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Franchitti stays out of trouble to win

27 March 2011

Moving to double file starts and restarts on all IndyCar races in 2011 is all well and good, but someone needs to remind the drivers that two lanes of traffic can't all head for the same apex of the first corner and expect to make it through without causing a crash.

The first - and biggest - accident occurred when Marco Andretti and Helio Castroneves tried to dive down the inside of turn 1. Inevitably they found the apex packed with cars and duly ran into other cars and into each other; Andretti's car was sent sliding over the top of Scott Dixon before fatally clipping Mike Conway's rear suspension, and then rolling over and finishing upside down duly causing the first caution of the day.

Marco was of course out on the spot, and Conway's suspension was also too badly damaged to be able to continue, meaning that half the Andretti Autosports team were already done for the day. Oriol Servia had been caught up in the aftermath of the accident but was able to get back underway at the back of the field without significant delay - others were less fortunate. Helio Castroneves was eventually able to continue, as was - remarkably, and after extensive bodywork repairs - Scott Dixon, despite the #9 looking like a flattened pancake after having Marco bounce over it. Ryan Briscoe needed a lengthy visit to the pits for repairs to his front suspension before he could also rejoin the race.

At the restart, polesitter Will Power selected the inside line into turn 1 only to have Dario Franchitti sweep around the outside line and take the lead with ease. Tony Kanaan swept through behind him into second, leaving Power fighting to fend off Ryan Hunter-Reay to keep hold of third place.

This time the field made it through the first turn without incident, but a few corners later there was rough and tumble further back down the running order. First Ana Beatriz tipped Graham Rahal into a spin that put him rear-first into a tyre barrier and wrecked his rear wing; then seconds later Danica Patrick caught up to Beatriz and tried to pass, and got her front wing shattered by Beatriz for her efforts.

Both Rahal and Patrick needed to pit, and their luck was in because EJ Viso had spun into the gravel and beached himself in turn 13 on lap 7, bringing out the second caution of the race and allowing Rahal and Patrick the chance to come in for their respective new wings without losing too much time or position.

There was another caution on lap 12 after Ryan Briscoe ran into the back of Oriol Servia; the contact wrecked Briscoe's front wing which was left in the middle of the track in turn 11 - necessitating the caution for sizeable debris - while Seria's rear wheel was punctured by the sharp wing end plates and he ended up taking to an escape road, before reversing up once the yellow came out and heading for pit lane for a new set of tyres.

At the restart on lap 14, Franchitti was still in charge and leading the field to the green flag - and consequently avoided another outbreak of stupidity from the midfield drivers who all aimed for the apex of turn 1 and seemed surprised to find it already occupied by everyone else. A chief culprit was Sebastian Saavedra who lunged down the inside line and went off onto the grass, causing him to lose control and braking ability. He ended up going into the side of the hapless Ryan Hunter-Reay, who sustained serious damage from the collision that needed a lengthy stay on pit road to effect repairs. Saavedra himself spun round, stalled and finally ended up pointing the wrong direction which is what finally triggered the caution.

But one person had made the restart work brilliantly: Simona de Silvestro - who had started the race in 17th - had made a great lunge from sixth place on the double file rolling grid to come out of the confusion with a startling second place, tucking in behind Franchitti and ahead of Kanaan, Justin Wilson, birthday boy Vitor Meira and Alex Tagliani - Will Power having been badly caught out by the restart and back in seventh position, although he was soon on the move back up to fourth place during the next phase of racing.

After such a confusing, caution-laden stop-start first 15 laps it was good to finally get some green flag racing laps underway at last, especially as the clock was ticking and it was always going to be a close-run thing as to whether the race completed the full 100 lap race distance before the two hour cut-off came into effect. Up front it was to be a remarkably calm and quiet afternoon for Franchitti who soon built up a big lead over de Silvestro. Having the lead not only gave him control of the race, it had allowed him to stay out of trouble when others further back had been stumbling over each other.

The first cycle of pit stops was interrupted by a full-course caution triggered by Charlie Kimball on lap 39, who pushed too hard coming out of his own pit stop on cold new tyres and ended up smacking into the wall in a classic rookie error, which he admitted was the case as this was his first "hot" tyre change in IndyCar. It's all a learning experience, just occasionally a painful one at these speeds.

Will Power got the best jump out of the pit stops and was restored to second place. However, despite the blistering pace he had shown in practice and qualifying, Power never seemed to have anything really in reserve with which to challenge Franchitti for the lead. He confirmed, "Dario was just crazy fast," explaining: "Shortly after he passed me, someone hit me from behind. That damage took a bit of downforce off the car and it took a while to work our way back up to second."

