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Indy 500: Dario wins, from back to front

27 May 2012

So, who was it who said that the Honda-powered cars had no chance of winning the Indianapolis 500 this year, that it was a battle between Penske and Andretti, and that Ganassi had no chance? Pretty much everybody, actually. Certainly after the respective performances of the teams in qualifying just a week ago.

True, the Carb Day final practice had suggested a bit of a resurgence for Ganassi with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon topping the time sheets; but it had also suggested that Takuma Sato would be a major factor in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan car as well. And really, how likely was that?

The early laps of the 96th running of the Indy 500 seemed to bear out the prevailing line of thought, with the front row of Ryan Briscoe (Team Penske), James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport) immediately going for a single file into the first corner. Briscoe took the lead, but traded it back and forth with Hinchcliffe in a demonstration of just how hard the lead car was having to work to punch a hole through the air and just how much of a beneficial tow that gave to the pursuers. It was the type of data that everyone was feeding into their memory banks for use later in the day.

There was an early caution for a spin in turn 2 by USAC national drivers' champion Bryan Clauson in the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car on lap 14, but he somehow managed to keep it off the wall and not do anything more serious than flat spot his tyres. Everyone used the three-lap caution as a early chance to come in under caution and sort out the first of doubtless many set-up tweaks of the afternoon, adjusting to the increasingly slippery track conditions as the temperatures spiralled upwards.

For most drivers it was a routine stop, but not for Dario Franchitti: as he neared his pit stall, he suddenly had EJ Viso run into the back of him and spin him around. That not only lost the team a shed load of time as they manhandled the car back into position, it also enforced a front wing change after the nose of the #50 had impacted one of the tyres laid out for the pit stop. Fortunately no more lasting damage was done, but even so it put Franchitti out dead last for the restart. The race director Beaux Barfield reviewed the incident but took no action against either driver for the collision.

Also having problems during the pit stop were Sebastian Saavedra (earning a drive-thru penalty for exceeding the pit lane speeding limit) and Josef Newgarden, whose car was developing a mechanical problem that would plague him right through to lap 161, when it finally did for him altogether and left him parked out on the backstretch infield grass. Oriol Servia's stop went just fine, but he was forced back into pit lane a few laps later for a costly flat tyre, seemingly the result of running over conspicuously beer can-shaped debris on track.

Having watched Briscoe and Hinchcliffe trading places in the opening lap, Marco Andretti was working on a demonstration of a different kind following a wild and far from single file restart on lap 18: how it was possible to break away at the front and maintain the lap for an extended period. Once he took the lead on lap 23, he would stay there untroubled for the next 22 laps through to the first round of green flag pit stops of the race, and then picked up where he left off for another 24 laps once the stops had all cycled through. It was all looking very promising indeed for young Marco at this stage of the day.

After that round of pit stops - incident-free other than a drive-thru for Alex Tagliani caught speeding - Marco was leading Scott Dixon who was looking strong in second place. They were followed by Hinchcliffe, Briscoe and Will Power, so while the appearance of a Ganassi in second place might have been a surprise, it was still looking very positive for the Andretti and Penske teams all the same.

The sixth placed man was also a bit of a surprise, at least to those who hadn't been paying attention to the Carb Day timesheets: it was Takuma Sato, having risen inexorably up from 19th place on the grid. He'd done so to the slight consternation of his car owner Bobby Rahal who was repeatedly advising his man to take his time and not push it. Obviously, Rahal doesn't know his driver all that well yet - Sato isn't known for quiet, calm patience. He's always all-out attack whenever he has the chance, and if you give him a competitive car then he's going to head to the front in as few laps as humanly possible.

And what was this, two places back from Sato? Dario Franchitti, back from the dead and already in eighth place, seemingly rising without conspicuous effort and causing his car owner Chip Ganassi none of the heart palpitations that Sato was inflicting on poor old Rahal.

By the time the next round of pit stops loomed, Franchitti had worked his way past Sato and Power and was up into third place behind Andretti and Dixon. Marco was in first among the leaders on lap 75 while the Ganassi duo had few more laps before they came in, seemingly answering for good the pre-race question of whether Honda's newly-improved power was coming at the cost of a significantly shortened fuel mileage. If anything, it seemed that the Honda runners were getting the better distance at Indianapolis, which was quite a surprise to many.

The pit stops cycled through with minimal incident except for Sebastien Bourdais being penalised for speeding on pit lane. That is, until Mike Conway came in and misjudged his approach into his pit stall, promptly bowling over multiple members of his pit crew like a line of skittles. No one was hurt other than bruises and pride, but it was a penalty-level offence.

But there was worse to come for Conway: one of the falling mechanics had landed on the AJ Foyt Racing car's front wing and damaged the struts. When Conway got back out on track and tried getting up to speed, the front wing didn't like that one bit and made its displeasure known by failing to provide the expected levels of downforce. The car wobbled, bobbled - and headed off into the wall.

