It's been two years since IndyCar last visited the Milwaukee Mile, and the drivers were certainly happy to be back: unfortunately the same couldn't be said of the crowd. With the stadium's capacity a relatively modest 40,000, it still looked as though the race was barely attracting a third of that number to the mid-June Milwaukee 225.
Which is a shame, as the return to one of the classic IndyCar-style circuits meant a return to some examples of the best side-by-side, wheel-to-wheel battles of old, together with more than a few crashes, incidents and controversy along the way.
The first incident occurred even before the green flag had finished flying for the start of the race, when Ryan Hunter-Reay appeared to have to lift going into turn 2 behind the two KV Racing Technology cars of Takuma Sato and EJ Viso. That lift made the car go light and he lost the rear end, sending him into the wall - with Ryan Briscoe doing superbly to avoid being collected as well. It was an sad early end to Hunter-Reay's afternoon in his first outing in the GoDaddy.com livery shared with Andretti Autosport team mate Danica Patrick and normally on the #27 of Mike Conway.
"It's extremely unfortunate," said Hunter-Reay. "The car just broke loose on the way in and I just couldn't save it. I feel bad for the guys, we had a good car here this weekend."
Once the restart took place on lap 7, the race managed to run smoothly for the next 60 laps, with Dario Franchitti managing to pull out a huge lead of some 5s over Helio Castroneves in second, followed by Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon and EJ Viso. But as the green flag stint wore on, Franchitti's pace notably started to fall off and gradually the chasing pack started to close right up on him.
There were early retirements for two cars, the first of which was Simona de Silvestro. She had crashed during Saturday qualifying and been concerned about back pain as well as needing stitches to a cut on her leg against the steering wheel in the impact, but she impressed everyone by being ready to race on Sunday afternoon. Sadly the same wasn't true for the rebuilt #78 which had chronic handling problems, and the HVM team made a quick call to park the car for the day after all.
AJ Foyt made a typically non-nonsense call to park the #14 after 69 laps, declaring the car not in a fit state to compete and that he didn't want it out there just to have an expensive crash. The Sam Schmidt Motorsports team could have made the same call about Alex Tagliani's #77 which after a few full-speed laps at the start of the race abruptly lost all pretence of pace and was passed repeatedly by everyone. Tag continued to stay out - and managed to keep out of trouble as well - but finished a horrific 29 laps off the lead in 19th position.
On lap 66, just as it looked as though Franchitti was in danger of losing the lead, the second caution came out for a rather innocuous slow-speed incident involving Ana Beatriz who got up too high onto the marbles and went for a slide against the wall. Despite no serious damage being done the yellow flags came out anyway, just in time to provide the field with a convenient round of pit stops.
"I was trying to keep my lap because Dario Franchitti was behind me and as soon as I went a little bit higher I got in the dirty part of the track and brushed the wall," explained Beatriz. "It hurt the suspension a little bit and we lost two laps because of that. It was really frustrating that we couldn't put it all together. I felt that some people were really blocking hard today which really screwed us up."
Despite pitting under yellows, the ensuing round of stops proved very messy and costly for a number of drivers. Dixon and Sato came down pit lane side-by-side with Sato on the inside despite having his pit box further along than Dixon, who was unaware of this. Dixon turned in to his own pit box - and Sato ran into him, pushing the Ganassi into Ryan Briscoe's pit box and also damaging the nose of Dixon's #9. Sato then proceeded to his own pit box but - presumably rather shaken by events - misjudged his own entry and knocked over his left rear tyre changer in the process. It all meant that Dixon dropped to 13th place after the pit stops, Briscoe to 16th and Sato off the lead lap altogether after receiving a drive-thru penalty for hitting a member of his pit crew.
"During the pit stop it was very crowded and I got tangled up getting into the pit box," said Sato later. "So I got a drive through penalty which put me at the back of the field and down a lap, but over the next two caution yellows we managed to get our lap back."
