It's fair to say that IndyCar as a whole has had a bit of a torrid time of late: from the accident-packed Toronto outing to the controversy that raged after the end of the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, you couldn't blame IndyCar if they figured that it would be good to have a breather and take a nice quiet break away from anything exciting.
Which is, as it happens, exactly what they got with the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at the 11-turn, 2.303-mile Infineon Raceway in Sears Point, California: a race that was almost completely devoid of either incident or anything contentious. They sadly slipped up toward the end with a couple of accidents and penalties that will have people irritated if not outright furious, but for the better part of 75 laps they almost succeeded in putting together the ultimate incident-free race of the year.
It was clear from the outset that having secured a dominant 1-2-3 lockout in qualifying, the Penske team priority was to preserve it at every step of the afternoon right through to the chequered flag. Moreover, it also seemed apparent that the orders to Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were to act as wing men, bodyguards and all-round mother hens for pole sitter Will Power. Getting him to victory lane was the priority, but just as important was making sure as many cars as possible got between Power and Franchitti as possible to ensure that Will made up the maximum amount of ground on Dario in the championship as possible.
"I was trying to keep Dario behind me. I knew we had a good shot today at a 1-2-3 finish for Team Penske, and that was our first goal today," admitted Briscoe upfront. "It has been two years now since the three of us have been teammates and we have been working so hard for this Team Penske sweep."
Power immediately jumped away from the field as the race went green, while Briscoe seemed to be tasked with safeguarding Penske's rear quarters and holding up Franchitti and Scott Dixon as much as possible. And so it went, for almost 70 laps, through lap-after-lap and multiple pit stop sequences, with the running order at the top barely varying and no one threatening to do anything off-plan.
At least Tony Kanaan tried doing something different by going for an early pit stop on lap 6 to put himself off-sync, but it never came to anything and ultimately he would exit the race on lap 38 after a throttle cable failed, nearly resulting in a nasty accident but instead allowing him to just make pit lane before the car died. Kanaan subsequently amused himself by hanging out with the VERSUS TV commentators for much of the rest of the race.
Otherwise, the main points of interest were the advance of Giorgio Pantano slowly but surely from 11th place past the likes of Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe to take up sixth place behing the Penske/Ganassi big players, which is as much as anyone could be expected to do especially on a road course notoriously resistent to allowing too much overtaking. EJ Viso also did a creditable job making up positions early on, but sadly would sink back to ninth place by the end - exactly where he started.
Viso's team mate Takuma Sato never fails to deliver at least a little entertainment during a race, and by lap 62 he was clearly struggling on worn tyres and fighting desperately to retain his position from Martin Plowman. It didn't work, and Plowman went past - Sebastian Saavedra almost succeeded in following straight through to make it a two for one, but Sato closed the door while up the road Plowman made a rookie error and ran straight off at the next corner. He was able to rejoin without losing the position he'd just taken, and race control deemed that he had gained no advantage from the overshoot and didn't demand he let Sato back through. In any case, Sato's problems deepened when Saavedra promptly pulled off his own successful move on the #5, and Sato would end up a lap down by the end of the race.
Pit stops came, pit stops went, but nothing changed the basic structure of the race which ran caution-free until lap 66. By this point only 18 cars were left on the lead lap, and the biggest problem for Power was the lapped traffic he was encountering that was proving stubbornly resistent to letting him past. It wasn't that they were holding him up so much as they were so involved with their own backmarker battles there was the real risk that they could have a collision and collect Power in the fall-out.
No surprise then that Power was actually quite relieved when the one and only caution of the race came out on lap 66: first-time IndyCar racer Ho-Pin Tung - who had done a nice job on his début and made up a few positions here and there, sometimes by creative misunderstanding of the sort of moves the IndyCar rulebook allows in the series - found himself caught out braking into turn 9 and coming up rapidly ont he back of Alex Tagliani, and in an effort to miss ploughing into the back of him Tung put a tyre onto the dirt verge and from there it was a blink of an eye to broadsiding the wall and coming to a rest just in front of the bank of tyres guarding a run-off area.
"I was following Alex for a good number of laps and he was significantly slower than I was," explained Tung afterwards. "I was trying to position myself where it would be possible to overtake him and he braked a lot earlier than the laps before in the chicane. So I locked up trying to avoid him and not hit him from behind, but unfortunately I took myself out of the race."
Power confirmed that "I was happy for that last restart because I had a lot of traffic in front of me that I was lapping and I knew that would make it tough." The downside was that his lead was wiped out and he would face a double file restart that could give his rivals a chance to jump him for the front position: but that risk was mitigated by the presence of his Penske team mates gathered around him. They had firm instructions to not fight each other and they provided a nice buffer zone for Will from any non-Penske cars.
The level of team trust between the Penske cars allowed for one of the most perfectly formed double file restarts of the entire season to date, a model of its kind. And it served Power perfectly, sending him away to his inevitable meeting with the chequered flag that was just minutes ahead. Dario Franchitti wobbled on cool tyres but also maintained his position ahead of Dixon.
