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Marco blazes his way back to victory lane

26 June 2011

It was dusk at Iowa Speedway when the cars headed out onto the 0.894 mile short oval track for the Iowa Corn Indy 250 and the floodlights were already blazing overhead, nicely highlighting the vapour trails streaming off the rear wings of the IndyCar field in the cooling night air as they got up to speed and approached the green flag for the start of the Saturday night race.

Takuma Sato had pole position but he would have been forgiven for not feeling entirely confident as he put his foot down in the #5, since this was his first time on track in the car since his final practice accident on Friday evening which saw him collide with Alex Tagliani. The KV Racing Technology pit crew had been hard at work reassembling it, but a car is never quite the same after major damage and Sato needed to feel out the changes before he would be fully happy with the new state of affairs.

Sato's version of "feeling out the changes" was to leap away at the first sight of green and leave Danica Patrick standing, neatly opening up a hole for his KV team mate Tony Kanaan to follow him through. The team tactic was for the two of them to take up a side-by-side configuration that would all but ensure no one would be able to pass them - not exactly the most sporting of tactics, but it's one long used by the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport teams of this world.

Unfortunately for Sato and Kanaan, one car proved too strong for them to fend off, and before they knew it Dario Franchitti had managed to slalom between them both and take up the top spot on lap 8, and then ease away from them without any problem. That rather wrecked the KV plan, but they would still do what they could to maintain formation which ensured that Danica and the rest of the pursuers were stymied for a time.

The cars flew at speeds of nearly 176mph until the first caution came out on lap 24: unfortunate British rookie James Jakes had found out the unsettling truth behind the notorious Iowa Speedway bumps, and in particular the spot through turn 2 where the track passes over an underground tunnel allowing access to the infield. The uneven surface is enough to catch out even the most experienced driver, and for someone as new to oval racing as Jakes it was a trap waiting for him to fall into. The bump shot his rear end around and sent him up into a heavy contact with the wall, although despite the seeming violence of the impact Jakes was quickly out of the car and walking away with no problems.

"It is only the third oval I have driven on and I know we are going to have these incidents so I just need to move on to Toronto," admitted Jakes. "It is unfortunate because I think I had a quick car here."

Although it was still relatively early in the race, everyone opted to come in for fuel and tyres. But it proved a disastrous visit to pit lane for Will Power, who was ushered out of his pit stall right into the path of Charlie Kimball who was just coming in. Power ended up running straight into the side of the #83 as it turned in. Kimball's car was seriously injured despite the team's best attempts to take it behind the wall and repair it, while Power's #12 was also now a wounded animal with damage not only to the soon-replaced front-wing but also to the steering of the car that was more intractable. It did not stop him from rejoining the race albeit down in 23rd position, just behind James Hinchcliffe who had suffered refuelling problems in his own stop.

"It was really disappointing to get hit in pit lane during that first pit stop," said Kimball. "There wasn't anything I could do about it, I didn't even see him."

Officially the blame lies with the Penske pit crew for the unsafe release; unofficially, Kimball himself also bears some element of the blame, as he was coming down to pit lane unusually far out to the right and its quite probable that Power's pit team simply didn't realise that Kimball as in for his regular stop and could be swerving to the left into his pit box in that way. Still, the damage was done to both parties - time to move on.

The clean-up from Jakes' accident took nine laps and racing resumed on lap 32, with Franchitti once again leaping away into the lead ahead of the KV duo, then followed by Helio Castroneves, Oriol Servia and Ryan Briscoe who all got ahead of Danica Patrick who was not having the best of days at restarts. She was also passed on track for seventh by her team mate Marco Andretti, who was already up ten places from his qualifying position and looking particularly strong in the night conditions.

The green flag was fairly short-lived, with another accident on lap 45 bringing out the second caution of the evening. Ana Beatriz had got loose on the same unsettling Iowa turn 2 bump and gone flying up the track, only this time she picked up some company along the way and smashed hapless Mike Conway into the wall as she went. Both cars were badly damaged and showered debris over the track, with Vitor Meira one of the first to arrive at the accident scene to find himself getting a face full of a sheet of carbon fibre bodywork that damaged his car, ultimately causing the team to retire the #59 with handling problems late in the event.

"We got loose, I hit the bump and the rear snapped on me," said Beatriz succinctly.

Conway had more to say: "It was obviously a disappointing end. I was just following Ana into turn 1 and 2, and she just got loose in the corner. I had nowhere to go and we kind of touched wheels," he explained. "That set me off into the wall. It was a pretty hard hit; not much left of the right side of the car ... It was a funny day anyway. At the start we had no gears and we drove right to the back. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it goes sometimes."

