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Dixon wins despite crumbling Detroit track

4 June 2012

With its cramped street course layout, the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix was hardly likely to be a festival of overtaking any more than Monaco is for F1. Starting from pole position alongside Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon therefore always had the whip hand and looked like the man to beat.

No man could: but the track itself gave it a good try of beating all the drivers when it started to disintegrate mid-race, resulting in a two hour red flag for new concrete patches to be laid down before racing could resume - with Dario Franchitti emerging as the unlikely principal beneficiary of the ensuing chaos.

It hadn't exactly been the cleanest start to the race in the first place. Alex Tagliani was absent from his hard won fourth place in the line-up with problems with his Honda engine's electronic control unit and had to duck into pit lane before the green flag, and while the top three - Dixon, Power and Pagenaud - quickly went line astern, the rest of the field was a muddle. Dario Franchitti was able to make up a couple of positions in the scramble, but Justin Wilson ended up pushed out wide in the same move and tapped the wall with his right rear wheel. That damaged his car's wishbone suspension, leaving the last IndyCar winner at Detroit in 2008 back in pit lane for lengthy repairs and firmly out of contention.

"Not a great day," admitted Wilson. "We brushed the wall on lap one, bent the wishbone, and I'm really disappointed with that. That ended our day pretty much. The guys worked hard trying to give us a good car and we got caught up. We fixed it, went back out, tried to learn a couple of things."

The top three were soon cruising away with it, while fourth-placed man EJ Viso was struggling on the same set of scuffed tyres that he'd used in qualifying and as a result getting very loose, almost losing it completely at one stage before gathering the car up again. Despite his problems, the dozen cars behind him - led by Ryan Hunter-Reay and Ryan Briscoe - started to get frustrated as they were bottled up behind him in a long train.

Briscoe tried to make the best of it by attempting a pass on Hunter-Reay only to find himself blocked by a long slow move out to the wall by the Andretti Autosport car; in the process, Briscoe's front wing touched the back of Hunter-Reay's car and sustained some damage which ultimately contributed to him losing several positions over the ensuing laps. Hunter-Reay himself was given a "don't do that again" warning from race control, but no actual penalty was handed down on this occasion as race director Beaux Barfield continued to gradually redefine the understanding of blocking moves in the series in 2012.

While Tagliani had rejoined and was quickly moving up the field again, and even Wilson finally came back out for some practice albeit 23 laps off the lead, a few other cars suffered mechanical problems and exited the race for good: first up was Rubens Barrichello, whose gambit of switching cars overnight came to nought when the engine itself started to misfire and forced him to park it in pit lane.

"I'll tell you, this weekend has been very bad. I'm so sorry for the guys, they have been trying so hard to change my car overnight," he said. "For some reason my chassis wasn't doing very well this morning it was better in the race. I could see my race picked up a lot but then the engine started to misfire. We still tried on the pit lane to do something but it was all over, unfortunate."

Sebastien Bourdais also lost power and had to retire - his abrupt slowing catching out Dario Franchitti immediately behind him, with the #10 Ganassi clipping the edge of its front wing on the rear wheel guards of the Dragon. And shortly afterwards, James Jakes took to the runoff area in turn 8 with brake problems.

"[The] team did a great job getting me back out on track after I came in for brake troubles," he said. "I hoped we'd be able to make a bit of that lost time up. The throttle just didn't want to cooperate though."

Now it was coming up to the first round of pit stops: the magic number was 30 laps to make this a two-stopper, but it was a big ask and some cars such as Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti (and Tagliani by default) made an early call to go off-sync, get away from the traffic jam behind Viso and then use the extra stop to allow them to burn some fuel in the newly acquired clear space.

Dario Franchitti was the first of the main group to come in to the pits on lap 26, not least to have that damaged front wing looked over; a replacement was not deemed necessary. The struggling Viso - who had in the meantime clouted the wall with his loose-handling car - was in a lap later, earlier than his fuel usage required and still outside the two-stop window; freed of the KV-shaped road block ahead, Hunter-Reay was finally able to get his foot down and pull away a little from Helio Castroneves now running behind him in fifth before they too had to come into pit lane for their first fuel stops.

