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Dario wins stormy Toronto crashfest

11 July 2011

Dario Franchitti won the Hondy Indy Toronto on the streets of downtown Toronto, but it will surely be one of the most controversial wins of his motor racing career, with angry words flying from his title rival IndyCar rival Will Power after the two made mid-race contact.

The start of the race was relatively benign despite the double file start, with Will Power taking up the lead from pole position ahead of Scott Dixon and Mike Conway getting the better of Dario Franchitti for third. It certainly didn't hint at the chaos and storms that were to follow, and it wasn't until lap 3 that we saw the first full course caution of the day.

That was sparked when Tony Kanaan took a wide line into turn 3, which Ryan Briscoe took as an invitation to try a move down the inside line. He wasn't able to hold it close enough to the apex however, and when Kanaan turned into the corner there was contact that spun Kanaan around and sent him into the outside wall rear-first. The suspension damage terminated the #82's involvement in the race, but Briscoe escaped with merely a precautionary visit to pit lane for a new nose.

Kanaan said he was 'Very, very disappointed," adding: "It was so stupid, he had plenty of room, I don't know what he did ... I guess when your team mate is winning a lot and you're not, you're feeling the pressure."

Racing resumed on lap 6, and there was another incident on track two laps later when Takuma Sato - having been overtaken for 20th position by Danica Patrick down the start/finish straight - then misjudged his braking into turn 3 and ploughed straight into the back of the GoDaddy.com #7, punted them both off into the run-off area. Fortunately the run-off allowed track marshals to work under waved local yellows rather than a full course caution, and both Danica and Sato were eventually able to get back underway and limp back to the pits for repairs. Danica was out first and directed an ironic thumbs-up at the KV Racing pit box where the team were still working on Sato, while over the radio she made her feelings known to her own team: "Idiot ... that was a hard hit!"

The race settled down after this, with Dario getting past Conway at the restart to retake third place. The next significant development was Oriol Servia coming into the pits early for his first stop of the day on lap 14 in a bid to move to an off-sync strategy from the leaders. This was on the very edge of being able to complete the 85 laps with only one further pit stop for fuel, and Servia was clearly hoping for a timely caution to assist his campaign.

The same tactic was soon picked up by others, with Marco Andretti in next time around, and Ryan Briscoe - already circulating near the back after his clash with Tagliani and with nothing to lose - followed suit next time around, and then Paul Tracy on lap 19 and Ryan Hunter-Reay on lap 22. What had started as a minor sideshow distraction was now starting to become potentially a major problem for the leaders, as a full course caution at this point would see them all dive into the pits - and come out behind these early stoppers who were beginning to add up.

The worry grew when potential front-runners Justin Wilson and Alex Tagliani came in on laps 23 and 24 respectively: if they were gifted the lead by a timely yellow then it would be very difficult to dislodge them again. Finally on lap 27 it was Dario Franchitti who blinked among the leaders and headed into pit lane. It seemed an especially canny move by the Scot given that Power and Dixon were now coming up on the back of James Jakes to lap the Dale Coyne car and were being held up.

And then just as Dario was back up to full speed, the caution that the leaders who had yet to pit feared came out on lap 31: Tagliani was into the tyre wall at turn 3, after Helio Castroneves misjudged his braking into the corner and locked up, running into the side of the #77 that was trying to make the turn. Both cars were recovered and made it back to pit lane for lengthy repairs by their respective teams.

Power had reason not to be happy with his Penske team mate, who not for the first time this season had caused a highly unhelpful caution. Power and Dixon were among those who were obliged to pit at this point, while Dario Franchitti stayed out and assumed the race lead for the first time that afternoon.

As the race resumed on lap 37 with a lot of jostling and minor collisions but no major crashes: Franchitti fended off an assertive Oriol Servia followed by Justin Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay and local boy James Hinchcliffe; Power led those who had just stopped, but was now mired down in 11th place just ahead of Dixon and Conway, with the likes of Briscoe, Vitor Meira, Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti and JR Hildebrand in the way ahead.

