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Conway surges to first series victory

18 April 2011

Mike Conway won his maiden IndyCar series victory on the streets of Long Beach, after putting in an unbeatable display of overtaking and raw pace in the final third of the race, following a safety car period triggered by a crash between two Penske team mates at the front of the field.

Conway had started in third place, and like the rest of the drivers seemed content to circulate around the tricky 1.968-mile, 12-turn temporary street circuit in position for the first stint, following a shambolic start by the field that didn't come close to an ordered "double file rolling grid".

Polesitter Will Power was in front, with Ryan Hunter-Reay slotting into second as the race got underway with no accidents, collisions or changes to the leading positions at the green flag. Further down the running order, however, Ana Beatriz had fallen to the back of the field after spinning her car on one of the warm-up laps and stalled twice before finally getting away just metres before the safety car put her a full lap down.

The stasis was exactly what Ryan Briscoe had expected and planned for: after a disappointing qualifying that saw him line up in 12th, Briscoe opted to start on hard tyres where everyone else was on the faster reds, assuming that the early laps would be too packed together to give anyone a chance to make much of a move on him on a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult. He was right, and cleverly got rid of the slower rubber at a time when it made little difference, while everyone else would need to run the middle section of the race on the slower tyres instead.

Some of the backmarkers took the opportunity of the opening laps to gain a position or two: Graham Rahal saw Sebastian Saavedra struggling and getting a little loose, and duly made a move to take 14th place on lap 17; and Danica Patrick - never that happy with road courses - lost a couple of positions on lap 20 to Simona de Silvestro and Raphael Matos, but mostly the drivers were content to bide their time as the top three of Power, Hunter-Reay and Conway started to open out a gap at the front over Oriol Servia in fourth place.

Justin Wilson had been circulating in fifth until lap 24, when he was bumped into a spin at the hairpin turn 11 by Helio Castroneves. Several drivers saw this and reacted straight away, assuming that the course would go full-course yellow: Alex Tagliani, Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan all immediately hit pit road, only to find that Wilson had kept the engine going and was able to recover under local waved yellows without triggering a full course yellow.

It could have been a costly gamble for them, but fortunately for them there was a copycat accident at the same place on the track the very next lap, with Simona de Silvestro this time the unlucky recipient of a tap from Paul Tracy. Tracy was handed a drive-thru penalty for causing an avoidable accident (although, strangely, Castroneves didn't receive any comparable penalty for the same blunder a lap before) and also received a penalty for speeding in pit lane - hardly the best way to mark his return to the IndyCar series.

Unlike Wilson, de Silvestro wasn't able to keep the car running and so the track went to caution and the rest of the field duly came into pit lane. Tagliani and Briscoe inherited the lead, but Kanaan wasn't as lucky due to a slower pit stop and a problem with a fuel sensor during his stop which meant a second appearance in the pits, and a drop to 21st position.

It was to say the least an eventful pit stop period - and a dreadful one for Mike Conway, who overshot his pit box and ended up plummeting down to 19th position, his chances of a good result seemingly dashed in one tiny error.

At least he was still in the race: Sebastien Bourdais, minding his own business coming down pit lane after his own pit stop, found himself three-wide with Marco Andretti in the middle and Justin Wilson on the inside. Marco was giving Justin room and was completely unaware of Bourdais in his blind spot on the outside line, and he moved out wider and wider ... until the Bourdais was pinched into the wall and the two cars made crunching contact. Bourdais' car was wrecked, and Marco Andretti also climbed out of the #26 to talk with and apologise to the Frenchmen, explaining that "It was my fault" and that "I had no f***ing clue you were there!" - getting a quick apology from the commentators for the choice language just broadcast. But when Marco started to walk back to his pit box, his team shouted at him to come back to the car - it wasn't exactly in showroom condition anymore, but there was a chance he could continue.

Another incident in pit lane almost saw another collision, this time between Graham Rahal and Vitor Meira. Meira's crew complained that Rahal had simply pulled straight out into the fast lane: Rahal had ten needed to react to avoid full-on contact and swerved back into the pit box area, clipping one of Oriol Servia's pit crew members. Fortunately no serious harm was done, but it was a reminder that pit lane can be a dangerous place at the best of times.

The race resumed on lap 31, and Ryan Briscoe got a good run on Alex Tagliani to immediately take the lead, with last year's Long Beach winner Ryan Hunter-Reay also getting the better of Will Power. Tagliani's momentum had been sufficiently compromised by Briscoe's overtaking move to allow Hunter-Reay and Power to quickly get past the #5 as well before things settled down, and so the race was now led by the two Ryans with Power in third place.

