Everyone agreed that the organisers of the Itaipava São Paulo Indy 300 had done a wonderful job sorting out the street circuit after inevitable glitches in its inaugural run in 2010, with the repaving judged a big success. The only other complaint from last year was the weather, and the organisers couldn't do anything about that - as 2011 was about to prove in spades.
Shortly before the scheduled race start time at 1.20pm local time, the rain arrived - and in typical São Paulo style, this wasn't just a little shower but something more akin to a monsoon. Fortunately it was short-lived, the rain eased off to a mild drizzle, the water started to drain away from the street surfaces, and the race started on time as scheduled.
It ran straight into problems at the first corner: Will Power was through safely in the lead followed by Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe, but Ryan Hunter-Reay starting from second place lost traction and found himself unable to make the corner, choosing instead to cut the chicane entirely. Unfortunately the painted surface of the chicane was covered in standing water, and he wasn't able to negotiate the tyre barriers at speed and ended up ploughing straight into one, wrecking the front nose and wing.
There was more mayhem happening back in the first corner: Dario Franchitti ran deep into the first turn, the Esses of Samba, and squeezed Helio Castroneves. Helio would not back down but then ran out of room and made contact with the outside wall, coming to a crunching halt that made him an immediate blockage to those coming through the corner on that side of the track behind him.
Simona de Silvestro was first to arrive and went straight into him; then seconds later, Danica Patrick was on scene, her front nose sliding underneath de Silvestro's #78 and raising it right off the ground, while the impact pivoted Danica round so that the rear end of her #7 slewed round onto the track and made contact with Tony Kanaan, who had been starting from 21st position after being handed a penalty for an illegal front wing change during qualifying.
Everyone was okay from these incidents - Kanaan looked most wounded, the impact with Patrick having given him a nasty bruise to his thumb, but not enough to stop him wanting to get back in the car if the suspension damage could be repaired in time.
After all the cars were cleared up, the first double file restart attempt of the afternoon was made on lap 5: once again Power took it calmly and had no problems, but when Scott Dixon tried to put the power down gently coming out of turn 2 he immediately went into a spin. Cars further back found the situation similarly treachorous, and Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson, James Hinchcliffe and Sebastien Bourdais all went for spins. There was an interesting reversal of position for Dario Franchitti, who found himself on the inside line this time as Mike Conway went deep into turn 1; but Dario had learned quickly, and rather than suffer Helio's fate from the original start he opted to back off, yield the position and live to fight another day.
Things were rapidly going from bad to worse. The rain picked up again and within minutes it had gone through downpour, past torrential, and somewhere into Biblical proportions. At this point not only were there too many incidents to even attempt to keep track of, most of them couldn't even be seen anymore as the water spray and deteriorating light completely obscured the cars from the TV cameras, spectactors - and from the drivers themselves, with glimpses of Hunter-Reay, Bourdais, Vitor Meira and others all hitting problems and spinning into the barriers at various parts of the flooding circuit.
They were running blind and it was now beyond dangerous, so a red flag was inevitable by lap 9, the cars lining up in race order in pit lane: Power, Briscoe, Conway, Rahal, Franchitti, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball, Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servia forming the top ten at the stoppage.
The torrential downpour soon abated, but the rain was still coming down sufficiently to make it difficult for the organisers to deal with the standing water all over the circuit. After some two hours under modified red flag conditions (IndyCar officials relented on the letter of the law and allowed teams to work on damaged cars, so that there would be enough competitors in one piece to take the green flag again) it was close on 4pm local time and there were concerns about the fading light. It was time to try, or call it a day.
The drivers were recalled to their cockpits and sent out behind the safety car in the hope that the wet tyres would suck up enough moisture from the track to establish a dry-ish line. After five laps of this, it was clear that it just wasn't working - the rain was still coming down hard enough to prevent any improvement. Unfortunately for Mike Conway, however, the five laps under yellow proved costly as his #27 Andretti Autosports stuttered to an eventual halt with electrical problems, meaning that he would drop from third place to the back of the lead lap - 20th - for the next restart.
But that restart wasn't going to happen anytime soon. The cars were recalled, and after half an hour of confusion about what was happening next, the race was officially abandoned for the day and postponed until 9am local time the following Monday morning.
And at 9am, it looked lovely: dry track, sunshine, and no rain on the weather radars. It looked as though this was actually going to work, and everyone was happily set on their way on slick tyres. After a couple of warm-up laps, the field headed down into turn 11 ready to line up for the double-file restart for the remaining one hour and 19 minutes of the now time-capped race. At which point ... It started to rain, right through the Victory hairpin and on the concrete section through the Sambadrome.