The first green lap saw Dixon make contact with Hildebrand as he forced his way past, the rookie just able to keep it off the tyre wall in turn 3; a lap later and Canadians Paul Tracy and James Hinchcliffe found themselves going into turn 5 side-by-side. Tracy is not known as a driver who backs off from any fight, and young rookie Hinchliffe is apparently made of similar stuff so neither driver would give up, the cars banging wheels and Tracy coming out of it the worse with a spin that he was just able to save although damage to the front wing from the initial contact would send him into pit lane but without the need for yellow flags.

Instead the next caution was for James Jakes who had spun and stalled in turn 9. That allowed Graham Rahal to head for the pits for new tyres after apparently sustaining a right rear puncture on the sharp edge of Ryan Hunter-Reay's front wing; surprisingly Hunter-Reay opted not to pit at the same time despite clear damage to that front wing, preferring instead to hold on to the track position that he had gained from his early pit stop strategy.

And initially it seemed to be the right move, with Hunter-Reay able to follow Justin Wilson through when the Englishman made a lovely move on Oriol Servia for second place, forcing Servia off the racing line so that he then lost pace on the marbles which were seriously building up by this stage. But a few laps later and the wing's condition had worsened, Hunter-Reay had fallen down to seventh place and finally he conceded defeat and pitted on lap 47. It looked as though the Andretti team had made a horrible mistake with the gambit.

Or - maybe not. The very next lap saw a major multiple-car accident in the increasingly notorious turn 3. It was sparked by Paul Tracy - possibly still with some damage after his earlier contact with Hinchcliffe - locking up and running into Vitor Meira on the straight leading down into the corner; Sebastian Bourdais was immediately behind them on the road and had no where to go but into the side of Tracy as he spun, while Charlie Kimball tired to avoid the accident and ran into the barrier on the other side, leaving only a car's-width gap in the middle of the track for the rest of the cars to make their way through. Fortunately all cars were able to get back underway, although Tracy needed a lengthy visit to the pits for repairs.

With 36 laps to go till the end, it was a no-brainer that everyone now had to come in for their final pit stops - which potentially fell beautifully for those who had just been into the pits such as Graham Rahal, who assumed the lead, and Hunter-Reay who now found himself in 5th place after that suddenly-fortuitous fluke stop for a wing change at just the right moment. Dario Franchitti resumed in sixth place ahead of Justin Wilson, Will Power and Scott Dixon, Power having had a flying pit stop thanks to having less fuel to take on board after his more recent stop than Franchitti and Wilson.

Franchitti had a poor restart and was passed by Justin Wilson, and that broke Dario's momentum just enough for Will to pounce and get past him as well. The two were still running together when Mike Conway ran into the back of Ryan Briscoe and shunted them both off into a run-off area.

"I have to apologize to Ryan for ruining his race; completely a brain fade on my part," confessed Conway. "Going into the turn, I tried to take my time and get to the inside, but it seemed to choke up a bit. There was nowhere to go. It was kind of a slow incident but it broke the left side suspension. End of a tough day for the team."

Like the earlier Sato/Patrick accident in the same spot, this was dealt with under local waved yellows; but the next caution was out on lap 57 anyway. And the reason for it was a clash between the two main title contenders, Dario Franchitti and Will Power.

From Dario's point of view, Power seemed to run wide into turn 3 and leave a gap down the inside which was just too tempting to pass up. By the time Franchitti realised that he'd misjudged the opportunity and tried to back out of it, it was too late and Will turned into the apex and made contact with Dario on the inside: the Penske came off worse and was thrown into a spin.

He got the engine going again and rejoined once all the cars had gone past, but it was a bitter blow for Power's title chances. And given that it had been Dario that had done the deed - seemingly deliberately in Will's eyes - he was spitting fire. "We were working our way back toward the front and we got past Franchitti. We went into the corner and I gave him room and then he just drove into me."

Word came down that the incident was being referred to the track stewards for a possible penalty for the championship leader, and for several minutes confusion reigned. The race restarted and Dario started moving his way back up the running order again, and everyone waited for him to come in and serve the stop-go penalty.