Thirty two laps of green flag racing ensued, which saw Briscoe pull out a comfortable 4s lead over Hunter-Reay who in turn had a couple of seconds advantage over Power. Marco Andretti was clearly having handling problems and retired on lap 37, while JR Hildebrand made a couple of eye-catching slides and miraculous saves to keep the #4 car out of the barriers. Justin Wilson, still stuck back in 13th position, tried a seemingly random pit stop on lap 43 to go off-strategy, while the rest of the field all started to come in from lap 54 through to lap 60 for green flag stops. The race narrowly avoided a full course caution one lap later when EJ Viso moved over and pinched Danica Patrick against the wall out of the final corner: Viso got the worst of it and was sent bouncing sideways across the track into the opposite wall, where he retired. Fortunately the car was offline and in a good position to retrieve without needing to throw a yellow.

Whatever the Dreyer & Reinbold team had been thinking of with regards to making this odd strategy work, it came to nought when on lap 63 Wilson's rear right wheel suddenly locked under braking into turn 8, leaving him without any handling into the corner and a one-way trip into the tyre wall. This incident inevitably brought out the full course caution avoided just two laps previously for Viso, and left the field looking at another strung-out double file restart on lap 67: Briscoe, Hunter-Reay and Power had retained the top three positions through the green flag pit stops, while Helio Castroneves had got the better of Oriol Servia for fourth place and Scott Dixon was in sixth ahead of his team mate Dario Franchitti.

As the cars lunged down the main straightaway toward the first turn, Power attempted to go around the outside of Hunter-Reay but soon realised that he was running out of road and that there was not enough time. He dropped back to pull in behind the Andretti Autosports #2, but unfortunately for him his Penske team mate Helio Castroneves behind him was busy in battle with Oriol Servia and was leaving his braking too late into the first corner. Caught out by Power trying to drop back in line, Helio locked up - and hit the back of his team mate, sending them both into the tyre barrier.

Inevitably there was fall-out and collateral damage. Scott Dixon was immediately on the scene and hit the back of Helio's stalled car, resulting in damage to the Ganassi's chassis that dropped him off the lead lap to effect repairs. By rights, Oriol Servia should have joined him in pit road, but somehow his lightning fast reflexes saw him manage to avoid hitting Helio, instead steering a rapid 360 spin so that he was back round and rejoining the field with minimal loss of position and not even a single slight contact from the whole incident.

The biggest winner from this incident was Dario Franchitti, who after spending almost the entire afternoon in seventh place was now promoted to third by the removal of Power, Castroneves and Dixon ahead of him and by his own overtaking move on Tagliani, who was now in fourth ahead of James Hinchcliffe and the caution's other big gainer, Mike Conway, who was suddenly back up the sharp end in sixth place ahead of Danica Patrick.

The track initially stayed green, but further round the race track a second incident forced the IndyCar officials to throw the third full course caution of the afternoon after all: Graham Rahal had got into the back of Takuma Sato, sending the KV Technology Racing-Lotus into the tyres at turn 8 and wrecking his own front wing in the process. The incident triggered problems behind them, as Charlie Kimball ended up colliding with Sebastian Saavedra, sending Saavedra down the escape road while Kimball ended up running into the stationary Sato. Kimball retired, while Saavedra returned to the pits for a new front wing.

That left the field with another double file restart to contend with on lap 70, with just 15 laps remaining. It was the golden opportunity for anyone to make what could possibly be the last decisive move of the race: who was going to seize the chance?

It wasn't Tagliani, who wobbled as he went through turn 1 and left himself wide open for a nice move by Mike Conway who threaded through the gap it presented to move up to fourth. Somehow, Conway had managed to preserve the heat and grip in his tyres to such an extent that he made everyone around him look like they had accidentally wandered into an episode of dancing with ice, and he immediately used that advantage to make a move on Dario Franchitti for third place going into turn 6 - not usually a place you'd expect anyone to be able to pull off an overtaking move, but here there was no question as Conway simply blasted past the #10 with stunning ease.

Then Conway's third became second, as his Andretti Autosport team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay suddenly slowed coming out of the corner. The decision had come on with such speed that the team back in the pits were completely caught out and had no prior warning: it appeared that the gearbox had spontaneously decided to quit for the day.

Could Conway possibly carry his restart advantage though long enough to make a run on Ryan Briscoe for the lead? The answer was an unequivocal yes, and next time through the same turn where he'd dispatched Franchitti a lap previously, Conway once again breezed past the car in front and claimed the top spot. And once he did, he was gone - before anyone could blink his lead was out to 2.5s. As the Andretti team said, their only threat now was an incident, full course caution and the unpredictability of a late double file restart.