Meanwhile Tony Kanaan had the outside line at the restart on lap 44, and once again used it to perfection to gain a place - this time ejecting de Silvestro from third place.

Although there was no full course caution, the restart was not without still more incident: Danica Patrick got too close to the back of the #22 of Justin Wilson and got her second wing of the afternoon crumpled for her efforts; further on, rookie James Jakes managed to lock up his brakes going into turn 4 and half-spun into the tyre barrier, catching Ana Beatriz up in the accident as he went.

The race settled down from this point on, with the remaining half of the race almost blissfully serene compared to the amateur hour antics of the first fifty laps. As a result of having no further full course cautions, the race did indeed just sneak in its hundredth lap before the two hour deadline. Franchitti was never threatened for the lead, although Power did take over in front briefly for two laps during the second round of pit stops, under green, on lap 71; Power's attention was more directed at holding Kanaan back, while Kanaan himself came under heavy pressure late in the race from de Silvestro resurgent after a quite mid-section of the race from her as she found the harder prime tyres less to her liking. He held on secure the final podium position, a remarkable achievement given how little preparation time he's had in his new car and team set-up.

On the final lap, Danica Patrick was judged to have made "avoidable contact" and was duly docked one position, putting her down to 12th place behind JR Hildebrand in the final classified positions. Justin Wilson had taken advantage of the pair's battle to overtake them both and gain back two positions, having fallen back during the middle of the race with a mid-race puncture and late spin.

The official non-finishers after all that early chaos were Ryan Hunter-Reay (who, despite rejoining the race after repairs from the collision on lap 14 eventually had to retire with handling problems), Charlie Kimball, Mike Conway, Marco Andretti - and Sebastian Bourdais. Bourdais was ruled out of the race following a serious accident in the morning warm-up which saw his #19 Boy Scouts of America car crash in the fast chicane. Bourdais said that he just clipped the inside of the right-hander, broke the front suspension and slid over the rumble strips to a hard impact with the wall. "From there I was just a passenger ... It's a really big mistake. There's definitely a lot of damage."

Bourdais himself was fine, but the car caught fire and would have required a substantial rebuild. Unfortunately the Dale Coyne Racing team's woes were compounded by Bourdais' team mate James Jakes having an almost simultaneous accident elsewhere on the track during the warm-up that also required extensive rebuilding work, the team not having any back-up car ready and available. Jakes car was the less extesnively damaged and so the team opted to work on that car rather than Bourdais', meaning that the four-times Champ Car champion failed to make it to the starting grid at St Petersburg although Bourdais himself was not injured in the accident.

Franchitti is eyeing Bourdais' four-times champion record with envy. If he were to win the 2011 IndyCar title it would be a third consecutive title - a feat only achieved twice before (Bourdais' titles in Champ Car not included.) Traditionally Franchitti and Ganassi have dominated the oval races while Power and Penske claim the road races, so this first time victory on the streets of St Pete is a significant achievement for Dario in his title campaign.

Dario couldn't have asked for or done any more this weekend. But as ever, Will Power is right behind him shadowing his every move - something we should surely expect for the next 16 races of 2011 until the championship is decided.

Race results

1. #10 Dario Franchitti 100 laps 2h 00m 59.6886s
2. #12 Will Power 100 laps + 7.1612s
3. #82 Tony Kanaan 100 laps + 16.1045s
4. #78 Simona de Silvestro 100 laps + 16.5616s
5. #5 Takuma Sato 100 laps + 29.9435s
6. #77 Alex Tagliani 100 laps + 30.4655s
7. #17 Raphael Matos 100 laps + 31.5227s
8. #14 Vitor Meira 100 laps + 35.7291s
9. #02 Oriol Servia 100 laps + 49.1432s
10. #22 Justin Wilson 100 laps + 56.8025s
11. #4 JR Hildebrand 100 laps + 62.9747s
12. #7 Danica Patrick 100 laps + 62.9748s
13. #34 Sebastian Saavedra 98 laps + 2 laps
14. #24 Ana Beatriz 98 laps + 2 laps
15. #18 James Jakes 97 laps + 3 laps
16. #9 Scott Dixon 96 laps + 4 laps
17. #38 Graham Rahal 96 laps + 4 laps
18. #6 Ryan Briscoe 95 laps + 5 laps
19. #59 EJ Viso 94 laps + 6 laps
20. #3 Helio Castroneves 85 laps + 15 laps
21. #28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 58 laps + 42 laps Handling
22. #83 Charlie Kimball 38 laps + 62 laps Contact
23. #27 Mike Conway 1 laps + 99 laps Contact
24. #26 Marco Andretti 0 laps + 100 laps Contact
25. #19 Sebastien Bourdais 0 laps + 100 laps DNS


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