For race fans who found Toronto too much of a demolition derby, Sonoma too much of a snooze and street courses in general lacking overtaking moves, the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix on the 2-mile, 12-turn temporary street course around Camden Yards might have just hit the Goldilocks spot.
Fans had been fearing a crashfest to put that of Toronto in the shade, but impressively the entire field made it through the first corner without incident, the first race of the multi-event weekend to achieve that feat.
Instead, attention was locked on an immediate battle for the lead as Graham Rahal headed into the corner convinced that polesitter Will Power had chosen wrong when he had selected to start on the inside line. Rahal was sure he could sweep around the outside and stay off the tyre barrier, and he did just that - while behind him, Dario Franchitti followed his line to nip in front of Ryan Briscoe for third place.
But Power had a surprise in store for Rahal, and on the long run down to the one-eighty hairpin of turn three he breezed down the inside of Rahal to reclaim the lead in a smooth textbook move for which Rahal had no answer. Behind them, Franchitti gave Briscoe no such opportunity and maintained the place he had made up at the start.
Power and Rahal broke away in front, with Franchitti and Briscoe falling off but well ahead of Sebastien Bourdais (who soon retired from the race with electrical problems affecting his gears) and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Noticeably losing ground was Mike Conway, who was holding up a train of cars behind him from early on and finally succumbed to Scott Dixon, Simona de Silvestro, James Jakes and Vitor Meira within a few corners as he clearly battled a big problem with the #27's handling as it suffered from excessive bottoming out.
Having just dispatched Conway, Dixon then dived into the pits on lap 12 as the window opened to come in and make it to the end of the race on only one more pit stop; Tony Kanaan joined him, having little to lose after starting from the back of the grid alongside Castroneves since both of them had needed to to use back-up cars following their frightening airborne warm-up accident.
Others who had the same idea (and who were also getting rid of the slower hard compound black wall tyres in the initial short stint) were Oriol Servia and Marco Andretti who were in a couple of laps later, and Danica Patrick and Martin Plowman among those in on lap 15.
The leaders waited a while longer to come in, but once Will Power and Graham Rahal pitted on lap 21 everyone had to react pretty smartly to stave off the risk of a caution period closing up the field before they had the chance follow suit. Power got a perfect stop, but Rahal's crew had problems with a sticking fuel hose which cost them vital time and left him 4s off the lead once the pit stops had cycled through.
However, not all was lost: Power wasn't looking nearly so comfortable on this set of tyres and was having to push so hard that he overshot the chicane on the start/finish straight. As he gained several seconds by this, he was ordered to slow up and restore the status quo - and that gave Rahal the opportunity to close right back up onto the rear of the #12.
By now the race had got to lap 32 and incredibly there hadn't been a significant incident or full course caution - but the first came out with a spin and stall for Tomas Scheckter in turn 3, which came at the perfect moment for Marco Andretti who was struggling with his car by this point and just metres from going a lap down.
Still with little to lose, Kanaan and Castroneves came in for a 'free' top up from 18th and 19th positions. Conway was also in, and finally the team was able to get to the root cause of his bottoming out issues - a broken front right shock. That was fixed, but Conway's car would later suffer a more serious mechanical failure and retire on lap 64
"It was obviously a very disappointing day, not with just one mechanical failure but two. It's very, very disappointing," said Conway. "We need to do our homework, and then we'll regroup for Japan."
Everyone braced themselves for the restart - but again, commendably, there were no incidents going double file into turn 1, although Graham Rahal was chastised for nearly treading on his "senior team" mate Dario Franchitti's front win on the turn-in and reminded of his Team Ganassi familial responsibilities.
But as well as turn 1 had gone, turn 3 ... didn't. Ryan Briscoe thought he had spotted a gap down the inside of Ryan Hunter-Reay into the hairpin, but the gap disappeared and Briscoe tipped Hunter-Reay into a spin - which then caused a total log jam of cars arriving into the corner and finding the road blocked.
"[Briscoe] just dumped me," said Hunter-Reay. "He bent our suspension too which should have put us out of the race. The guys did a great job to fix our suspension."
