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Power keeps to the plan for a hat-trick

29 April 2012

Last year, Will Power surprisingly lost his cool on a number of occasions. It's certainly very hard to imagine that happening at all in 2012, with the Aussie never looking cooler, more focused and under control than he does right now. That's shown through in the results he's getting - three wins now in the first four races of the year - and also in the way that he's going about it.

On the streets of Sao Paulo, he more or less followed the same game plan as Long Beach: go for the two-stopper, hit the fuel number, don't get distracted. This time round - unlike the grid penalty blizzard of Long Beach - he had the added advantage of starting from pole position, which meant that all he had to do was ease out to the safety of the open track to stay out of the inevitable incidents that always affect the IZOD IndyCar Series events in Brazil. If he could do that - and if the forecast rain stayed away - then it would be plain sailing.

And he did. Exactly that. He genuinely couldn't have played the opening laps any better than he did, leading the field to a cautious start to proceedings as drivers kept well away form the still-damp portions of the track off the racing line, and then methodically building up a 3s lead over Dario Franchitti, who in turn pulled out some 10s ahead of his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon in third.

The surprise of the opening laps was the slow pace of James Hinchcliffe, who was immediately struggling with severe understeer and lost places early on to Graham Rahal, Josef Newgarden and Mike Conway.

With the weather still in doubt, Roger Penske appeared to have split the various possible strategies among his three cars, with Will Power handed the challenge of making a two-stop race plan work out - right on the limit of fuel conservation, even with the seeming advantage the Chevrolet currently enjoys over Honda in terms of fuel mileage. Helio Castroneves was handed the plan at the other extreme, which saw him come in on lap 10, the earliest possible three-stop window.

Most of the other cars stretched their fuel until around lap 19. A fast Justin Wilson had been making his way up through the positions following being sent to the back for a technical infringement during qualifying and had made up 11 spots before he came in for fuel, but then appeared to stall when trying to leave his pit box. It proved to be a portent of more serious gear selection problems, which saw him crawl back into the pits a few laps later for repairs that put him well off the lead lap.

Dixon came in for his first fuel stop on lap 20, Franchitti and Rahal pitted on lap 21, but Power was able to take his first run all the way up to lap 23. There had been no cautions by this point, and although the occasional report of sprinkles of rain were reported from pit lane they never amounted to anything and there was no need for anyone to dive in for wet tyres.

There had been some minor racing incidents during the opening stint, including Charlie Kimball getting his front wing trodden on as he, EJ Viso and JR Hildebrand tried going through turn 1 three wide early on with Viso followed through the middle by Simon Pagenaud, but the first significant bit of race damage to be seen was on lap 22 when Katherine Legge lost the back end of her Lotus Dragon Racing car through turn 10 and whacked her left rear wheel hard on the wall, leaving her limping back to pit lane.

Whatever plan had been handed to the third Penske car became academic the following lap while Power was on pit road, when Ryan Briscoe locked up over the bumps into turn 10 while sweeping out wide to fend off an attacking Graham Rahal hoping to make a move through the corner. The #2 couldn't cope with being unsettled to that degree, lost traction and crunched into the wall on the turn exit, bringing out the first full course caution of the afternoon.

At the restart, Power and Franchitti were still side-by-side at the front while behind them Scott Dixon had lost third place to Ryan Hunter-Reay. Power got away cleanly and Hunter-Reay slotted into second, but Franchitti seemed to have a recurrence of the issue that wrecked his race at Long Beach - the engine possibly overboosting to the point where the power briefly dips before suddenly snapping back in. That caught out the cars behind him, and while Dixon was able to dodge his team mate, the same could not be said of AJ Foyt Racing's Mike Conway who ended up making contact with the rear of the Ganassi, tipping the #10 into a spin on the entry of the turn 1 chicane.

Franchitti had a violent bounce over the aggressive kerbing and the car stalled, bringing out an immediate second caution. The track workers managed to get the car restarted before Franchitti went off the lead lap, but he was firmly at the back of the field - as was Conway, who needed a new front wing. Race director Beaux Barfield investigated the incident to see whether Conway was guilty of causing an avoidable contact, but was seemingly satisfied by the telemetry that he had done nothing wrong and that it was Franchitti's car that had inadvertently caused the accident by slowing.

With several cars being forced into the runoff area by the original incident, the running order had been given a serious shakeup - Rahal fell to 13th, Simon Pagenaud to 15th and Newgarden to 17th in the process. Power and Hunter-Reay were still safely in front, but were now followed by Dixon, Castroneves, Rubens Barrichello and Tony Kanaan. When the restart came on lap 29, Kanaan put in a great move to get ahead of his two compatriots and claim fifth place behind Dixon.

Unfortunately the track was quickly back under yellow for an incident further back in turn 3, when Simona de Silvestro tapped Newgarden into a spin. That caused a road block that caught out the following traffic; Charlie Kimball escaped with just a light brush against the tyres and Sebastien Bourdais also finally inched his way through the mêlée, but James Jakes ploughed into Newgarden's left front suspension as the stricken car spun around back into the path of the oncoming cars. Amazingly the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team was able to effect repairs to the car and the rookie would be able to continue, although he would subsequently plant the ailing car into the wall at turn 5 on lap 63 to end his day early after all.

