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Castroneves unstoppable in St Pete opener

27 March 2012

Sunday's 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season opener at St Petersburg seems to have generated as many differing reactions as there were fans watching.

For some it was dull and processional, a real "snoozefest" as drivers tip-toed around the tight street course, frightened of damaging their car when there are so few spare parts around; for others it was a thrilling, unpredictable event with more overtaking in one two-hour race than some past seasons managed in a whole year - although the TV coverage did seem remarkably averse to showing any of it, especially the considerable turn 1 action.

Others leapt on the number of technical failures (seven in total) as evidence that the series had overreached itself and that cars and engines were simply not roadworthy yet; but others pounced on a different view of the same statistic - that 18 cars ran to the finish - to comment admiringly just how well the series, teams, drivers and engine manufacturers had done in completely overhauling the series' technical specifications over the past five months since the end of the 2011 under the worst of clouds at Las Vegas.

Could it have been better? Of course, and it doubtless will be as the teams and drivers get more used to their new hardware and get better at setting it up and operating it. As it was, the lack of the same sort of experience base that the series had with the old equipment meant there would be all sorts of miscues and uncertainty in how to approach this race, with no one quite knowing how they stood in relation to anyone else out on the track. It made it all very difficult for the teams to know what to do about pit stops, tyre selection and the like.

In such a situation, the odds always favoured the biggest teams in IndyCar and the oldest, wisest heads getting to grips with the situation first - and so it proved to be when Helio Castroneves emerged as the winner of Sunday's race, ending up with a 5s lead that he had gradually pulled out over an extended green flag period during the latter half of the event. Helio's such a familiar name and face in the series that it could almost be overlooked that this "predictable" result was anything but, considering that Helio hadn't been victorious since Motegi in 2010 and many had started to consider him to be past his prime and even "washed-up".

Try telling that to the man who climbed the catchfence after the race, combining his trademark "spiderman" victory celebration with the touching salute to the memory of a fallen comrade, by doing it at the spot where he could point to the street signage reading: 'Dan Wheldon Way.'

"You can never question God's mysteries, and today for me, I ended up stopping on turn 10, and honestly I did not plan it, it was just the way it happened, and there was the sign," he said afterwards. "So for me, and for all of us, the drivers and the fans, not having him here certainly we'll miss. But we've got to remember him as he lived, the way he lived, and continue to pray for his family."

As for his return to victory circle after such a long winless streak, he was understandably thrilled.

"It's been a little while, but it never gets old. Certainly it's good to be back in victory circle," he said. "I did say out loud, 'If I start in the top six, I'll win this race.' And we did it, we are here."

Setting his sights on winning the war and not getting too over-invested in the minor skirmishes, Castroneves had decided on a quiet start and intentionally kept his nose clean in the opening laps - even if it cost him the odd position or two.

"Certainly the start of the race I didn't want to do the same mistakes that we did last year, so I want to make sure we cooled down, we kept cool, we lost probably one position, but everything was fine until the play started playing in our hand," he said, going on to praise the input of his race strategy John Erickson and engineer Ron Ruzewski on how things evolved.

"John and Ron decided, 'Let's do something crazy!'" explained Castroneves "I saw my teammates pit, we decided to go in the opposite way and it paid off."

On a day when there were so many uncertainties that one 'madcap' strategy seemed as sensible as the next, it was Helio and his support group who had hit upon the winning one. Scott Dixon, who had started alongside Castroneves on the third row of the grid for the race, ended up with the next-best strategy for the day but he was still left for dead by an unstoppable force of racing nature.

"Helio was just really fast. He was fast, but also able to save fuel," conceded Dixon, who felt that he and his Ganassi crew had had the right strategy but hadn't been able to find the balance between fuel conservation and raw pace.

"We did a really good job for what we did at saving fuel, but obviously we didn't have the speed and we seemed to burn the tyres up really quick," he said. "We definitely had a good strategy there after me missing the pit call, and then the race sort of cruised on there. We just couldn't seem to keep the tires under us, it was really quick for the first sort of five or six laps maybe after ten laps and then it sort of fell off from there."

The St Petersburg street course has not been a kind one to the Kiwi in the past and he confessed that he was simply happy to complete the race for once. "I haven't finished here in a while, so it's nice to come out here in St Pete and get some good points," he said. "But Helio was really quick and I could have pushed the envelope going into one there, but all in all I think I could have ended the day in tears later on."

Dixon finished just ahead of Andretti Autosport duo Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, who managed to finish in exactly the same positions in which they had started even as the rest of the field went back and forth around them by finding and sticking to the fuel conservation plan.