The field tip-toed through the first two chicanes and headed straight to the pit lane entrance (unusually, here situated not on the start/finish straight but parallel to the Avenue Olavo Fontoura, meaning that cars in pit lane cut out turn 5 before rejoining into turn 6). By the time they came back out on wet tyres, the rain had come down hard enough for them to leave prominent "rooster's tales" down the mile-long Reta dos Bandeirantes backstraight and there was no question that we were right back into a wet race after all.
Power's lead had survived the pit lane dash and he was now followed by Briscoe, Takuma Sato, Rahal, Franchitti, Alex Tagliani, Marco Andretti and EJ Viso. Rahal was an early loser on this latest set of tyres and lost spots to Franchitti, Tagliani and Andretti, and up front Takuma Sato had the measure of Briscoe, passing him at turn 6 on lap 18 and then easily pulling away in pursuit of the race leader Will Power.
With the rain really starting to come down at this point, puddles formed rapidly and there was the very real possibility that the race would end prematurely, so everyone started getting very racey just in case there was another red flag: now Tagliani was struggling and he handed back the place he had just taken from Rahal and also had to yield to Andretti and EJ Viso. Everyone was struggling to keep out of trouble, and even Will Power had a near-miss when he came close to hitting the wall on lap 20.
Inevitably, something had to break in the end, and it was Sebastien Bourdais who spun into the tyre wall at turn 10 on lap 21 who brought out the next full course caution. Ryan Hunter-Reay had also had a small spin elsewhere on the track and damanaged his rear wing - the second one he had written off this weekend, which meant that when he got back to the pits he was fitted with a mis-matching new wing belonging to Mike Conway's set of spares instead of one of his own.
As the restart approached on lap 25, the rain was easing and in some parts of the course there was even a definite dry line emerging, while others remained as lethal as ever. Power led Sato, Briscoe, Franchitti, Andretti, Rahal, Viso and Dixon to the green flag, but he was slightly too cautious and left himself open for anyone with the courage to try a suicidal (in the conditions) lunge down the left hand of the double file-restart. But who would dare go for it?
Formula 1 fans will know that when it comes to much moments, Takuma Sato is your man. He is indeed that fearless-slash-pathologically insane, and he duly went for it. And amazingly, it worked without taking either him or Power off - he passed the Penske car and took the lead, leaving a startled Power staring at the back wing of another car for the first time in the race.
There was plenty going on behind as well, with Briscoe and Franchitti clashing which allowed Marco Andretti an opportunity to slip past them both and take third, while Briscoe fell to fifth behind Dario. Further back, Graham Rahal had some light contact and spun, gathering himself up but falling to the back of the lead lap; and Danica Patrick had also spun, bringing out out the fifth caution of the combined race. Under the safety car conditions, Raphael Matos managed to suffer contact that broke his front wing, and he went into the pits - before they were officially open, incurring a stop-and-go penalty for his offence.
The race went back to green on lap 29, with Sato in control of the restart and duly taking charge of the preferred inside line drivers-left into the first chicane. Power found his hands full keeping Marco Andretti at bay and had no opportunity to take the fight to Sato, and there was plenty of activity going on behind Franchitti as Briscoe lost two positions into the first chicane to EJ Viso and Oriol Servia who were having a ferocious private battle; a batch of Brazilian drivers - Rafael Matos, Ana Beatriz and Tony Kanaan - all needed to take to the run off area; and Justin Wilson spun in turn 10. While he kept the car fired up and was able to rejoin the field, it proved a costly error for Wilson as he dropped from seventh to 17th.
Dario Franchitti was about to share the pain. At the start of lap 33, he slid through turn 1, into a hefty impact with the tyre wall and right out of fourth place. He headed for the pits for a checkover and repairs, putting him at the back of the lead lap in 15th place and looking seriously compromised. Elsewhere other cars including Alex Tagliani and Danica Patrick were also finding conditions through turns 6 through 10 to be very treacherous: Tagliani ended up spinning and stalling in the middle of turn 10, and that was enough to provoke the sixth caution of the race.
The latest clutch of incidents had left Sato, Power, Andretti, Servia, Viso and Briscoe forming the top six, and they had a big decision to make under this latest caution: to pit for fuel, or try and stretch it? Sato, Andretti and Viso gambled on more cautions to come and stayed out, while Power led those coming in for fuel and tyres.
When all that shook out, the top three at the restart were Takuma, Marco and EJ, while Sebastian Saavedra, James Jakes, Graham Rahal and Dario Franchitti - who had taken fuel in his solo pit stop just before the caution and had no need to come in again - were all in front of Will Power in eighth who led those who had come through pit lane. It gave Franchitti a strong chance of a win since he could now make it to the end of the race without another stop. It was almost as good for Graham Rahal who like Dario had recently pitted for running repairs, and also James Jakes who was pursuing a completely off-kilter pit stop strategy and would also be able to stretch it to the end.