It was a lengthy 19-lap delay to clear up the debris and fluids spilt from the two wrecked cars before racing resumed on lap 63 with another great restart from Dario, while Helio Castroneves suddenly surged past the KV duo to claim second spot; Kanaan had problems trying - and finally failing - to keep third place from an assertive Marco Andretti in the Venom #26 car, while further back Ryan Briscoe and JR Hildebrand went side-by-side and touched wheels as they scrapped over sixth place.

With Kanaan admitting over the team radio that he had "no answer" for Dario and no idea where to look for one, it seemed that the prospects for a real battle for the lead lay with Castroneves - ironically, given the off-track spat between Helio and Dario over blocking following the Milwaukee 225 last weekend. But just when it seemed as though we were in for a rematch, we got deja vu instead: just like at Milwaukee, Helio suddenly had a tyre go down and he had to take to the pits for a green flag pit stop on lap 77, which put him a lap down and essentially stopped him playing any further role in the fight for the win.

Worse news was to follow for Team Penske, when the rear end of Will Power's #12 suddenly snapped round on him over the turn 2 bumps and sent him into a nasty hit against the wall. "That hurt," he admitted afterwards, and he looked visibly shaken and dazed even half an hour later when he stepped out of the in-field care center.

Although he initially asserted that he was fine and there was no concussion, official word said otherwise and he was deemed to have suffered a minor concussion that means he will need to undergo medical re-evaluation tests before being cleared to race at the next event in Toronto in two weeks time, as will Simona de Silvestro who was ruled out of Iowa after failing the same tests ahead of Friday practice after suffering post-concussion symptoms from a crash at Milwaukee.

"It was definitely a hard hit," admitted Power, who said that it definitely "rang my bell". He went on: "The Verizon car was damaged after the incident in the pits and we just had a problem with the steering and it came around on me. It's a tough result for us tonight. We'll do our best to get it back next race."

He also lamented the fact that the problem had originated with a mistake by the team in the pits. "Once again we screwed ourselves in the pits, like we always do," he said, insisting that the team had to learn from this and cut out these costly missteps.

The caution allowed everyone to pit, and JR Hildebrand had an eventful time when he was caught out by the car of Marco Andretti in front and nearly made contact, avoiding it only with a major swerve that had the pit crews still working on the business side of the pit wall flinching. Hildebrand then caught out again and almost ran into the back of Scott Dixon behind the safety car as everyone was weaving and testing their brakes to heat up their equipment ahead of the restart on lap 106.

Dario once again leapt away in front, but this time Sato was showing signs of vigour for the first time in a while and swept past his KV Racing team mate Tony Kanaan for second place. Marco was then challenging for third place, running just ahead of Dixon who was now in fifth place having started from 23rd, when the track went straight back to yellow again on lap 115.

This time it was another rookie - albeit one who won at Iowa in Indy Lights last year - who had found out the problem with Iowa's turn 2 in the most brutal way possible when something in the suspension seemed to fail in a shower of sparks sending the #34 into the wall in probably the most violent of the night and certainly prompting the safety crew to take extra care in stabilising him and checking for neck injuries before allowing him to be extricated. Despite looking very shaken and having to sit on the monocoque of the car once he stepped out, Saavedra was checked over by the in-field care centre and released with no problems, not even a minor concussion as Power had sustained - thankful no doubt for Iowa's introduction of the SAFER barrier all around the perimeter, with no concrete wall left at the facility any more.

"I have no idea what happened," said Saavedra. "We had some mild understeer which we were working through and out of nowhere the rear just snapped without any indication. It is one of those things that we will check out very closely to see what broke and try to figure it out."

As the field got ready to go back to green flag racing, it emerged that the KV Racing team harmony wasn't as solid as it had looked early in the evening, when Kanaan got on the radio to Jimmy Vasser to complain about his team mate Sato chopping him since getting in front. If he did it again, "He'll learn a lesson he'll never forget," warned TK. Vasser said shortly afterwards that things had been smoothed out between them and that Sato hadn't been aware of the problems he had been causing for Kanaan.

At the restart on lap 128, Dario once again maintained the lead - but this time didn't do so with the same ease, and didn't pull away to a safe distance. Behind him, a still annoyed Kanaan tried to get around Sato but found himself unable to get past and had to get off the throttle, which cost him vital momentum and saw him drop behind Marco Andretti and have to fend off JR Hildebrand in thrilling wheel-to-wheel combat over the next few laps.

Marco meanwhile had been stalking Takuma Sato for second, looking to be lining up a move on the outside only to swoop down to the inside line when Sato left the door open and pass him that way instead in a very sharp, intelligent move. Marco then immediately used his momentum to catch up with the race leader, and on lap 15 he went side-by-side with Dario and finally passed him, only for Dario to then line-up right on Marco's tail and retake the lead in a decisive move four laps later in a perfect example of tough-but-fair oval racing at its best (and rather better than the ongoing ill-tempered spat between the KV team mates behind them.)