Except - there was no penalty. There never had been. When the race stewards (who included Al Unser Jr and IndyCar's Tony Cotman) reviewed the collision they determined that it was a racing accident and deemed no penalty applied after all. "I understood he was going to get penalized but then there was no call - I just don't understand that," said Power in the confused aftermath of the race.

"I'm not surprised he didn't get a penalty, he never gets a penalty," Power said in the heat of the moment. "It was such a dirty move ... I'm really disappointed in Dario, I always race him clean, he always races dirty. The guy that mouths off and whinges about everyone, he's the one who's dirty."

Unser was unmoved by Power's fury and accusations of IndyCar favouritism toward Dario, who many deemed should have been penalised at last month's Milwaukee race after hitting pit lane equipment (a front tyre laid out in Power's pit box).

"Between Franchitti and Power, there was never a penalised issue to either driver," Unser pointed out. "Franchitti was underneath Will, and there was no penalty assessed to him based on what we saw."

Drivers always say that the one thing they want from officials is consistency, and in this case if Franchitti had been penalised for this move then why not Briscoe for the first turn 3 incident that put Kanaan out, or the accident that saw Castroneves hit Tagliani? Having taken no action on those or any of the other collisions so far, it would have been harsh and deeply inconsistent to suddenly serve one to Franchitti for an even more marginal call. But the incident did certainly leave a bad taste in everyone's mouths, and tempers were suddenly boiling over up and down pit lane.

For his part, Dario was apologetic the minute he stepped out of the car at the end of the race. "Obviously, there was contact with Will. If he's p*ssed off, he's quite right to be p*ssed off," he said in typically robust language, accepting that when it came to assigning blame "I'll take more than 50%" but that Power was not exactly blame-free in the accident either, having opened the door initially.

"I braked as late as I could, and he went a little bit deeper but as a result of that he went wide," he explained. "Will started to crowd me, and unfortunately the wall came out, I couldn't get further to the right because there was a wall there ... I tried to get out of it but I couldn't.

"I have to say if I was him I'd have been steamed too, but hopefully when he watches the replay he'll see it was a racing incident." Adding that he ""didn't want to win that way", Franchitti said that "I see it as a racing incident" and pointed out that "IF you're not going to make any moves at all, you're going to sit in whatever position you started in. But, yeah, crazy day here in Toronto!"

Worse was to come for Power. Racing resumed on lap 61 but less than five laps later it was back under full course caution again - and Power was once more at the centre of things. He was passing Alex Tagliani through turn 5 when he clipped the front of the #77, which threw Power's car up into the air at an angle before sending it into the wall and tyre barrier on the outside. This time Power's #12 Verizon car was too badly damaged to continue in.

"Pretty typical of him, Tagliani's just a w*nker, he's always been a w*nker," said a disgruntled Power once he'd stopped venting at Dario. "We were just trying to get the best result possible before Tag hit me from behind. It's very tough to have two DNFs in a row. All I can say is we'll keep working hard and hopefully come back strong at Edmonton."

"The contact with Will was also a shame," said Tagliani in response. "I tried to pass him a couple of times in turn three. He was blocking a bit, and then I made a move on the inside [and] it got tight."

Of the final 20 laps, 12 of them were run under cautions - which was just as well for some of the drivers like Rahal and Hunter-Reay who had come in for their final pit stops. In fact tempers were now running so high - with much of it directed at Dario and his team - that some were accusing Chip Ganassi of conspiracy by getting his three drivers at the front (Franchitti, Dixon and Rahal) to deliberate failing to line up out of the final corner in order to extend the yellow.

"Yeah, it doesn't make sense," said Michael Andretti of the aborted restarts that prolonged the cautions. "They're obviously doing it on purpose so that [Rahal] gets it on fuel. One time is okay, twice you [should be] in the back ... It's unfair."

Chip Ganassi denied any such dark arts and said that he'd had to walk over to Rahal's pit crew and explain to them that the #38's line was forcing Franchitti onto the dangerous bumps and marbles off the racing line and that they needed to make more allowance to play fair.

