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Helio shines in Japan, title goes to the wire

19 September 2010

Beautiful conditions (blue skies, sunshine, and very hot) combined with a holiday weekend saw one of IndyCar's best crowds at Motegi to cheer on local hero Takuma Sato in particular. The Japanese fans also had Hideki Mutoh and Roger Yasukawa to support, even if strictly speaking Yasukawa is a Californian by birth; his appearance in a Conquest car for this race meant that Sato was missing his regular spotter, and the change (and non-nonsense instructions from the replacement spotter, Nick Harvey) seemed to do a world of good for Sato's race discipline.

At the start, Helio Castroneves got a strong getaway from pole with Ryan Briscoe safe in second place, but Will Power seemed a bit sluggish, started to fall back and was quickly overtaken by both Dario Franchitti and Marco Andretti - perhaps he just wanted to stay out of trouble and put Franchitti ahead where he could keep an eye on him for the race.

The green flag barely lasted a lap before Bertrand Baguette seemed to get unsettled on the bumps through turn 2 and was sent into the wall, bringing out the first of the day's five cautions. While it was obviously far too early for any of the main players to consider pit stops, a few of the backmarkers such as Justin Wilson, Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani came in for top-offs, perhaps inspired by the dramatic advantage that seemingly innocuous strategy had given Helio Castroneves two weeks ago in Kentucky.

Dario got a great run on Ryan Briscoe at the restart and passed him going into turn 1, but Ryan wasn't about to give up and counter-attacked, the two of them trading the position and running side by side until finally Briscoe stamped his control on the tussle and reclaimed second for himself, Franchitti opting to live to fight again later in the race.

The race had settled into a nice green flag stint by lap 40, when Alex Lloyd suddenly lost power down the backstretch with a broken throttle linkage, and had to pull down to the apron in front of the leaders who were approaching to put him a lap down. The distraction gave Dario the opportunity to slip past Ryan for second again, and Will Power dropped back several positions to tenth as he throttled back in expectation of a yellow which didn't immediately materialise. Instead it was another two laps before it became clear that Lloyd wasn't going to make it back to pit lane without help and the second yellow of the afternoon did indeed came out.

Lap 44 was really too early for pit stops for making it to the finish on the planned three stops, but it was still a no-brainer for everyone to come into pit lane for fresh tyres and fuel all the same. Briscoe had a great stop, retook second place from Dario with a better exit, and nearly collected his own team mate Helio as they raced for the exit line.

At the restart, Helio had no trouble in taking control again ahead of Briscoe and Franchitti. Further back Takuma Sato was thrilling his fans with a great run on Graham Rahal for 14th on lap 50 while just behind them Alex Tagliani and Mario Moraes had a great battle for 16th. The race ran green until Mario Moraes ended up in the wall in turn 2 on lap 68, after a shower of sparks were seen coming from the left rear of Moraes' car before he lost control indicating a mechanical failure. The impact in the wall was a heavy one even allowing for the SAFER barrier, and Moroes - described as awake and alert after the accident - was carefully extracted and put on a stretcher before being taken to the hospital for observation and evaluation for reported back pain.

Faced with another out-of-schedule yellow flag period, the leaders thought it over and duly decided there was no way around a four-stop strategy now and accordingly filed into pit lane. Raphael Matos and Hideki Mutoh alone opted to stay out and had the opportunity of leading the field when the race got underway once more on lap 77. Being deprived of the lead seemed to unsettle Helio, who got a poor restart and was passed by both Briscoe and a flying Franchitti, who passed them both in a single extended move.

It didn't take long for the Penske duo to rally, however, and on lap 81 they were back past Franchitti and over the next half dozen laps Briscoe led the way past Matos and Mutoh to claim the lead, which he held for the next 32 laps. Helio was soon moving up to support him in second, but Ryan had a 3s lead and looked comfortable in front until Helio started to feel the benefit of the clean air and was able to whittle down the gap. Dario had to wait until Matos and Mutoh came in for their off-sync green flag pit stops just past the half distance mark to move back to third place.

Unfortunately for Matos and Mutoh's pit strategy, the next caution came out very shortly after their off-sync stops. This time it was Paul Tracy (in what is likely to be his final outing for Dreyer and Reinbold) who had got up high on the marbles and delivered a glancing blow to the wall out of turn 4 on lap 114, which gave everyone a well-timed chance to come in for yellow flag pit stops but at the same time completely wrecked Matos and Mutoh's gambit. Helio got the better pit stop and retook first place from Ryan, and at the restart on lap 123 Dario was by far the more aggressive and quicker down the straightaway, immediately pouncing on Ryan Briscoe for second and making it stick.

The fifth and final caution came out on lap 148 when Alex Lloyd (who had rejoined following his early race stutter) ended up with a suspension failure going through turn 2 and headed to the wall just as Baguette and Moraes had before him. His trajectory to the wall was sharp and fast, and he took a nasty hit going into the SAFER barrier that left flames from severed fuel lines licking the right hand side of the car and encouraged him to make a hasty exit from the cockpit but Lloyd himself seemed completely unhurt. The clean up from the debris and spilt fluids proved a lengthy process and kept the track under caution for 18 laps.

All the cars came in for their final pit stops during this time, fuel and tyre strategy no longer any sort of issue. Helio was untouchable in the lead, but there was some controversy about whether or not Ryan Briscoe had beaten Dario Franchitti to the all-important exit line from pit road after he got a brilliant rocket launch from his pit box. Ryan admitted, however, that this had been achieved only when his thumb "slipped off" the pit lane speed regulator, and so there was a gentlemen's understanding that left second place in Dario's hands.

Briscoe quickly tried to reverse this situation at the restart, but Franchitti was having none of it and robustly rebuked the attempt. Will Power, keeping a watching brief immediately behind this battle in fourth thanks to an excellent final pit stop, realised that time was running out and he needed to make a move of his own, and was quickly allowed past his team mate to give chase to Franchitti. While he probably didn't have the pace to really challenge Dario at this point, he closed up on the tail of the Ganassi to make a point and nearly had a chance to pounce when Dario came up on slow lapped traffic in the form of Milka Duno with just four laps to go. Dario had it covered, though, and Will would have to settle for third: but finishing immediately behind Dario would be a very nice bit of damage limitation for Will with regard to the championship battle. After a few races of looking rattled and making slightly rash decisions, the Aussie was thinking smart at Motegi.

It was a great win for Castroneves, who never looked under threat for his third victory of the season (and his second at Motegi, having won here back in 2006) and he celebrated in trademark Spiderman style by climbing the wire catch fences to salute the crowd. But more significantly, the result trimmed Power's championship lead by 5pts to 12pts - a tiny margin in a series where a race win scores 50pts, and proof that the 2010 title could well come down to a pit stop blunder, a strategic mistake, or disastrous light contact during the last race in Homestead in two weeks. Power's strategy seems to be to shadow Franchitti and aim to come in immediately behind him, and that strategy successfully applied one more time at Homestead could well secure him the IndyCar championship.

As if to demonstrate how evenly balanced the fight is going into the final round, second place at Motegi was enough to win Dario Franchitti the trophy for the "mini-championship" of the season's oval-based races; Will Power had earlier clinched the equivalent trophy for road/street course races. One trophy apiece so far this season, and now just one more trophy to go - the tiebreaker, but also the only one that really matters at the end of the day.

Place your bets and tune in for the race at the start of October.


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