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Power drives home the points in Long Beach

16 April 2012

For a moment in the run-up to the start of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it looked as though the motor sports gods were moving Heaven and earth to hand Dario Franchitti a much-needed victory to help the reigning champion reboot a moribund 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

To start with there was the mass grid penalty applied to all the Chevrolet runners for a precautionary unscheduled engine change. Then there was qualifying itself, where not only did Franchitti have a rare good run to inherit pole position on the grid, but even better his most potent threat - his own team mate, Scott Dixon - suffered a fuel line fire to put him two rows down from him. That left Franchitti starting the race alongside series rookie Josef Newgarden - and if Franchitti wasn't able to maintain the lead over such inexperienced competition then really, what hope was there?

Any sense of optimism Franchitti had heading to the green flag evaporated just a few hundred yards later. Newgarden might be new at this, but that didn't mean he was going to rollover. He ran alongside Franchitti down the start/finish straight and then appeared to concede the position and dropped back; but then either through indecision or game strategy, he suddenly pulled out again and attempted to sweep around the outside of turn 1. Franchitti was caught by surprise as he took a wide line through the corner, and the two made contact: Newgarden came off by far the worst and was sent into a thumping encounter with the tyre wall that put him out on the spot.

"I felt like I got alongside him, I gave him the inside lane and I just got touched there on the exit and went right into the wall," explained Newgarden back on pit road. "Maybe it wasn't the right move. The plan was if he was braking alongside of me I would have just given him the lane and tucked right in, but I thought I had a good run on him and a good jump on him, so you know it's one of the those tough breaks."

At the restart, Newgarden's role was this time taken up by the far more experienced Justin Wilson in the Dale Coyne Racing #18, who positioned his car firmly alongside and slightly ahead of the Ganassi #10 into turn 1. He made himself as conspicuous as possible to Dario, the message clear: try that again this time and it'll take both of us out. And probably everyone behind us, too. Franchitti knew it, and had no choice but to allow Wilson the outside line that slingshot him through and into the lead.

In any case, the writing was firmly on the wall now for the Scot: whether it was lingering damage from the Newgarden encounter, or Dario's dogged determination to stick to the agreed-upon two-stop race strategy, or simply an issue with the car that was leaving it horribly down on straight-line speed, the #10 was a Sunday driver sitting duck for anyone who wanted to get past: Simon Pagenaud in the Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports #77, Takuma Sato in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan #15 and Scott Dixon in the Ganassi #9 all drove by with ease. Even Franchitti's junior team mate Charlie Kimball breezed past with little trouble; and this was even before the Chevrolet-powered cars started their inexorable march forward from their artificially low grid positions.

Franchitti's lack of pace was shocking during a subsequent restart which saw him drop five spots down the start/finish straight; and at the next, he ended up touching the rear of Ryan Briscoe's car and damaging his front wing, which required a replacement that put him off the lead lap. To top it off, the car's mechanical issues worsened and by the end Franchitti was in 15th place, 3 laps down.

"We were on a two-stop strategy obviously and thought that would be the way the race played out," Franchitti said later when analysing just how it had all gone so badly wrong for him. "We had a mechanical issue at the end and that was it.

"We didn't have the car handling quite right, but we were still staying close to the front," he continued. "[Then] Briscoe came across and damaged the front wing. After that we lost time making a wing change and to top it all had a mechanical failure."

Wilson led from the first corner of the race through the initial green flag period until a full course caution on lap 20 that was triggered by S├ębastien Bourdais burying his Lotus Dragon into the tyres at turn 1. The recovery only took a couple of laps, but the new pit lane rules introduced by race director Beaux Barfield meant that pit road remained open and several of the leaders including Wilson, Pagenaud, Dixon, Kimball and Will Power took the opportunity to duck in before the green came out. That meant that the leader at the restart was Takuma Sato, and the #15 was looking surprisingly pacey.

They managed only one green flag lap before there were problems in the midfield: Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti were closing up on the back of Scott Dixon, running in 10th place after his pit stop. Marco saw an opportunity to take two places with one go and made a move on Rahal into turn 8, but Rahal was lining up his own move on Dixon and jinked out just a second later. That meant the Andretti Autosport's front left wheel ran into the right rear of the Ganassi, and that's never a good thing in open wheel racing.

Even so, the sight of Marco's car suddenly being flung into the air - twisted to the right and also turned on its side nearly perpendicular to the ground in the process, throwing the back end of his car through Rahal's rear wing before landing across Dixon's path and skidding into the tyre wall - would have been a disturbing and unwanted surprise to the IndyCar organisers, who had hoped that the rear wheel guards (or "bumpers" as fans have taken to critically calling them) would eliminate that fusing of rubber-on-rubber contact that leads to such scary airborne moments. It clearly failed to do any such thing at Long Beach, and you can assume that a lot of engineers are urgently reviewing the data on Monday morning and assessing just what happened and why the safeguards were so ineffective.

