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Hunter-Reay wins amid controversy

15 August 2011

For a long ten minutes after the end of the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport weren't sure that they had won. In fact they weren't even sure whether the race was over, or who had finished where. It summed up an exciting, eventful - but not necessarily an ultimately shining entry in the annals of IndyCar history.

The race had already been brought forward by half an hour in attempt to beat the weather, which showed rain closing in from the south-west of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway at Loudon. And it was clear that race control was doing everything they could to hustle the race into action at every opportunity, with no time lost before the green flag came out to send Dario Franchitti and Oriol Servia away at the front of the field.

It was just seconds before the first inevitable incident: with tyres still too cold for daring antics, someone was bound to lose it off turn 2 and the short straw went to Mike Conway, who spun and sheared across the track in a cloud of smoke. The rest of the field did what they could to avoid him, which was no mean feat as they couldn't actually see what was going on.

He almost made it - he was off into the grass in-field area before he found Graham Rahal, who had pulled right off in a desperate attempt to avoid the trouble. Unfortunately there was no avoiding it now and Conway's car made heavy impact with the side of the #38: Rahal had paid the price for his poor qualifying leaving him so far down the field and getting collected in someone else's accident just as he had feared.

Again, race control hustled the clean up and got the race back underway as fast as possible on lap 7; only to have an action replay of the earlier incident, with Helio Castroneves this time playing the part of Conway and losing the back end of the #3 off turn 2 and spinning off to make heavy contact with the inside barrier. This time the rest of the field successfully avoided him, and it was just Helio who was removed to the pits for lengthy repair work before rejoining the race 12 laps down.

Third time was the charm when it came to restarts, and on lap 12 everyone was just that bit more careful on the cold tyres and made it around without further incident. Dario Franchitti finally had the chance to put his foot down and leap away from danger, and he went to warp speed and was soon virtually out of sight down the straightaway.

One driver who wouldn't have minded another rapid caution was Tomas Scheckter, standing in for the injured Justin Wilson in the #22 Dreyer and Reinbold car. Having qualified in 18th, he had made the outside line work at the start and leapt up to ninth, and then did it again to climb to sixth at the restart. A few minutes into the green flag running and he was up to third, but that proved to be his high-water mark: as the other cars finally got their tyres up to temperature, Scheckter's greater downforce settings changed from being a help to a hinderance and he began a long, slow fall back down the running order to eleventh.

That left Franchitti up to 10s ahead of Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe, the #10 starting to lap cars as early as lap 25 and eventually even putting a lap on Will Power on lap 56. But just when it appeared that everyone could pack up and go home, Franchitti was on the radio to complain about the back-end handling going away, and when he came up on the back of twice-lapped James Jakes he found it impossible to pass and ended up bottled up behind the #18 while the cars behind him started to cut through the huge lead he had opened up.

Franchitti would have been relieved to see the first round of pit stops to help him address some of those problems; he briefly surrendered the lead on lap 73 to Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe during the pit cycle, but was then once again back on front and back in charge.

Before all the pit stops could be completed, however, the weather made its presence felt by ramping up the drizzle that had been in the air for the previous 20 minutes. Race control threw a caution on lap 75, and the next 32 laps would be a frustrating slow run behind the safety car waiting for the drizzle to ease off and the weather to improve. Finally the conditions improved sufficiently for the race to go back to green, with Will Power - already at the back of the lead lap - diving in to pit lane for an opportunistic fuel top-up just before the restart on lap 108.

With Dario Franchitti now joined at the front of the double-file restart by Takuma Sato, the field made it through the first lap without incident. But next time around Tony Kanaan and Tomas Scheckter were battling side-by-side as they came up on the struggling, slow car of Marco Andretti: Kanaan went low to pass him while Scheckter went high, but there wasn't enough space to make the three-wide moment work: Andretti clipped the rear left of Scheckter, spinning the #22 around across his front wing and sending him down the track to collect Kanaan.

All three cars were out: Andretti's front right suspension was wrecked, while Scheckter had been sent through the grass infield to hit the tyre wall. Kanaan followed him, but he got a nasty bounce-off from the tyres that leveraged the car onto its side and then flipped him upside-down, leaving the safety crews a tense few minutes while they righted the car and extricated the Brazilian - who was fortunately none the worse for his wild ride.

Scheckter and Kanaan were quick to blame Andretti, but Marco felt that was unfair and that he'd done his best to stay out of the way and let them through. "The car had a bent right rear from the Conway incident, trying to miss Conway earlier," he explained. "I was just trying to bring it home. I was basically a bystander in the middle of the racetrack, I didn't move my line and I think Scheckter came across my front and took me and Tony out. I had nowhere to go. I would have let them by but I had no idea."

Again, race control was keenly aware of the weather fronts in the area and hustled to get the incident cleaned up and everyone back to racing. But as they headed down to take the green flag on lap 119, suddenly the rear left of Franchitti's #10 and the front right of Sato's #5 made contact: it was just the lightest of touches but it was enough to send Franchitti spinning around. While no one hit him, the contact he made against the inside wall right on the start/finish line was enough to put the car out on the spot. Further back, Sato's team mate EJ Viso bumped with JR Hildebrand, and the Conquest car was out as well.

Franchitti was nearly speechless with fury and frustration when interviewed afterwards, visibly trying not to launch into an angry tirade against Sato. "I didn't put a wheel wrong in the race, and I don't believe I did at the restart," he said, describing his exit from the race after dominating it up till that point as "devastating." Before the accident he had been looking to come out of New Hampshire with a near-hundred point lead in the championship; now, he was likely to see his advantage slashed with both his main rivals Scott Dixon and Will Power still in the running.