Pagenaud was in from third on lap 29, still needing a touch of yellow to make it on just one more stop after this; but there was no such problem for the two leaders, Dixon and Power, with regards to making it to the magic 30 lap distance - and indeed three laps beyond. Dixon certainly had the measure of Power at this point and not only retained the lead when he came back out, but had a mighty ten seconds over Power in second.

After the first pit stops had completed, the off-sync early pit stops of Kanaan, Tagliani and Andretti now put those drivers in the top six - but they still had two stops to make where the others likely just had the one. Still, given their lowly positions stuck way down the field on lap 1, it was as good a gamble as any. You never know, anything could happen in the next half hour ...

It looked as though Kanaan's gamble hadn't worked out when there were no cautions and he finally had came in for his next pit stop on lap 39; but as he emerged out on the track, all hell was suddenly breaking lose. To start with there was Takuma Sato cutting a corner too close, clattering over the curbing and losing the handling putting him into the wall at turn 12.

"I clipped a very high curb and that made a huge kickback in the steering wheel and it slipped from my grip and that was the end of the race," Sato confirmed.

That was a caution to be sure, but it was nothing compared to what was unfolding at the same moment going into turn 6: James Hinchcliffe's left wheel was suddenly jolted upwards by what looked like a massive chunk of debris, losing him his handling and sending him burrowing deep into the tyre barrier. Hinchcliffe climbed out and walked over to where the debris had been to check that he could believe what he'd just seen with his own eyes: sure enough, the track was coming apart.

"I have never seen anything like it," he said. "We had these big pieces of tar just sort of ripping up from lap 5. The debris was out there. It was tough to drive around it.

"The lap before the accident, I had this chunk hit me in the wing in turn 9. I radioed to the guys to make sure the wing was all right because it was a big hit," he continued. "Then going through 6, I turned in and a piece of the tar, whatever, just folded over with a giant chunk of concrete. It launched the front-end of the car in the air. I was just a passenger at that point."

In various sections of the Belle Isle street course, parts of the track had been patched over before the weekend using long strips of inlaid tar sealants. This patchwork cure had held up through a packed program of Grand-Am and Firestone Indy Lights support races as well as IndyCar practice and qualifying, but under the sustained pounding of the race itself the aerodynamic ground force effects of the DW12 had literally sucked the strips out of the ground and started sending chunks of tar flying into the air. It had been picked up on early in the race: Hunter-Reay said that he'd radioed his team about the emerging problem as early as lap 18 and JR Hildebrand had considerable damage to his front wing to prove it.

There followed the astonishing sight of track workers literally peeling the strips of asphalt out of the concrete road surface at six different parts of the track, and then frantic contingency planning leading to the arrival of quick dry cement being poured into the deep long scars left in the road surface. In the meantime the drivers had parked in pit lane under red flag conditions, standing around chatting and getting interviewed by increasingly desperate TV crews trying to fill a huge amount of air time. Anything rather than sitting and watching concrete (rather than paint) dry. A brief shower didn't do much to steady nerves. Some of the drivers - Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia and Simon Pagenaud - were meanwhile getting some nasty blisters on their hands taken care off, testament to how much of a physical punishment the bumpy street course had inflicted on them in just 45 laps.

Finally the concrete was in place. Tony Kanaan and Will Power did a reconnaissance lap in a pace car to determine they were happy to green light the restart. Kanaan didn't sound thrilled, but agreed that it was good enough to try a 15-lap sprint finish to reward all the fans (both in Detroit and those watching on TV) for sticking with them during the extended delay: "It's borderline," he admitted. "I wouldn't feel comfortable running the full distance."

There was however a period of confusion surrounding the rules for the restart and whether they were allowed to get any car repairs (no - but Hildebrand had to, and took the penalty) or change tyres (yes, but only staying on the same tyre compound.) The latter ruling angered Briscoe, who was furious to be left stuck on the harder tyres at the crucial moment: the Penske pit crew brusquely told him to deal with it or park it - which shut him up pretty quickly.

