before a single full lap had been run: it's his ninth retirement in 2010, and all from contact, rather continuing his reputation from Formula 1 in that regard. Fortunately no one else was involved, although Sato made light contact with Alex Lloyd on the way out, and further back Ryan Hunter-Reay had done a full 360 degree spin when trying to slow his Andretti Motorsports car down to avoid the wreck.

When racing resumed, Carpenter initially held the lead only to succumb to pressure form his "half-teammate" Dan Wheldon who was flying as well; and just to confirm the incredible form Panther and Vision had found seemingly from nowhere at Kentucky, the two were joined by the other member of the extended family, Bertrand Baguette, who briefly crowded Will Power out of the top three.

But Power's sights ere set firmly on the championship rather than the race, and unlike last week at Chicagoland he was content to play it safe, especially as his title rival Dario Franchitti was not looking as though he was having a particularly strong night: after qualifying 11th, he was still making heavy going of it and running 9th, then labouring over getting past Mario Moraes for 8th. As long as Dario was safely in his rear view mirror, any result was looking good for Will.

Unfortunately for Will, by lap 53 - as pit stops loomed - the cars he saw immediately behind him were exactly what he didn't want: the two Ganassi cars, Scott Dixon just ahead of Franchitti, who was slowly coming good as the temperatures dropped in the darkness of night. Wheldon and Carpenter pitted a lap earlier and consequently lost positions to Power, Dixon and Franchitti who came in together and left in the same order, the top five on lap 67 once all the pit stops had cycled through consisting of Will Power, Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, with Ed Carpenter now shuffled all the way back to 10th place after a particularly sluggish pit stop.

As lap 80 ticked by, the leaders were coming on back markers and streaming past Simona de Silvestro on all sides. She did what the race director had instructed the slower drivers to do at such moments and dropped to the low inside line to allow the faster cars to get past unimpeded: unfortunately, Foyt's Vitor Meira was steaming in right down that inside line and de Silvestro's move inadvertently resulted in serious contact, spinning them both up into heavy contact with the wall that left both cars wrecked. And to make the situation worse, Simona's car also caught the back end of Ryan Briscoe's Penske car on its war out of the track, taking him out as well. All the drivers were quickly out of their wrecked cars - ironically, Briscoe looking the most shaken, flexing his left leg painfully and needing to sit against the wall for a few minutes - but the clean-up of the cars and the oil spilling out down the track took some time.

Although it was earlier than ideal, all the cars opted to pit, with Will Power narrowly holding off a spring from Dan Wheldon to maintain the lead, but Power's Penske team mate Helio Castroneves opting to drop to the back with two quick extra top-offs before the race got back underway. As the cars passed the halfway point the top positions were still locked up by Power, Wheldon, Dixon and Franchitti, but there were some interesting developments in the rest of the top ten with all four Andretti Sports car now in there (Marco Andretti 5th, Tony Kanaan 7th, Ryan Hunter-Reay recovering from his earlier spin in 8th, and Danic Patrick 9th) with Ed Carpenter recovering from that sluggish pit stop in 6th and Paul Tracy making an early fuel conservation run pay off to a strong 10th on lap 108.

Once the race got to within 60 laps of the finish, the drivers were looking to their next pit stops: theoretically they were in range to make it to the end of the race with one last load of fuel, but it would take some careful fuel management and preferably some yellow flag laps to be safe. Will Power was the first of the leaders to come in, and perhaps concerns over last week's debacle - where the team failed to get the right amount of fuel in and led to a hugely damaging late splash-and-dash - were in the team's minds as they had a slightly ponderous stop taking extra-long to get the gas in the tank. With Dan Wheldon absolutely nailing his own pit stop a lap later, the pressure was on Power - who pushed too hard on cold tyres, drifted up the track, and only narrowly avoided sliding into the wall. It was a costly mistake in terms of positions, with Wheldon able to take over the lead ahead of Franchitti, Kanaan and Andretti, with Power fifth ahead of Ed Carpenter.

With the running at the front still fast and furious, and the cold weather also draining the fuel at a higher than anticipated rate, the teams were getting very nervous about lasting the distance. As one of the earliest stoppers, Will Power started to drop back as he leaned off the fuel, desperate to avoid a repeat of Chicagoland's heartbreak, but it was becoming clear with every passing lap that the only driver with any realistic chance of making the distance was Helio Castroneves, who after a bungled pit stop then had the presence of mind to come in for those extra top-offs during the second caution period which had given him an extra 3-4 laps over the rest of the field.

Ryan Hunter-Reay's appearance on pit road on lap 175 initially suggested that the fuel situation was far more dire than expected, but it proved to be a false alarm - his car had a mechanical failure that meant he would sit out the final 25 laps in the garage, joining Sarah Fisher (whoe car gave up the ghost on lap 134) and EJ Viso, who had been an early retiree on lap 45 with badly overheating brakes.

No yellows, and the fuel was burning up faster than anyone had expected - one last emergency pit stop was now unavoidable, with Tony Kanaan first in from third position at the start of lap 192, nine laps shy of the chequered flag. Ordinarily coming in first is a disadvantage, but it meant the pit lane was nice and deserted for his in-and-out, whereas the other leaders - coming in four laps later - found themselves packed together in their pit boxes. When they filtered back onto the track, they found themselves under attack from Kanaan who was flying on his now-heated tyres, and Franchitti and the rest were unable to hold him back.

But none of them were about to get the race win - Helio's fuel top-off back on laps 89 and 92 essentially deciding the race and handing him the win, giving the Brazilian a chance to celebrate in victory road. Remarkably, Ed Carpenter also managed to conserve fuel enough to make it to the chequered flag without a splash-and-dash, giving him a well-deserved second place ahead of Wheldon, Kanaan and Franchitti who all would be forgiven for expecting better from Kentucky: but for Dario at least the critical result was that he finished ahead of Will Power in eighth to cut the Australian's lead in the championship battle.


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