Most of the teams had now thrown out their pit stop plans and were in reactive rather than proactive mode; a number of cars opted to use the latest yellow for fuel and tyre stops, and by the time the race resumed on lap 33 the top eight consisted of Power, Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Kanaan, Barrichello, Viso, Ana Beatriz, Servia. Amazingly, after all that later chaos, Dario Franchitti had already managed to pop right back up into ninth place ahead of Helio Castroneves.

Finally the race was able to get back to green flag racing without triggering another immediate accident, although both Castroneves and Pagenaud suffered some typical midpack front wing damage as the field got back to racing speed. At the front, Ryan Hunter-Reay had the advantage of being the only car among the leaders to be sporting the red soft option tyres, but that didn't seem to cut much ice with Will Power who parried his early attacks and then inexorably started to stretch out his lead. Hunter-Reay waved goodbye to the Penske and focused on holding back Dixon instead.

Dixon dropped out of third and tumbled all the way back to 14th when he pitted for his next stop. While he was soon working his way forward again - a combination of having fuel to burn and others ahead coming into pit lane for their own stops - 33 laps was still much too far to go to the end for the Kiwi to be able to make it to the end without another stop. His only chance was to make it to the front when Power and Hunter-Reay pitted and stretch out such a lead that he could make his own stop and return to the track within striking distance of the front.

Having pitted for minor repairs after his spin, Dixon's team mate Dario Franchitti was now working a different strategy. Controlling any anger he might have felt about his earlier mishap and channelling it into a series of overtaking he moves, he soon got the better of Beatriz and Castroneves (the latter still struggling with that minor front wing damage). Once the KV Racing trio pitted, Franchitti was back in third place; and on lap 52, when Power and Hunter-Reay came in for their second and final pit stops of the day, Franchitti was even in the lead for the first and only time of the race. It only lasted a single lap - Franchitti was in for his final stop of the day next time around - but it meant he was in touch for a podium finish, which considering that earlier restart disaster would surely be quite a save.

With the former leaders now pitted for the last time, running well out of position down the running order and more concerned about fuel conservation, Scott Dixon inherited the lead on lap 56. He needed to absolutely floor it if he was to build up enough of an edge before his own final stop for fuel, and he did everything he possibly could.

He might even have gotten away for it if it wasn't for those pesky kids: the 'kids' in question being Newgarden (into the wall at turn 6) and Ed Carpenter (spun by a careless Ana Beatriz in a simultaneous separate incident in turn 5). Ana Beatriz was handed a penalty for causing Carpenter's spin; all of the other race penalties handed out on Sunday were limited to the hyperactive pit lane officials handing out numerous speeding violations, with Takuma Sato, Oriol Servia, Graham Rahal and Beatriz herself all among the culprits on that score.

These latest concurrent crashes triggered a full course caution on lap 63, which was before Dixon had made his dive for pit road. That closed the field right up and Dixon's lead evaporated; when he did finally come in for his stop under the yellow, he was bumped all the way down to 13th place and any hopes he had of finishing at the sharp end were over.

The restart on lap 67 saw Power and Hunter-Reay still firmly on control of the front row, with Franchitti in third alongside Helio Castroneves. On the row behind was Takuma Sato, who had made an astonishing afternoon of it by working his way up from the back row to fifth position, showing that his impressive form at Long Beach (before being punted off by Hunter-Reay on the penultimate lap) had been no fluke whatsoever and that the Rahal Letterman Lanigan car had real pace to it on road and street courses in 2012.

In his F1 days, Sato was known for letting such moments go to his head; and when the green flag came out it seemed as though recent history was repeating itself as he screamed down the inside of the first corner, locking up his brakes in the process and seemingly inevitably heading straight to the scene of the accident. But the funny thing was, he pulled out a perfectly clean and even - say it quietly - genuinely inspired move, darting past Franchitti who was once again seriously sluggish to get away at the restart. Sato then slid the car sideways to stop Castroneves from even thinking of stopping his progress: he had just gone from fifth to third with arguably the move of the weekend.

Unfortunately the track still went straight back to a full course yellow - although it had nothing to do with Sato. Mike Conway had been running side by side with James Hinchcliffe as they fought over sixth place, and he ran out of room even as he was tapped from behind by an impatient Marco Andretti seeking his own way past. Conway's car came to an emergency stop in the tyres, and after that everyone behind him was left with no where to go. The result was an eight car blockade across the track and other cars having to make a detour through the chicane overrun area.

Caught up in this mess - apart from Conway, Hinchcliffe and Andretti - were Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Ana Beatriz ... and the eternally luckless Scott Dixon. The cars were soon pulled apart and sent on their way, although the local track workers seemed to take against Marco and left him sitting in the middle of the track gesticulating wildly long after the other cars had been dispatched.

This all took some time to clear up, and when racing resumed there were only five laps remaining to the chequered flag. Sato was especially well-behaved and didn't seem to even consider making a play for Power and Hunter-Reay ahead of him, while behind him no one had any appetite for further full course cautions and were similarly polite.

A few minutes later, the race was in the books: Will Power took the chequered flag as it always seemed as though he would, with Hunter-Reay in second and a delighted Sato claiming his best-ever IndyCar result in third. And even as the trio celebrated on the front straight, you could see in their eyes that they were thinking what a great way this was to set themselves up for the next stop on the IndyCar calendar - Indianapolis.

Full race results available.


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