Unfortunately this happened right in front of Will Power, who was trapped with no where to go but right into the scene of Conway's accident. The Penske car slid under Conway's DW12 and leveraged it up onto its side and hoisted it onto the top of the concrete wall so that Conway was shoved several metres backwards along the race wall propped up at right angles, before the car finally toppled back right-side up onto the race track. Fortunately neither the car nor the driver had made contact with the catchfence, and while there was a lot of damage to both cars there was no harm done to either driver who were both evaluated and released by the infield care centre.

In fact it was Helio Castroneves who came scarily close to being injured in the crash that had happened well away from him. As the two broken cars rebounded from the wall, one of the tyres detached from the wreck and bounced away right into Helio's path. It was frighteningly close to landing in the driver area, and instead bounced off the top of his right front wheel. Although no damage appeared to have been done by the near-miss, the car never seemed the same again and Castroneves complained bitterly of understeer for the rest of the race. He managed to stay out of trouble and hold on to the end to claim tenth place, but his hopes of adding a fourth Indy 500 win to his resumé were done for another year.

The restart was short lived before Ana Beatriz spun in turn 2 on lap 90, right in front of Ed Carpenter. Beatriz avoided putting it into the wall - although her rear wheel guard was dislodged by a glancing blow - but Carpenter managed to bounce two wheels off the wall as he managed to avoid ploughing into her.

There was a divergence of pit stop strategies at this point, with Dixon and Franchitti staying out with Hunter-Reay to assume the lead but Marco leading Sato, Hinchcliffe, Briscoe and a number of others onto pit lane. On their exit they encountered Ana Beatriz, who was now having problems getting back up to speed in the acceleration lane: Marco nearly ran right into her, and exploded on the team radio with fury. In fact, Marco's day had reached something of a turning point and he would increasingly lose his cool - both literally and figuratively - for the remainder of the race, starting with the way his shoe was melting onto the pedal because of the heat in the cockpit.

Looking at the Ganassi pair leap away at the restart, Marco and the Andretti squad as a whole were all wondering whether their decision to come in had been such a good idea after all. The team advised Hinchcliffe to abandon any plans for fuel saving and just use whatever he needed to claw back position, and Hinch responded with a succinct "Roger: hammer down."

As the race passed the halfway mark, Dixon and Franchitti led Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Sato and Justin Wilson. That made it a five-one ratio of Hondas to Chevrolet, a very different situation from the appalling showing by Honda in the qualifying session just a week before. While the end result would see the honours even in the top ten, it certainly showed that the race wasn't shaping up as well as Chevy had been hoping it would.

The race ran incident-free through another round of pit stops, during which time series rookie Rubens Barrichello led for a couple of laps. After the stops had cycled through, it was Sato who proved to have had the best of it and who was now in the lead, and the Ganassi duo seemed quite content to leave him there and just shadow him. It meant that the Japanese driver was expending precious fuel punching a hole through the air, while Dixon and Franchitti were in cruise control.

Elsewhere, a few gremlins were starting to make themselves known. Hunter-Reay was suffering from vibration, and then suddenly something broke at the back - part of the suspension had failed. He had no choice but to come into pit lane and park the car. His team mate Marco Andretti was also highly vocal about vibrations on his own car, and even Dario Franchitti was expressive concern about the shaking on the #50 car - although that would be solved by the next change of tyres.

That opportunity came with the fourth caution of the afternoon on lap 146 triggered by Sebastian Saavedra coming to a halt in turn 2 with electrical problems. At the restart on lap 153, the Ganassi boys had clearly decided that they no longer wanted Sato as their stalking horse and muscled him aside to claim the race lead for themselves, seemingly playing a cagey strategy of swapping track position between them while guarding from any counter-strikes from the rear from the likes of Sato, Hinchcliffe, Wilson or Carpenter.

If the early-race fuel strategies hadn't completely gone out of the window by this point, then the fifth caution of the day for Josef Newgarden's mechanical failure on lap 164 certainly did. While still nominally too far to make it all the way to the end on a single tank of gas, everyone pitted regardless: just a few laps under caution could tip the balance, and even if they didn't arise then the more fuel on board now meant a shorter splash-and-dash near the end.

AT the restart on lap 171, the Ganassis battled for the lead and broke away from two rows of three-wide battles for the remaining positions - so much for single-file restarts! The big winner of this battle was Ed Carpenter, who suddenly looked beautifully poised to take the fight to Dixon and Franchitti - until he pushed it down just that little bit too far on the track and spun out on the white line on lap 181 in turn 1. He kept it off the wall and escaped with nothing more than flat-spotted tyres, but the requisite pit stop that followed meant he was out of contention all the same.

The race restarted with just 16 laps remaining to run. It was a messy getaway, and the person to benefit the most was none other than Tony Kanaan who jumped from sixth place and into the lead for the first time today. For the first time in almost half a race, the Ganassi duo were looking rattled: here was someone with the quality of race car coupled with the wisdom of proven experience who could ruin the day for them. The 300,000-strong crowd sweltering under record-breaking temperatures at Indianapolis Motor Speedway erupted: there could have been no more popular win at this point than for Kanaan to go on and lead from here to the chequered flag, and they made their feelings known with a roar.