Some cars sustained collision damage in the process, with James Jakes, James Hinchcliffe and Giorgio Pantano all out of the race after a pile-up.
"I guess there was a mess with the two Ryan's up in front of us and it just caused a log jam," explained Hinchcliffe. "That corner is so tight that once you are in it there is really nowhere to go. Luckily we kept the engine running but unfortunately Jakes got in the back of us, after we got in the back of Pantano, and broke the suspension." He added: "Not the best day at the office."
In all, there were some 12 cars scattered across the track unable to find a way through, although a few - notably Tony Kanaan - sneaked their way via the tightest of inside lines to get past the blockage. However, Kanaan's joy at having made up 15 positions (23rd to eighth) with that move were dashed when race control decided that it was de facto overtaking under the yellow flags that had come out, and in the ensuing caution they forced everyone to return to the position that they had been in on the run into turn 3.
Somewhat miffed at having his windfall taken away from him, Kanaan joined the pack of midfielders and backmarkers streaming into pit lanes, at what was just about the earliest opportunity to make it all the way to the end of the race without the need for another fuel top-up if they ran a fuel conservation strategy. Kanaan had the extra benefit of having stopped only eight lap earlier, and when the team decided to go with fuel-only it meant a very quick stop that saw him exit pit road in 11th place immediately behind Oriol Servia, who was now in tenth and the highest-placed of those cars who hoped to make that tank of gas last 32 laps.
With race control still trying to reset the running order, the caution dragged on - and then Marco Andretti's car suddenly started dropping fuel down on the track. He had to come into pit lane to retire, but it meant the caution was extended still further while the quick-dry dust was laid down to mop up the spillage. Suddenly alarm bells were ringing in the cockpits of the top nine cars who still had to make one more pit stop: with all these yellow-flag laps they were running out of time to get the restart and pull out a big enough lead under green to be able to come in, pit, and rejoin the race without losing positions.
Finally the track went green again on lap 50: Rahal didn't get a a great start and didn't seem minded to take all that much extra care of Franchitti immediately behind him either. Dario was squeezed into light contact with the inside wall, but he just held it together. He was passed for position by Briscoe, but Franchitti got the place back into the hairpin while Briscoe didn't even defend, having been told that he had been handed a drive-thru penalty for causing the avoidable contact with Hunter-Reay that had brought out the previous caution.
Briscoe wasn't happy about the penalty. Admitting that he understood it had been for hitting Hunter-Reay, he pointed out on Twitter: "If Hunter-Reay didn't block and then change lanes again back to the outside we would never have touched." He was also mystified as to why he had initially been put back into his pre-caution position for the restart only to them be told to serve a drive-thru penalty.
"First I was given back 4th position, which I didn't understand, then after 30min of yellow I'm told to serve a penalty. I don't get it," he tweeted. "I really just don't get the officiating here at the moment."
Up front, Will Power was going like the proverbial bat-shot-out-of-a-canon-from-hell. He was a full 3s a lap faster than Oriol Servia, who was still the first of the cars that did not need to stop again. Power needed a 27s lead over before he could safely come in for his pit stop and come back out in front. It was a critical moment in the race, and Power nailed in with some phenomenal qualifying-speed laps over the next few minutes.
In second place, Rahal couldn't match it. Worse, he was shorter on fuel and had to come in on lap 57 long before he had anywhere near a big enough cushion over Servia and the other already-stopped cars. When he emerged from his own inevitable trip to pit lane it was down in traffic in 14th place, and just to rub salt in the wound he was promptly overtaken by Ryan Hunter-Reay and lost another position on top. He would never recover, and once all the pit stops had filtered through he ended up running to the chequered flag in tenth place.
"It just didn't go our way. Up until those final 15 laps, we were one of the cars to beat and to finish 10th is just frustrating," he said. "Power and I were miles ahead today. Really bummed we didn't get the result we thought we would get," he added on Twitter later, having earlier also made his feelings about the standard of officiating known during a trackside interview with VERSUS TV.