"I don't think Graham was doing anything crazy," insisted Dario. "There as nothing bad going on there, but he couldn't run the outside of [turn] 10 in the marbles, so he was taking my lane, and I couldn't get on the outside of 11, so I couldn't get alongside him. I tried it once and almost smacked the fence down. We were doing our best, the restarts were tough just because of the marbles on them."

Next time around was more successful and the race duly went green at last. And then it went yellow seconds later: Danica Patrick tapped the back of James Jakes into turn 3 and spun him; she reacted quickly and manoeuvred around him but in doing so managed to clip the back wheel of Alex Tagliani who was passing the scene of the accident on the outside line. The wheel-on-wheel contact shot Tagliani's right hand side up into the air, and the car even went over the 90 degree vertical and would have overturned if had not then made contact with the wall and safety fence which propped it up and bounced it back right-side-up onto the track again. Tagliani was out but Jakes was sent on his way and Danica made it back to pit lane as well where she needed a spare front wing from Marco Andretti's stock of spare parts in order to rejoin the race.

"I felt a big knock on the right rear, and we were up in the air. It's disappointing," he said. "First, I got knocked out with Helio and then at the end by Danica."

"It piles up so bad at the hairpin there, and everybody is just running the inside," said Patrick of the initial contact with Jakes that set off the accident. "Unfortunately, the line is so much further to the inside with the bumps nowadays that it's causing pileups."

There was one more accident still waiting to happen at the next restart on lap 76: Marco Andretti tried cutting down the inside of turn 1 only to run into the back of Oriol Servia, sending the #2 spinning into Justin Wilson who was minding his own business on the outside. Hildebrand, Hinchcliffe and Kimball also arrived at the scene in the immediate aftermath, and the mess blocked the track so completely that the field had to take to the run-off service road to bypass turn 1 when they came through behind the safety car.

In what green flag racing there was, it was a simple matter for Franchitti and Dixon to get past the slower cars that were having to think fuel-first, and Rahal was spun out by late contact in turn 3 during the final restart with Hunter-Reay which put an end to Chip Ganassi's hopes of a team 1-2-3. For a few laps the remaining Ganassi duo made a race of it, Dixon looking particularly feisty and willing to go aggressive on his team mate in the final six lap green flag stint in order to get the win, but ultimately he backed off - either accepting that it wasn't going to happen, or perhaps the pit crew had been on the radio with a quiet word that absolutely not not include the phrase "team orders".

Even so, is there just a hint that the fractious atmosphere of Toronto was seeping into the Ganassi camp? "It's frustrating because these street races are part luck, you know. Will and I were one and two, then [the caution came out] and the #10 car gets it everytime. I'll call back on the radio and say, 'Let me guess who's leading: the 10 car'," he said with a slight edge to his light-hearted tone. "Good on him, they make good strategy."

It had been his plan to make the early pit stop rather than Dario, and he seemed confused if not outright irritated at what had changed once the race got underway. "For us we knew what the window was, we discussed it in the morning, we were going to pit early. But obviously they split the strategy with Dario and he pitted early, and left me out to put some pressure on Will, which that didn't work."

Franchitti was in maximum diplomacy mode, and after making peace overtures to Power over their on-track clash he then sent out olive branches to his team mate as well. "You see how good Scott's been all weekend, Scott's was dynamite all weekend," he said, talking up the ongoing battle for the IndyCar championship between the three of them. "Will was very strong, we know that, I don't take anything for granted. That lead could go down in one week, so we'll just keep pushing."

Despite Dario's caution about the title battle, it's been a very good few weeks for him in the championship. Today's mayhem meant a second successive "did not finish" for Power after he crashed at Iowa two weeks ago, and the two races leave him 55pts adrift of Franchitti. Meanwhile, the rows and controversies sparked off by this race will doubtless reverberate down the next few weeks - including the inevitable question about how much the controversial double-file restarts contributed to the mayhem we saw.

It'll be interesting to see who is still speaking to whom going into the second Canadian race at Edmonton in two weeks time.

Full race results and times available.


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