"It was one of those days," rued Dixon. "We never had the balance of the #9 Target car right all day. It was worse off of 3 and 4 then we had the incident with the #5 car in the pits."
Racing resumed on lap 79, but was back under caution again less than two laps later: as the cars were still jockeying for position two-wide, Alex Lloyd got passed around the outside by Ed Carpenter and it appeared that the aerodynamics pulled the rear end of the #19 around going into turn 2 and Lloyd headed for the wall. The hapless Sebastian Saavedra happened to get in the way and got trapped between the #19 and the wall, putting both cars out at a stroke.
"All I know is that I got lose and I caught it once but I couldn't catch it the second time," said Lloyd. "Unfortunately, we ended up in the wall and took Sebastian with us."
"This is very sad," said Conquest's Saavedra. "We had a really great race car. We are looking at everything that the weekend brought and unfortunately we ended up involved in something that I couldn't get out of. I saw Alex get lose in turn 1 and I had nowhere to go or nothing to do to avoid it. It is very disappointing as we were strong this weekend."
It was a lengthy clean-up - with the track organisers having to spend quite a bit of time sweeping up the build-up of marbles form the tyres - before racing resumed on lap 91. Once again Dario Franchitti got a terrific rocketship restart with the rest of the field headed by Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Castroneves and Viso struggling to stay with him; Viso had his own hands full running side-by-side with Graham Rahal before finally losing the battle to retain the fifth position.
Once again, Franchitti's early blistering pace subsided, this time further hampered by having to drive through lapped traffic, and Tony Kanaan quickly caught up with the #10 before passing him on lap 116 for the lead. Observers wondered whether this was some sort of strategic move by Dario - a fuel call, perhaps, or getting held up by someone? - but instead it seemed to be pure pace. Kanaan was simply faster than Franchitti at this stage of the race.
The next caution was out on lap 123, caused when JR Hildebrand got up too high while being passed on the inside by the leader, strayed onto the marbles and crashed into the wall at turn 4 - uncomfortably reminiscent of the traumatic end to the Indianapolis 500 for the young Californian.
"I was struggling with the car a little bit, for sure. At that point, I'm kind of trying to stay out of my own way out there," Hildebrand admitted. "We're just trying to survive through the race. With the leaders going by, a lot of the guys can stay on the bottom and some of the guys just sort of can't. It's not their fault. I just got through with TK and I got shoved up in the marbles. Once I got up there, I couldn't get it back."
The caution gave everyone a chance to pit under yellow, although a front left tyre gun problem cost Oriol Servia lot of positions and pushed him back to 12th place. Franchitti also clipped one of the tyres left right out at the edge of Will Power's pit box, something that can trigger a penalty, but IndyCar seemed to be looking the other way and Dario got away with it this time.
As a result Kanaan and Franchitti still led at the restart, and for the first time Will Power was showing signs of life and moving into the outskirts of the top ten, where he would engage in a brief but thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle for position with Scott Dixon who was still languishing in the midfield after his earlier pit stop incident with Sato.
History repeated itself at the restart, with Dario's pace back to his best at least temporarily and he reclaimed the lead on lap 135; he retained it for nearly twenty laps before his tyres faded on him again and Kanaan took back the position on lap 154. On this evidence, the eventual winner was going to be decided by how close to the end the final caution or tyre change of the afternoon turned out to be.
Caution number five came out on lap 165 when EJ Viso threw away all that early strong running by spinning the #59 into the wall at turn 4 after banging wheels with Ed Carpenter.
"I was passing the lap car and I got high and went into the marbles and it sent me into the wall," said Viso. "I feel bad for the mechanics and my crew because they put this car together for me ... I really think I had a good car, maybe not as fast as the leaders but we had a car to finish in the top five."
With sixty laps left to run, everyone was now well inside the window to make it to the end with one final pit stop, and so everyone duly took the opportunity to come in. Penske's pit crew did an astonishing job to return Helio Castroneves to the track in the lead ahead of Franchitti and Kanaan.