Rahal's experience was a cautionary tale for everyone yet to pit - no one could pull out the requisite margin over Servia and Kanaan, and one by one they returned to the track from pit lane down in the middle of traffic: Dario came out just behind Kanaan, and would find no way past, and he was lucky to find Scott Dixon immediately behind him in a very friendly frame of mind not inclined to give him further headaches.
Hunter-Reay wasn't happy that the best cars on the track were losing out. "It's just that some other guy's running around saving fuel the whole time and finishes second, which is a shame."
The one exception to this rule was the leader, Will Power. Those stunning qualifying laps in the middle of the race pulled out exactly the gap he needed and just in time for him to dive into the pits on lap 59 before he ran dry. He came out of pit lane, and Penske team held its breath - and it wasn't even close. He had blitzed Servia and retained the race lead, and wouldn't be at risk again for the rest of the afternoon until the chequered flag came out.
"That was an unbelievable result! One of my best race wins ever," said a thrilled Power. "Toughest race I've done all year - never driven so hard," he added. "I gave it absolutely everything. I'm just exhausted!"
The only man with a bigger smile on his face in victory lane was Tony Kanaan, whose third place finish after the morning airborne drama and starting from the back row of the grid was nothing short of astounding.
"I can't thank the Geico KV Racing team enough. We made a mistake this morning, but fixed it and gave me all the support," he said. "A great comeback. There's always going to be drama, and then the happiness at the end."
And second-place man Oriol Servia was also delighted with his finish after starting from 16th place, which has demonstrated how much of a renaissance his team enjoying in 2011 after some fallow times since the glory days. "There's a reason why Newman/Haas Racing has over 100 victories, they just had a tough season last year. Here we are again. We're fourth in points and fighting for the podium every race, and there's more to come!"
Early on, Danica Patrick had been looking set to have a generally dispiriting afternoon of it, overtaken by Takuma Sato before her early pit stops, and then losing out in a battle with Tony Kanaan when she came back out. But the mid-race pit stop call helped her no end, and she grew stronger as the race wore on until she entered the final laps in a strong eighth place.
She then managed to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay for position on the penultimate lap - Hunter-Reay's efforts to re-pass her down into the hairpin on the last lap were frustrated by local waved yellows for Takuma Sato getting into the tyres. He then promptly stalled when he had tried to reverse back out. Hunter-Reay had to pull out of the overtaking move on the #7 and never got another chance before the chequered flag. Danica also made up another spot after
the race finished, as it was determined that the driver in sixth place - Alex Tagliani - had overshot the chicane and was penalised the time he had made up by being dropped behind the #7 car, gifting Danica a very creditable sixth place having started from 25th.
"What a great way to finish a challenging weekend!" said Danica. "We took a chance on the fuel strategy and it worked in our favour. We ran out of fuel coming into the pits after the chequered which is fine by me," she continued, adding that they would use this as as momentum going into the road course in Japan.
All in all it had been an excellent inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix. For sure, there were a few rough edges to the track layout and preparation that need to be refined for future events, but for a first time out of the box this was as successful as anyone could have hoped for - and stunningly supported by an estimated 75,000 standing room only crowd, the sort of numbers that usually only NASCAR can dream of.
"Today's race had something for everyone and featured all the elements that make up a marquee event," said IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. "I'd like to thank the entire city of Baltimore for their patience as we staged our event on the downtown streets and for the hospitality they showed to our fans and the entire racing community."
"I have to say, we had a great crowd here in Baltimore, very challenging track," said Franchitti. "Put a few more places to pass in it, people [will] really get their money's worth, so hopefully we can come back next year and put on a great show for the crowd."
And it's set up a fascinatingly close battle in the IndyCar championship battle going into the final three races of 2011, with just five points now separating Franchitti and Power. Nominally the road course race at Motegi will favour Power and the oval races at Kentucky and Las Vegas might be more on Franchitti's side, but at this stage of the season a single freak result could easily decide the title at any time.
"[Baltimore's] exactly what we needed," said Power. "We're closing in ... That was a championship run."
As for Dario, he was trying to remain calm after seeing a near-hundred point lead evaporated in recent weeks: "What's the point in getting concerned? It doesn't make you any quicker."
Full race results and times