It was a somewhat more feisty time further back down the field with some genuine hairy moments, with the worst of them starting when Sebastian Saavedra made a nice move on the inside of Mike Conway, but then got careless and drifted wide on the exit, perhaps in an attempt to cut off Conway and prevent a counter-attack. But he kept coming, and Conway moved out of the way and as wide as possible until he was onto the dirt verge at risk of an accident and could go no further. Saavedra carried on moving over, there was a brief fusing of tyres, and Saavedra was spun - shooting off track and straight up a steep dirt hill in a cloud of dust.
"I tried the outside in turn two and Saavedra pushed me off the track and I held my ground," said Conway. "He spun around and punctured my tire. That was the day ended. Not a good finish for us."
There was also a near-hit between Oriol Servia and the lapped Marco Andretti, who had already been in the wars with JR Hildebrand on lap 57, sticking his nose down the inside of #4 only to end up with his front wing shattering on Hildebrand's right rear tyre. Hildebrand had needed to pit immediately with a puncture to take new tyres, while Andretti had come in soon after for a new wing.
Surprisingly, Marco avoided any penalties for his activities. Instead, the wrath of control descended first on Simon Pagenaud who was caught trying to unlap himself by overtaking Will Power behind the safety car, a definite no-no. That got him a drive-thru penalty that left him finishing in 15th as he stood in at short notice for the waylaid Simona de Silvestro in the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing #22.
But worse was awaiting Giorgio Pantano: coming into the final corners of the race he found fellow road racer Sebastien Bourdais shooting down the inside, set to snatch sixth place from him at the last gasp. Pantano headed him off, and as they swept into the last turn the move almost resulted in Bourdais making contact with the concrete wall, a dangerous moment which would have made the officials wince. Not happy, they slapped a penalty on Pantano for blocking - but since the race was already finished a drive-thru wasn't possible, so instead Pantano was classified in the results as being at the back of the lead lap, resulting in a harsh drop from sixth to 17th.
"Giorgio Pantano blocked me at the end," complained Bourdais. "I was going to dive in and he just blocked me. He pushed me over the rumble strip to finish the job."
By the time all this happened, Will Power and the Penske Gang were safely home past the chequered flag, and the teams's plan had been executed flawlessly beyond their wildest expectations. "It was just an unbelievable team performance, the best weekend you could ever have," said Power in victory lane. "The entire Team Penske was very strong and did a fantastic job with the cars."
It's a key result for Will Power, and with Franchitti held back in fourth place the win puts Power 21pts closer to Franchitti in the championships, reducing the Scot's lead to just 26pts with four races still to go. "I have been unbelievably motivated after a few bad races this season," said Power about his determination to get back on top after a rough couple of months. "I knew that Verizon Team Penske was better than this as a team."
Helio Castroneves was if anything even more thrilled at being back on the podium after a season well below his normal expectations. "The Team Penske sweep shows how strong our team is and I am really happy for us. I certainly wanted to win, but Will was in a class of his own today and when you look at his lap times in practice and qualifying you knew he would be strong.
"I was really pushing it during the race and I thought with the help of traffic I may be able to gain on him. He saved enough push to passes for the end of the race to take advantage of it and he was the winner," he added. "I was really excited to try a battle to the end with Will and I, but he had the upper hand today and I am happy for him."
All that Franchitti and Dixon could do against such complete flag-to-flag dominance was to sit on pit wall and shrug, and confess that they were soundly outclassed and needed to find something extra between now and next weekend. "Congratulations to Penske," said Franchitti, conceding that their rivals were in a different league today. "They've done a better job than we have and they deserve it. I spent all day staring at Ryan's back wing and I couldn't make anything happen even when he was getting held up in traffic."
"We finished the race," he said, trying hard to be philosophical. "You're going to have days like this. We didn't make any mistakes though and we got a fourth place so we're going to improve things for Baltimore. We'll be working hard on that this week."
Dixon agreed that it had all been a bit frustrating. "It was a tough day. Physically it was tough. It was tough to keep the car on the track. We didn't have the best balance with everything going on and we tried to get rid of the bump and steer through the middle."
At times this season, save for Will Power's stand-out performances, Penske have looked a rather pale imitation of themselves - especially in their deeply mediocre Indianapolis 500 campaign - so Infineon represents a sudden, dramatic and unequivocal return to their old, familiar, dominant selves as proved by it being the first 1-2-3 the team have pulled off since Nazareth in 1994 (in fact it's the first time any
team has swept the top three since Andretti Autosport managed it at St. Petersburg in 2005.) By way of happy coincidence, it also comes on the same weekend that Penske put Brad Keselowski into victory lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, showing a general organisation-wide renaissance at work.
Roger Penske was a tired but happy man as he left Infineon Raceway on Sunday evening. But already, the success was behind him: all that matters now is that they can do it all again, just as flawlessly, in a week's time at the maiden running of the Baltimore street race event.
Full race results and positions