Whose fault had the clash been? Sato apologised unreservedly afterwards: "No excuses, my fault," he said. "I was too close to Dario ... I should have given him more space." Dario did indeed complain of feeling crowded by Sato, and the replays seemed to suggest that he had moved down the track slightly to try and force the KV Racing Technology car to go wider and give him some space on the run down to the green flag when the contact happened. Dario saw it differently when viewing the replay and asserted that it was Sato who had moved up the track into him instead: "He started coming up into me before the restart. I really don't know what he was thinking."

But assigning blame wasn't going to help Dario in the championship battle. And Power had most definitely got the message: having struggled early in the race, he saw the opportunity to make huge inroads in the championship with Dario out, and at the next restart he was immediately pushing hard and doing everything he could, hoping to get up to the front before the weather closed in again and mindful of his extra quantity of fuel that would allow him to stay out longer than almost anyone else and put him near the front if and when it did rain. The only driver in a similar position was Takuma Sato, who had needed to pit for repairs after his clash with Franchitti and had used the opportunity to take on fuel at the same time, but the rest of the field had prioritised track position over yellow flag pit stops and opted to stay out.

The race resumed on lap 125 with Ryan Hunter-Reay having emerged as the leader ahead of Oriol Servia, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Briscoe and Danica Patrick, and this time at last there was a decent green flag stint in store for the spectactors.

There was also a rather spectacular scare for Alex Tagliani in the #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car, which caught fire on lap 137. Tagliani didn't initially know that there even was a fire and reported problems with his brakes instead, which explained why the pit crew were caught out when the car arrived in pit lane. They belatedly realised it was aflame, and had to scramble to get extinguishers and to encourage Tagliani out of the cockpit with all possible speed.

"We had a problem with the exhaust and that burned the bodywork on the engine of the car," said Tagliani. "It's a shame ... We seemed to have a good car early on and made up some positions. Then we lost the balance and the car went really loose and we lost positions.

The two main problems now facing the surviving cars were the need for one final round of pit stops, together with the ever-present threat of rain. The two problems were also connected: pit too early, and if the rain came down and forced the curtailment of the race then the cars that had stayed out the longest could luck into the win.

Hunter-Reay stayed out as long as he could, but on lap 165 it was time for him to pit. That put Dixon briefly back in the lead but two laps later he was in too. That rewarded Will Power with the lead for the first time all afternoon, and the Penske team was performing every rain dance under the sun in pit road to try and get the race called during the next dozen laps.

Instead, the drizzle remained stubbornly light and there was no sign of a caution or an early chequered, so on lap 179 Power hit pit road as well - leaving the lead to Takuma Sato. Now it was KVRT's turn to appeal to the rain gods, but they had no better luck - and on lap 192 he too had to take to pit road, and the danger for Ryan Hunter-Reay was over as he resumed the top spot with a huge sigh of relief.

As luck would have it, the drizzle started to pick up almost immediately the pit stops were over and done with, and on lap 206 it was enough to force race control to throw the sixth caution of the afternoon. With conditions looking set, it seemed as though the fans would be denied a thrilling finish and the cars would circulate for the remaining 19 laps behind the safety car until a meek parade past the chequered flag.

Then word came down that there would be a restart with ten laps to go: race control, it seemed, was determined to put on a show for the trackside fans and for the TV viewers that they hoped they had inherited after the earlier rain postponement of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen.

Teams and drivers were incredulous at the decision to go yellow, when in their view the conditions were no better - possibly even worse - than when the original caution had come out. The teams all protested, and the drivers were on team radios livid at being told to prepare to go green, but race control made the call and the green flag came out.

It took barely a second before Danica Patrick spun coming onto the straightaway, unleashing a knock-on accident that caught up Will Power, Takuma Sato, Ed Carpenter and most of the field in some way or other. The track immediately went yellow again; a few minutes later the red flag came out, recalling all the cars that were still-running into pit road to stand-by for a decision on a restart once the clear-up was complete.

Will Power would not be one of the cars lining up for any restart - after spinning to avoid Patrick and Ryan Briscoe he had ended up getting collected by Carpenter and the damage to the #12 was too bad to repair in time. It seemed that his chances of cutting the championship lead to Franchitti had just been shattered.

Safe to say, Power went ballistic, charging around looking like he dearly wanted to find someone from race control to punch in the face, finally settling for directing a couple of obscene gestures in the general direction of the IndyCar officials' observation post - unfortunately, also caught and broadcast on live network TV.

Given that race control had presumably been trying to provide a thrilling end to the race for fans, they had now ended up with the worst case scenario - a chaotic, confusing situation with no one knowing what was going on. Would the race resume? If not, would the race result be taken from the point of the red flag, or from before that disastrous attempt to go green? In terms of final positions and championship points, it made a huge difference to Power, and also to Servia who had jumped Hunter-Reay at the restart for the lead.

Finally, the chequered flag flew - the race was called, and race control determined that the final restart had 'aborted' and therefore the results stood from the preceding lap, meaning that Power kept his fifth place after all. It was some comfort at last for the furious Aussie, but heartbreak instead for Servia.

But there was genuine delight further down pit road for Andretti Autosport, who could finally celebrate a win for Ryan Hunter-Reay - his first of the season (the last being Long Beach in April 2010), the fifth of his career in the series and a world away from the heart-break of failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in May and the ignominy of having to buy a seat for Hunter-Reay from AJ Foyt's team. It leaves Danica Patrick as the only one of the four-driver team not to have claimed a race win this season.

It was not perhaps the ideal way to win a race, but Hunter-Reay was happy to take it anyway it came: "I wish that it was different, but we'll take it after the year that we've had," he said. "It was a strange day. But sometimes racing is strange."

Full race results available.


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