And then the race was suspended again: a seventh caution was out, after Marco Andretti got too low and suddenly had his car take off and hit the wall hard side-on at turn 1, knocking the wind out of him. After having spent the latter half of the afternoon venting his fury over the radio about one annoyance after another, how he was uncharacteristically quiet: "Just gimmie a minute," he replied to his team as they radioed to see if he was okay.

Six to go at the restart, and the crowd cheered again for Kanaan as he led the field to the green flag. But Dixon and Franchitti had regrouped from their earlier surprise and had no time for crowd favourites, quickly passing Kanaan and leaving the Brazilian to try - and fail - to hold off Takuma Sato for third place.

If Scott and Dario thought that the final laps would be a sibling battle between themselves, then Sato was about to give them a final rude awakening. Having passed Kanaan, he kept on coming: Dixon couldn't hold him back and suddenly the race was down to a two-lap shootout between Sato and Franchitti.

Franchitti was just ahead as the pair took the white flag, but the early laps had demonstrated just how much the aerodynamics of the DW12 on a speedway disadvantaged the leader and favoured the pursuer. Sato moved out of the tow, moved down, and took the tight inside line into turn 1. It was neck-and-neck, wheel-to-wheel as Franchitti moved down to pinch him as tightly as he could to defend his position. It was for the Indy 500 victory, after all - do or die.

Did Dario block? Was the pinch too severe? Did he not leave enough room? Or was Sato's move simply too aggressive and opportunistic? To one spectator, it looked like a hard but fair move by the Scot; to another, it was yet another example of Franchitti's ruthlessness and willingness to wreck other cars if it benefited him. The crowd certainly made their feelings known after the race, when there were audible boos aimed in Franchitti's direction - but also many cheers.

"That last lap, running side-by-side with Takuma, I went down to give him room but we hit and I just managed to keep it out of trouble," said Franchitti.

"On the very last lap I had a good tow from Dario, I thought I had the job done," was Sato's contrary view. "But he kept pushing and didn't give me enough room so that I was well below the white line."

Whether Franchitti did leave enough room or move up to avoid a collision or not, it was in any case already too late for Sato who lost the rear of the RLL car on the low line and spun up into the wall. Somehow it didn't collect Franchitti as well in the process, but it was by inches or less.

The crash meant an instant yellow, which kicked in before the pursuing cars could catch up with the leader and meant that Dario Franchitti would lead the field around to the chequered flag under caution to claim his third Indy 500 win - ironically all of them clinched under last lap yellow flag incidents. The hat-trick puts him alongside the likes of Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, and Helio Castroneves, while only three drivers (AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears) have won four.

But in victory lane, wearing the garland and drinking the traditional pint of milk, surrounded by his cheering team and congratulated by proud car owner Chip Ganassi, not to mention his actress wife Ashley Judd, it was a two-time Indy 500 winner who was very much in the forefront of his and everyone's thoughts as it had for so much of the day: dedicating the win to Dan Wheldon, wearing the trademark oversized white-rimmed sunglasses and taking a long and heart-felt embrace from Dan's widow Susie.

Dixon and Kanaan recovered second and third place after Sato's accident, with Oriol Servia having a quietly excellent day to recover from that early unscheduled pit stop for a flat tyre to finish in fourth place ahead of Briscoe, Hinchcliffe, Wilson and Charlie Kimball in eighth.

It had been a reassuringly solid if quiet Indy 500 début for new boy Rubens Barrichello. While he managed to lead the race for a couple of laps during pit stops - no mean feat at all for an Indianapolis rookie - he was never in any real contention for the win, but neither was he involved in any dramas, accidents or sundry mistakes on his way to an 11th place finish in his first ever oval speedway event. He was comfortably on the lead lap right to the end and looked right at home at the speedway.

His fellow F1 graduate Jean Alesi had a less successful and far shorter time of it: he and the other Lotus-powered driver, HVM Racing's Simona de Silvestro, were both blackflagged just 10 laps into the race when they were already coming close to being lapped by the leaders because of their lack of raw speed, which was some 10mph off the pace of the frontrunners and outside the 105 per cent time of the front runners.

“I've had fantastic people around me," Alesi told pit lane reporters afterwards. "We were suffering with engine performance and had to pit. I would like to be back next year," he insisted.

While the race may have been confirmation of just how poor the Lotus engine really is, it was validation for Chevrolet and Honda, and most of all for the new Dallara DW12 IndyCar. After all the agonising over the new Dallara chassis and the supposed inequities of the Honda and Chevrolet engines, the IZOD IndyCar Series had succeeded in delivering an overall package capable of a humdinger of a race that thrilled from start to finish and saw some of the best, most unpredictable and nail-biting open wheel racing seen at Indianapolis in at least a decade.

With 35 lead changes eclipsing the previous record of 29 in 1960, wheel-to-wheel racing and no driver injuries despite a number of accidents and hard hits against the wall, it surely puts to bed the question of whether the DW12 is up to scratch as an oval-track race car.

That bodes very well indeed for June, in which we get three back-to-back oval races at Texas, Milwaukee and Iowa. But even before that, there's no time for the newly crowned 2012 Indy 500 champion to rest on his laurel, because it's straight back to work on the Detroit Belle Isle road course in just seven days time.

Full race results also available.


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