With under 50 laps to go before the end, it was time for pit stops - and with no yellows in the offing, cars were starting to pit under green. Sato came in on lap 181, and four laps later Dario dived for pit lane with Marco right on his tail (so close, in fact, that there was nearly contact at the entrance.)

While they were on pit road, the caution finally came out as if on cue to help them: and it was Sato who had caused it, spinning in the predictable turn 2 while on tyres that had not yet fully heated up and weren't yet at optimum operating temperature. Sato himself was uninjured and was quickly out of the wrecked #5, but he wasn't happy with how the race which had promised so much had ended with so little reward.

"I lost at the bump in turn 2. The tyres weren't up to temperature," he confirmed. "I'm very disappointed to finish the race this way. I feel very sorry for the team and the fans. It's unfortunate because up until then it was looking good."

Marco and Dario were able to finish off their already-underway pit stops, and Marco emerged from pit lane in front of Dario to take the lead for the second time that night. Franchitti had led 172 laps to this point: he couldn't know it, but he would not get another turn in the lead for the rest of the race. Instead, when the race restarted, he not only didn't have the raw speed in traffic that he had enjoyed earlier, but the #10 had a tendency to get loose and fly up alarmingly high near the wall, forcing him to back off the throttle and lose critical momentum. As the final stint wore on, Franchitti would sink back to fifth place by the chequered flag despite all that early domination, passed in the closing laps first by his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon and then by Panther's JR Hildebrand.

"We had a bit of problem on that last pit stop and Marco got ahead," said Franchitti. "All night we had been getting more and more oversteer, and once we got in traffic I was toast. We struggled at the end," he confirmed.

With Dario and Takuma out of the picture, it was over to Tony Kanaan to carry the fight to Marco, and sure enough despite a good restart from Andretti on lap 198, Kanaan set up a pass and moved into the lead for the first time all night on lap 203. But Marco was if anything stronger in traffic than he was on the lead, and he stalked TK for four laps and then pulled off another sublime dive to the inside line to take the lead again on lap 208. This was looking like a tight battle that was going all the way to the finish.

Kanaan was back on the attack two laps later and finally pulled off a neat pass when Marco gave him half an opening rather than risk wrecking either or both of them, which allowed Kanaan to take control of the race from lap 212 for the next 20 laps.

With 19 laps of the race remaining, Marco felt he'd waited and observed long enough and dived to the inside line to run side-by-side with the #82 before just managing to pull in front again; TK regrouped and made another surge for the lead, but this time Marco was resolute there was no way past. As the laps remaining ticked to single figures, Kanaan used one of his remaining push-to-pass boosts to get alongside the Venom car again on the outside this time, at which point the decisive moment arrived: whoever came out of this battle in front was going to win the race.

And Marco played him: allowing him to get alongside, lulling him into a sense that the possibility was there, and then suddenly he moved down the track and applied a boost of his own, the extra power and the tighter line decisively breaking Kanaan's run for the lead.

In the end it didn't come down to a final lap shootout: the result was decided, and Marco claimed his first win in almost five years - his only previous IndyCar Series victory being at Sonoma in 2006, 78 races ago. Naturally, he was delighted: "It was good fun! The Venom boys were on it tonight," he said of the race. "We were down a little bit on the bigger ovals but we know when it comes down to handling we'd be alright. These guys did a great job with pits. They got me the lead back [at the final round of pit stops.]"

He said that he had enjoyed the fierce late battle with Kanaan: "Knowing TK, I knew he would do exactly what I did to him. He'd make his car very wide," Marco said. "I didn't want to wait until two to go because he was just going to chop me and I would have been done. I knew I had to get it done earlier and actually make my car wide."

Kanaan for his part gave Marco a thumbs up and congratulated him in victory lane, although he wasn't entirely happy with that last move of his former team mate's. "It was pretty clean until he chopped me off," he said. "He did a great job. It was a great battle, a great race. We didn't quite have the car. I think towards the end we got a little stronger. I'm happy for the team."

Scott Dixon came in third place and said that "It feels like a win coming from 23rd to third," while JR Hildebrand finished in fourth place having survived some of the hairiest moments of anyone of the night.

"That was my first time up front, rubbin' with those boys," he said. "There were a couple of spots that were a little dicey. It may be I'll have to go up to some guys and say, 'sorry about that.' This is a tough place to race!" But certainly fourth place is a good way to get over the early exit at Milwaukee to get his season back on track after the highs and lows of May at Indianapolis.

As for the IndyCar championship, Dario Franchitti might have hoped for better than just fifth place to maximise the advantage over Will Power following the #12's accident, but Iowa still means that the Scot now has a 20pt lead over the Aussie in the points having come into the weekend tied. It's not a bad state of affairs, although Dario will be equally aware that the next race is back on a street/road circuit - which Power has dominated on so far in 2011 - and that the fight for the championship is only just beginning to get serious.

That race - the Honda Indy Toronto on the streets of that city - will be on Sunday, July 10 in two week's time.


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