"It's good to get a podium under our belt," said Hunter-Reay, while lamenting being too far off the back of the leaders to make it a better show for fans at the end. "It was a fuel strategy race and the Chevy engine was getting great fuel mileage, but we had to really take our time to finish to the end," he explained. "We took a gamble on making it two stops instead of three and that's just part of the game."

"I feel really good!" said his new team mate James Hinchcliffe, who steps into the GoDaddy.com car in 2012 in place of the now-departed Danica Patrick. He didn't race here last year because his race deal at Newman/Haas was late coming together, but that didn't hold him back on Sunday.

"Obviously coming into my second year with a great team, it's a team that is used to performing," he said of his new team this season, Andretti Autosport. "So, you want to perform. We did, as a team, a good job yesterday to lock out that second row and then today with the strategy and some good cars we were able to bring it back in third and fourth."

Their success along with Castroneves' win meant that three of the top four were Chevrolet-powered cars, confirming that the bow tie brigade have the edge at this early stage of the new era of engine competition in the series. But broadening that out to the top ten it becomes a somewhat more balanced picture six Chevys to four Hondas.

Perhaps the biggest shock was that reigning champion Dario Franchitti was not among those four in the top ten: you had to look all the way down to 13th place to find the Scotsman, and it came down to running short of gas at the very end.

"It was a tough day for the Target Honda," said Franchitti. "We ran out of fuel leaving that last corner. You have those times where it's close and you get across the start-finish line, and sometimes you don't.

"We didn't have the best day in the Target Honda today overall, but we'll do some work and be back strong in Barber," he added, looking ahead to this coming weekend's race in Alabama at the Barber Motorsports Park.

Franchitti's arch rival in 2011, Penske's Will Power, was ruing the lost opportunity of a pole position start that had yielded only seventh place by the chequered flag. Power had actually had a good start and pulled out a near-three second lead over team mate and fellow front-row starter Ryan Briscoe by lap 10, but then gambled on an early opportunistic pit stop under a yellow flag on lap 11 for Katherine Legge's Lotus Dragon Racing car stalling on the front straight.

Power was joined by around half the field including Franchitti, while Briscoe, Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Hinchcliffe and Castroneves all stayed out at the front. Power immediately tried to make up some of the lost positions, but ran wide in turn 5 trying to make a move on James Jakes that instead lost him a bunch of places and left him down in 17th place.

"We just got shuffled back a bit there after the first pit stop and we just couldn't make up the ground we needed," Power explained. "It was very tough to pass. We were able to gain some track position toward the end and it's good to finish seventh."

Ironically, a few minutes later Jakes ran wide himself and into the tyre wall at turn 10 to bring out the second caution of the afternoon on lap 19, and the only retirement of the day that was put down to 'contact'.

"I'm not really sure what happened, but my brakes seemed to glaze over on me going into turn 10, and I couldn't make the turn, which left me nowhere to go, but into the tire barriers, said Jakes. "It wasn't the start to the season that the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda team was looking for," the British driver now in his second season of IndyCar competition added.

Dixon took the lead when Briscoe was among those to put under the caution for Jakes' accident, with Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Hinchcliffe also opting to stay out on track with him and make the 100 lap race into a two-stopper. It was to prove the right strategy, setting the membership of the top four for the end of the race.

In a quiet day for the newly revamped Race Control now team led by Beaux Barfield, the only other caution occurred just before the halfway point when Castroneves came up unexpectedly fast on the back of Ed Carpenter through the final corner. Carpenter was slowing for a pit stop but instead received the lightest of touches from the Penske car - almost nothing more than air pressure - that tipped the #20 into a spin right across the entrance to pit road.

"I can't say I appreciated the way Helio moved me out of the way when I was trying to get to the pits," said Carpenter, who said that he was disappointed with an eventual finish of 18th place as a result of the incident. "I'm just disappointed we lost a couple of laps due to the spin because I felt we could have finished on the lead lap. It would have shown how we ran today."

Barfield decided that no penalty was due over the incident. However, the decision to open pit lane even as Carpenter's car was being attended to by track staff right in the pit lance entrance raised eyebrows over safety. Barfield said his hand had been forced by how many cars were about to run dry, and that the officials had been able to handle the situation safely.