Naturally, the two drivers themselves had their own ideas about what had happened, and they were mutually exclusive.

"It's one thing blocking but it's another thing chopping, and that was a chop," fumed Marco Andretti. "I'm lucky I didn't get upside down, I could have been killed."

"He wasn't going to make the corner no matter what," refuted Rahal, who denied blocking. "I think it slipped underneath me - he was going to shoot long how deep we were because he was already braking."

Even with the new pit road rules designed to make full course cautions short and snappy, this one extended for seven laps. Katherine Legge had also had an off and needed recovering; last year's race winner Mike Conway also stopped out on track, with a gearbox issue; and finally - just when race control were prepping the field for the restart - Scott Dixon's #9 suddenly choked and rolled to a stop in the turn 8 runoff.

"It just died on track and we don't know why yet," said Dixon. "The safety team did everything to get us back going but it wouldn't restart."

Conway's #14 AJ Foyt Racing car was returned to pit lane and the team got to work dismantling the rear engine cowling to fix the problem. While they got him back underway (several laps down), he would eventually suffer a small fire that put him out for good toward the end of the race.

"Gearbox issue was the reason for the loss of laps," he said later via Twitter. "A fuel rail fire ended the day in smoke. On to Brazil."

At this point it looked as though the race was going to be stuffed full of cautions and accidents, and that the sheer rate of attrition would hand the win to the last man standing. But in fact, after the race restarted on lap 30 it ran caution-free for the remaining 56 laps until the chequered flag, with Barfield and race control doing everything they could to handle any subsequent incidents under local waved yellows. That turned the focus away from mere survival and toward the importance of fuel strategies.

Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves had stayed out during the cautions to inherit the race lead, and - like Franchitti - were grimly sticking to the two-stop strategy no matter what. All three finally came in on lap 34 but were now stuck with green flag pit stops while everyone else had taken 'free' (or at least heavily discounted) stops under cautions. Castroneves came back out in 14th and Briscoe right behind, and neither car was able to make much headway for the remainder of the race. The gambit had failed.

"We just were stuck in traffic all day long," signed Briscoe. "It's a real shame because I think we had the quickest car out there and we just couldn't do anything with it. We had a bad pit stop, the first one, and that put us way behind and from there we couldn't go anywhere. It was just a really frustrating day."

That left Simon Pagenaud in charge of the race, with KV Racing's Tony Kanaan popping up into second spot after the wily old racer had sneaked in an early pit stop under green on lap 11 to put himself off-strategy from the others. He did have to come in for his next pit stop on lap 41, however, and that meant Pagenaud was left leading Wilson, Sato and Power: the question now was whether any of them could get all the way home on just one more tank of fuel.

Certainly not Pagenaud, and he had no intention of even trying - not for him the soul-destroying tactic of crawling round on fuel conservation laps. Wilson followed his lead, but Power decided he was going to give it a try even though he looked a lap short of fuel to make it to the end. All three had pitted together at the start of the lap 20 caution for Bourdais' incident, but Sato was in a slightly better position having ducked into pit lane on lap 28 at the last minute under the subsequent Andretti/Rahal caution, and that gave him far more flexibility to make it to the end on just that one stop.

From there on, it became a tense stand-off of nerve and the ability to drive to the numbers. In such situations there is no one better in the cockpit than Will Power, and gradually he inched up the running order as others pealed off to pit lane. He didn't get into the lead until lap 71, but that was fine for the Aussie. There was no rush, no panic - he simply waited and let the race come to him with the inevitability of a falling apple complying with gravity.

But there was still one big threat to Power's victory: when Simon Pagenaud pitted for the third and last time, he came back out on track in fourth place behind Power, Sato and KV Racing's Rubens Barrichello - who had struggled early on but who seemed to take a quantum leap in performance every with every five laps more track knowledge he gained.

Pagenaud was clearly still in touch and had 15 laps and all the fuel he could liberally burn to get past Sato and Barrichello and then hunt down Power for the lead. He proceded to cut over a second per lap out of Power's time for the rest of the race, and that put him close to catching the #12 as the white flag came out. Power's strategic Tim Cindric and engineer Dave Faustino had to give Power the nod to do whatever he had to to stay in front, and he put his foot down to make it to the chequered flag and simply had to hope that the gas wouldn't run dry before he got there.

"They told me [Pagenaud] was coming," said Power. "I had a four-second gap and just needed to save as much [gas] as I could and then I ran hard at the end, the last lap or two, and it was enough."

"One more lap, man, I would have tried I tell you," said Pagenaud. "It was fantastic. The car was great from the beginning ... We're a one-car team operation, we don't have as much data as Penske or Ganassi, but I'm glad we're giving them a good run for their money."