None came: the race carried on caution-free to the chequered flag, and Mike Conway was by this time a comfortable 6s in front to claim his first ever IZOD IndyCar series victory in fine style.

"It feels awesome. As soon as I got in the lead, I was thinking of winning already," Conway said after the finish. "I knew I had to forget about it and get with the job at hand. The car was great. I could push all the time and control the gap. I can't thank everybody at the team Andretti Autosport [enough] for this result

"My guys hung in there all day. I made a mistake on a pit stop when I locked up. I thought our day might be done, but we had to hang in there and push all the way. On the restarts the car was awesome and it just came to life," he said, adding: "It was like [the other drivers] were struggling to get temperature in the tires. My car was good to go. I just took my time and picked my point, and was able to pull away."

This success marks the climax of a triumphant return for the boy from Bromley in Kent, who almost a year ago was involved in one of IndyCar's most chillingly spectacular accidents in the final moments of the 2010 Indianapolis 500 that left him seriously injured and sidelined from motor sport for the rest of the season. The victory was vindication also for team owner Michael Andretti, who had decided to pick up Conway as a driver for 2011 despite having to let better known, more experienced drivers like Tony Kanaan go over the winter.

"[Mike's] comeback is now complete," said Andretti. "The first time we put him in a race car, I could tell he had potential. I'm just so happy he was able to [win] this early and win one of the greatest races here in Long Beach. I'm just so proud of him." Long Beach has special memories for Andretti himself, whose first and last IndyCar victories were both at this venue.

"Mike Conway was in a class of his own today and there was nothing I could do," admitted Ryan Briscoe. "He was so much faster when he made that move on me." Nonetheless, Briscoe was happy to have moved up from 12th on the grid to finish 2nd to get some momentum into a season that's been rather lacklustre so far.

Dario admitted that his team had made some errors in set-up: "The car was really quick everywhere except for turn into the straight and down the straight. I think with the gear ratio and setting up for the wrong parts of the track made it hard for me to pass anyone because of the gap they would get coming out of the hairpin." However, he was not able to do anything about the situation as his pit radio gave out after the first pit stop, preventing the team from discussing any further adjustments to compensate.

Mike Conway becomes the series' first new winner since Ryan Briscoe took his maiden victory in Milwaukee in 2008 - and duly needed instructions on what to do, where to go and what the procedure was for a first-time visit to victory circle. It also gave the Andretti Autosport team its first win since Iowa Speedway in June 2010 and its second consecutive Long Beach win after Ryan Hunter-Reay's victory here last year.

And in the IndyCar points standings, it also means Dario Franchitti is back on top, with that late clash with his Penske team mate costing Will Power valuable points that could prove critical to the title fight down the line. Dario and Will continue to have an impressive margin over Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia - and Mike Conway, who is fifth in the championship coming out of Long Beach.

Race results

1. #27 Mike Conway 85 laps 85 laps
2. #6 Ryan Briscoe 85 laps + 6.3203s
3. #10 Dario Franchitti 85 laps + 6.7163s
4. #06 James Hinchcliffe 85 laps + 9.1705s
5. #77 Alex Tagliani 85 laps + 16.0177s
6. #2 Oriol Servia 85 laps + 16.8966s
7. #7 Danica Patrick 85 laps + 17.5016s
8. #82 Tony Kanaan 85 laps + 18.9655s
9. #14 Vitor Meira 85 laps + 19.4723s
10. #12 Will Power 85 laps + 19.8909s
11. #17 Raphael Matos 85 laps + 20.4660s
12. #3 Helio Castroneves 85 laps + 20.7784s
13. #38 Graham Rahal 85 laps + 21.3464s
14. #34 Sebastian Saavedra 85 laps + 23.1137s
15. #18 James Jakes 85 laps + 24.5926s
16. #8 Paul Tracy 85 laps + 63.7578s
17. #4 JR Hildebrand 85 laps + 70.9001s
18. #9 Scott Dixon 84 laps + 1 laps 23.4515s
19. #24 Ana Beatriz 83 laps + 2 laps 45.4151s
20. #78 Simona de Silvestro 82 laps + 3 laps 29.0387s
21. #5 Takuma Sato 81 laps + 4 laps 41.9446s
22. #22 Justin Wilson 78 laps + 7 laps
23. #28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 72 laps + 13 laps Mechanical
24. #83 Charlie Kimball 66 laps + 19 laps Mechanical
25. #59 EJ Viso 59 laps + 26 laps Contact
26. #26 Marco Andretti 37 laps + 48 laps Mechanical
27. #19 Sebastien Bourdais 27 laps + 58 laps Contact


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