At the restart at the midway point of the race, Dixon led Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Andretti and Hinchcliffe - but the surprise of the day was Lotus Dragon Racing's Sebastien Bourdais briefly popping up into sixth place with a pass on KV's EJ Viso. Considering that many had feared until late in the day that Lotus wouldn't even be ready to field an engine at St Petersburg (and Bourdais' engine had indeed been missing in action right up until the day before practice started) it was a quite remarkable achievement for the Frenchman, Dragon and of course for the British engine marque. Unfortunately Bourdais' dream race subsequently ended prematurely on lap 73 when he went off with a mechanical issue.

Instead it was another Frenchman - this one with Honda power - who was doing impressively well in the second half of the race. Simon Pagenaud had qualified in sixth place but then had to start from 16th place on the grid after having to replace a faulty engine, but he demonstrated that his qualifying pace had been no fluke in his first race in IndyCar as a full-time driver for Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports.

Pagenaud was at the centre of some of the best action of the closing stages of the race, first battling over position with Ryan Briscoe - which Briscoe won with a terrific move around the outside of turn 1 and into turn 2 on lap 76 and then having to hold off Will Power to the chequered flag for sixth place (the honours going to Pagenaud on this occasion.)

But up in front, Castroneves's raw pace amid the leading pack of four was proving unstoppable. Helio finally passed Dixon for the race lead with a great move around the outside of turn 1 on lap 74. Once he had clear track in front of him there was nothing to hold him back, and the final 26 laps of the race just allowed him to build up a bigger and bigger lap over the fuel-conserving Dixon, Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe.

The one thing that kept the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport teams on edge was the possibility of a late technical failure: but rather amazingly, all four proved bullet-proof right to the end when the chequered flag came out and Casteoneves went for his catchfence climb.

Elsewhere, teething problems were inevitable given the newness of the equipment the teams were using, and were perhaps fewer than expected in the circumstances. Legge's stall on lap 11 that had brought out the first caution was put down to a gearbox issue; under the next caution for Jakes' accident, Tony Kanaan's KV Racing car also had ground to a halt with battery voltage problems seizing the car in gear.

"From lap 1, I started to get the low voltage alarm," said Kanaan. "I think it was the alternator. I could tell it was the battery because my dash went blank, and with the electronic nowadays you cannot pull out of gear, if the dash is not working. So even if the alternator or whatever they call it made the battery die.

"Obviously we're still investigating and I think having the in-car camera will help too," he pointed out. "We've never had that until now, so it's important, but those problems happen and we expect it. It's a new car, new engine, unfortunately it happened to us."

His 'brother' and newly-minted team mate Rubens Barrichello was also hit by a technical issue right at the end of the race.

"Unfortunately we had a meter reading problem so I ran out of fuel at the end," he said of his 17th-place finish in his series d├ębut in IndyCar. "I enjoyed the race and dicing with other cars, but would have liked to have been able to push more. It has been a good learning experience this weekend and I look forward to being back in the car in a few days for the next race."

HVM's Simona de Silvestro dropped out of the race early with fuel pressure problems, while Takuma Sato's first run for Rahal Letterman Lanigan was thwarted on lap 22 with gear shifting issues. "I am so disappointed that we had a mechanical failure and couldn't get the resulted we worked hard for. It was encouraging though," said Sato. "I was comfortable. I really enjoyed racing today, battling through the field to come up to the front."

AJ Foyt's Mike Conway - who had displayed impressive pace over the weekend - exited the race on the next lap with his own gearbox-related issues. "I lost third gear and then fourth so it was a struggle to stay out of people's way so I pulled in," he explained afterwards. "It's too bad because everyone on the ABC Supply team did a good job this weekend. We just have to keep learning about this car and keep pushing. We'll get there."

Panther's JR Hildebrand was the last retirement of the day, pulling off on lap 96 on the inside of turn 1, agonisingly close to finishing in a strong eighth place. "In that last stint we passed Dario, Marco and were going to be able to easily get by Will and Simon for a potential top five, he said, admitting that it was frustrating that "we don't have anything on a piece of paper to show how well we performed today."

But at the end of the day, seeing 26 cars take the green flag on time at St Petersburg and make it through the notorious turn 1 without a single incident was little short of a minor miracle, one that shouldn't be too blithely overlooked or taken for granted. That Lotus-powered cars were among them - and made a great showing, with Bourdais up to sixth at one point - is nearly off the "we didn't see them pulling that one off" register.

As a racing spectacle it will get better, for sure. But as starts of new eras go, that wasn't half bad.

Full times and results:
Race results
Sunday warm-up
Starting grid
Qualifying times
Saturday practice
Friday practice 2
Friday practice 1

See also:
Power leads Chevy whitewash in qualifying
New DW12 off to fast start at St Petersburg


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