While the race winner was decided in a thrilling but orderly fashion, all hell was breaking loose elsewhere on track in the final two laps. Takuma Sato's impressive run to third place ended abruptly on the penultimate lap when he was spun into the wall by a late lunge down the inside from Ryan Hunter-Reay; and on the final lap, Helio Castroneves nerfed Rubens Barrichello through the final hairpin, spinning the Brazilian out of what what had been set to be a strong eighth place finish.

The spun cars of the two Brazilians ended up collecting those of Oriol Servia and James Jakes which completely blocked the track, causing a traffic jam for anyone trying to get to the chequered flag that was already flying just a couple of corner further down the way, causing all sorts of head-scratching over just who had finished where in the final classifications. For their own parts in the incidents, Hunter-Reay and Castroneves both got served thirty-second time penalties in lieu of the drive-thru that would normally have applied if there had been time to serve it.

"I feel bad Sato ended up in the tyres, but I knew he was saving fuel and I came up on him really fast," explained Hunter-Reay. "He let off early and when I went for the gap, he came across the nose. It's a shame because my team really deserved a podium finish."

"Ryan Hunter-Reay basically took me out," responded an understandably aggrieved Sato. "There was not enough depth on his overtaking maneuver. He had a chance for the last few corners so it's very disappointing to finish the race this way."

Rubens Barrichello was clearly finding it surprising just how physical an IndyCar street fight could get, after all those years in the well-mannered halls of F1: "I would just like people to have more respect for each other on the track!" he said. "I was hit on every side of my car. Apart from that, I enjoyed myself today."

"We were just trying to finish and there were two cars in front of me and Rubens," explained Helio Castroneves. "Rubens was being, I think, a bit cautious and stopped the car and he stopped too much, to the point that I obviously touched him. My intention was never to pass him, but we ended up blocking the track."

Beaux Barfield had earlier declined to hand Franchitti a drive-thru penalty for the first corner incident with Newgarden; or to Pagenaud for hitting one of the tyres in Will Power's pit box while exiting his own on lap 20, as he did so avoiding contact with a car to the outside. But EJ Viso had been the recipient of a proper drive-thru penalty for causing avoidable contact with Alex Tagliani at the final restart, which had put the Bryan Herta Autosport car out of the race with a sliced tyre.

"As soon as it [went] green I just jumped on the inside and passed Viso inside the hairpin," Tagliani said. "Coming on to the front straightaway he just pushed me in to the wall. I guess he was upset - but he's the type of guy that gets disconnected sometimes," he added dryly.

Viso felt that Tagliani was to blame for the incident and said that it was "very unfair" that he should have been handed the penalty.

"Tagliani made a very dangerous move passing two or three cars heading into the hairpin turn which is a very awkward place to overtake," he complained after being left out of the top ten by the drive-thru. "I saw what he was doing and moved out of the way, but he was sideways coming out of the hairpin and when I attempted to pass he blocked me and I hit his tyre and he spun."

After some recalculation of what all these incidents, blockages and penalties meant, third place was handed to Hunter-Reay's Andretti Autosport team mate James Hinchcliffe, who had laboured long and hard and most of all safely and sensibly for the entire afternoon. He was just five seconds ahead of Tony Kanaan, who had succeeded in getting past Panther's JR Hildebrand in the closing laps. Hunter-Reay slotted into sixth place after his penalty ahead of Ryan Briscoe, the last man classified on the lead lap by the end after the mayhem that had caught up the others and prevented them from reaching the line.

The final word, though, has to go to the victorious Will Power, who seemed genuinely surprised to have overcome the ten-place grid penalty for the Chevy engine switch-out, saved fuel obsessively and still had enough left to claim the chequered flag over Pagenaud's spirited drive-of-the-day.

"After last week, you can never say never," he said. "We really didn't think it was possible to win from 12th place here ... It's a great day for the Verizon Team Penske Chevy."

Together with the victory in Alabama, the Long Beach triumph boosts Power into a strong lead of the IZOD IndyCar Series championship, 24pts ahead of his Penske team mate Helio Castroneves who is running neck and neck with Pagenaud and just ahead of Dixon and Hinchcliffe.

The reigning champion? Don't ask. Back in 14th place on less than half the points Power has amassed in the three races so far, 2012 is looking increasingly like it's going to be an annus horribilis for Dario Franchitti to forget as soon as possible.

And it's starting to look equally grim for Honda at this point. Having been handed an open goal by the mid-week Chevrolet engine swap-out, the Honda stable manifestly failed to perform: Pagenaud's was the only Honda in the top six, and the next highest was Sato in eighth and Wilson in tenth.

After three Penske-Chevrolet victories in three races, at the very least you can predict with a reasonable level of certainty that the 2012 champion is going to be one of those drivers in a car sporting a Chevy 'bow-tie' insignia. But realistically you can narrow that down to a field of one and say that your incoming champion will be sporting an Aussie accent, a highly improbable name, but an indisputable, incomparable driving talent.

Full race results available
Official starting grid
Qualifying report
Qualifying times and session details


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