Dario was hoping to get one of his turbo-boosted starts and reclaim the lead at this critical juncture, but he was frustrated when Charlie Kimball emerged from his wave-around through the pit lane right in front of the leaders, combined with some serious blocking from the #3 that Franchitti took serious objection to: "It was Helio's usual blocking crap," he said afterwards, admitting that he was "still so spittin' mad from what Helio did on that restart."
Dario had to pull back and it gave Kanaan the opportunity to ease past him and demote the #10 to third place. Suddenly, the win that had been a mere formality for Dario was looking out of reach after all. But instead, just when it looked like we were set for a close three-way battle for the race win, we were about to lose two of the players from contention.
First came reports from the Penske pits that telemetry was showing that the #3 had a tyre going down: minutes later and no data was needed, the left rear was visibly flat even while Castroneves remained seemingly unaware of the problems and still circulated at speeds of up to 160mph on it. It demonstrated just how relatively unimportant the left-rear is on an anti-clockwise oval that he was able to carry on as long as he was, but the risk of a dangerous blow-out was growing by the second.
And then the crash came - but it wasn't Castroneves. It was, astonishingly, Tony Kanaan who went into the wall at turn 4 instead
"It's a shame. It's my fault. But, hey, it was a fun race," said Kanaan. "We raced each other hard the whole race. Unfortunately, I'm human. I make mistakes sometimes as well. I'd rather make a mistake trying hard then actually not trying at all."
With Kanaan out and Castroneves now forced to pit for replacement tyres and down to 11th place, Dario's competition melted away and sadly we were denied the exciting, white-knuckle shoot-out for the race win once Dario got off to another safe flying restart.
Perhaps the most intelligent race of the entire afternoon had been that of Will Power, who had been starting from 17th position after a "big moment" in his Saturday qualifying run. Power had laid low for the first half of the race and made little progress, but gradually worked his way up in the latter stages of the race to suddenly pop up into seventh place after the final round of pit stops. He was able to make up three more positions over the remaining 60 laps.
Power's most dangerous moment came in the final restart on lap 205, when Graham Rahal took over second spot and cut off Will Power in the process, forcing Power to check up and as a result nearly getting Danica Patrick rear-ending him. Fortunately everyone managed to avoid contact and the race ran the final 20 laps to the end, with Power in fourth just ahead of Patrick at the end.
A fifth place finish for Patrick was good news, being her best result in the 2011 season to date - although naturally, she still wasn't thrilled. "Unfortunately, there were so many yellows that came out about halfway through a stint in the last half of the race or so. More green flag running would have been good for me, but we still got a top five."
Graham Rahal had managed to hold on to second place and was thrilled. "A great job for the Service Central team today, to come from 12th and move up like that," he said. "We passed a lot of cars. I thought passing was going to be tough today and it was, but we were able to do it ... We're knocking on the door [of a win,] it's our second second-place finish of the year and third podium. We're getting closer. It's going to come one of these days!"
And Oriol Servia claimed third place despite that mid-race problem in pit lane that had cost him nine positions at a crucial moment. "It's awesome. We've been close to the podium so many times and things just don't come easy," he said. "I was in a podium position and then we had a bad stop and went back to 12th and had to go through the field again. The car was just amazing. The restarts were a lot of fun and I'm just so happy to give a podium to the team."
Will Power's fourth place was a useful piece of damage limitation that meant that despite Franchitti's race win, Power was still able to tie the lead of the IndyCar championship on points going into next weekend's race at Iowa.
"I guess we're equal on points so you just have to keep fighting away," said Power. "Keep having good days like this and make no mistakes and we'll be good. I was just fighting like a dog to get those positions."
Dario, however, was just basking in a hard-won race win and leaving the championship for another day. "Great day. To win here at Milwaukee is always special. It's such hard work and a such a hard race. It's a delight for the Target Team and we got the [lime green and cyan blue] Downy colours in Victory Lane!"Full times and positions