The restart saw Scott Dixon spin for a second time through the first chicane, while EJ Viso put Marco Andretti under heavy pressure for second place throughout the first green flag lap. He finally pulled off the pass into turn 11 - showing that his scary high-speed crash there on Saturday because of a brake issue had not affected his nerves in the slightest - and then out-dragged Marco through the stadium section to seal the deal into turn 1, giving KV Racing Technology-Lotus an amazing one-two.
Saavedra and Jakes were already falling off the top three, and then Jakes went and threw away his opportunity with a spin, dropping him down ten spots. Franchitti was also finding the race tough going now after his earlier run into the tyre barriers, and was forced to cede positions to Will Power and Ryan Briscoe, leaving him down in eighth.
Track and weather conditions were by now clearing up nicely, allowing for some close on-track battles between unexpected names and ever-improving lap times throughout the field. Surprisingly the fastest car of all on track was Simona de Silvestro, who despite running nine laps off the lead was the only car to put in a time below the 1:40 mark during the whole race. Unfortunately for the leaders de Silvestro was also running on the same part of the track as they were, and she was battling with them every step of the way - which lapped traffic simply isn't meant to do. She overtook Marco Andretti through turn 11 on lap 43 and would go on to pass the leader, Takuma Sato, four laps later, confirming her pace but not winning her any friends and surely setting her up with a visit to the officials' trailer for some words about race etiquette.
Meanwhile, the KV Racing Technology-Lotus dream was disintegrating. Viso was being a little over-wrought in his defence of second place from assaults by Marco Andretti, and EJ was warned at least seven times about some very blatant blocking moves by race control until finally their patience was exhausted and he was handed a drive-thru penalty on lap 43 that dumped him down to ninth place.
And five laps later, Takuma Sato's time in the lead was over: the fuel gamble hadn't worked, and he needed to pit to make it to the end of the race. That put him down to seventh place by the time he was topped up and sent back out. Sato had done all he could and he'd outlasted Saavedra (who had come in for fuel on lap 47) and Andretti (who had come in on lap 46, after also having lost eletronic data read-outs on his car). Marco tried one last roll of the dice with a switch to soft slick tyres despite the presence of a lot of water offline, and while he managed to avoid any crashes for the remaining laps, it didn't really deliver any significant performance advantage either.
The upshot was that Will Power was finally back in the lead, and Graham Rahal had played an excellent strategic recovery as well to put himself in second behind the Australian, splitting Power from his Penske team mate Ryan Briscoe who was in front of the off-colour Dario Franchitti in fourth.
Making up the rest of the top six were Oriol Servia - who had been having a rather quiet and unexciting race relatively speaking, but getting the job done very nicely all the same - and Mike Conway, who had kept plugging away after that electronics problem at the end of Sunday to stage a remarkable recovery in the circumstances.
Conway's sixth place was snatched away by a still-fast Sato in the final laps as the two hour race time limit neared, but Sato then overcooked it in turn 1 and allowed Conway to take back the position and put Justin Wilson back up into seventh at the same time. Sato was able to hold off James Hinchcliffe for eighth, as the Canadian demonstrated that Servia's form was no fluke for Newman-Haas.
Even though the rain was starting to fall again, there were no final lap dramas. Finally the race was run, done and won: Power would claim the trophy ahead of Rahal and Briscoe, and with it a 14pt lead over Dario Franchitti in the championship as the series concludes its opening stint on road and street courses and heads to ovals.
"That was an awesome race, so many different track conditions ... It was a matter of keeping calm, getting past people without making any mistakes and then creating a gap to be safe," summarised Power afterwards. "Being on pole four times and had two wins is a great start [to the season.]"
His main rival for the title, Dario Franchitti, was counting his blessings just making it to the chequered flag at all. "After me making a mistake on the restart, I'm very proud of my Target guys for the front wing change and getting us back out there."
And as for the hero of the middle section of the race, Takuma Sato was disappointed to finish eighth when the morning had briefly promised so much more. "In the end our strategy did not work and in hindsight we should have pitted for fuel during the final caution because we were not in a position to take a gamble," he admitted. "It was a shame we did not make it, but I want to thank the entire team for all their hard work this weekend."
Immediately the chequered flag came out, the teams sprang into action to start breaking down pit lane, pack the equipment and get everything ready to ship back to the United States in time for the build-up to the centennial Indianapolis 500. It might seem that May 29 is an age away, but with so much to do in terms of preparation, practice and qualification before the big day, this single extra day spent in São Paulo couldn't have come at a worse time for the IndyCar teams - but they stuck with it, saw the race out, and the Brazilian crowds showed their support in turn. And in the end, the racing was worth it too.Full race results and times