Finally it was time to try getting the show back underway - for everyone except Graham Rahal, whose car refused to get refired with clutch problems, putting him two laps down. Everyone else still running took a couple of sighting laps with track officials pointing out the patched areas so everyone knew what to avoid if at all possible. The running order for the sighting lap was Dixon, Power and Pagenaud, followed by Kanaan whose pit stop had just worked out for him to retain the position after all. Then came Castroneves in fifth, followed by Franchitti who had worked his way back up to sixth place thanks to that slightly early stop of his own.

Then just as they lined up for the double-file restart came a brief but sharp shower to wet parts of the track and add another layer of uncertainty to the conditions. You just knew this wasn't going to go smoothly. As they came to the green flag, Dixon managed to back up the field heading to the start/finish line before then putting his foot down: that caught out Power, who promptly lost a position down the start/finish straight to Simon Pagenaud. Franchitti also benefited and moved up from sixth to fourth at the same time, taking Oriol Servia with him past Tony Kanaan.

But at least they were all still pointing in the right direction, unlike Helio Castroneves who spun going into turn 6 and then sustaining a secondary hit from Ed Carpenter who lost the back end of his own car and clipped the front end of the stalled #3. One turn on and Josef Newgarden had slid up against the tyre wall which caused a gaggle of cars to come to a near-stop as they navigated around the stalled #67.

"I feel bad that we got clipped from behind at the end, because we had already had bad luck for most of the race," said the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing rookie. " We had a great strategy going but had to come in to the pits early because I had a puncture on one of my tyres from the rough track."

Briscoe had also been caught up in that second incident and turned around after contact with JR Hildebrand: he took the opportunity to pit in order to finally change to the soft red tyres, but that plunged him down to 16th position in the process.

"A disappointing finish for sure," said Briscoe. "Unfortunately we got caught with too much pick up on the tyres when the race started then we got turned around on the restart. This is certainly not where we wanted to finish."

A caution was a foregone conclusion, but it was quickly cleared up and the next restart was to be with nine laps remaining of the now-60 lap event. For the second time of the day, Dixon controlled the start beautifully and Pagenaud had no chance to pounce; instead it was Dario Franchitti who weaved around both Power and then Pagenaud to nip into second place before anyone knew what was happening. And just as well he made it fast, because then Marco Andretti tapped the back of EJ Viso going into turn 4 and the KV Racing car was spun around and stalled in the middle of a track, triggering yet another caution.

Dixon now had his own team mate alongside him for the third attempt at a restart: how to defend without doing him any harm? He played it beautifully and Franchitti knew it and quickly conceded, falling in behind the #9 and ensuring that neither Pagenaud not Power got any funny ideas. There was a Ganassi 1-2 in the offing, and neither driver wanted to be the man to lose it.

Further back there were neat moves by Newgarden on Hildebrand and Tagliani on the wounded car of Marco Andretti after his hit with EJ Viso, but nothing to bring out a caution: it seemed that the slickness of the passing shower had now burnt off, and the patched areas were also holding up, meaning that they could finally run to the end without further interruptions.

It had been a flawless performance for Dixon, who had led the entire race - and by a huge margin before the red flag. Even more impressive in many ways was the way he had controlled the restarts however.

"A 1-2 finish for the Target boys for the second week in a row," said Dixon: "I am super happy for the team."

Far more unexpected was Dario Franchitti, who had turned a 14th place on the starting grid and a deeply disappointing outlook for the weekend coming in with a touch of midweek 'flu to claim the runners-up position.

"I thought in the first couple of laps I had a chance, but I couldn't, he was too quick," said Franchitti of the final stint behind Dixon. "But that's not to take anything away from the job Dixie did, and a 1-2 for Team Target after his brilliant qualifying and my abysmal one, we'll take it."

And how about Simon Pagenaud, the relative new boy of the IndyCar field, who had outsmarted none other than Will Power for the final podium position? He was understandably thrilled with the outcome.

"Tremendous day for Honda," he beamed. "The guys have done such a great job providing us with a super good powerplant, today is just the testament to all the work.

"It's amazing to be a one-car team and fighting against Penske and Ganassi," he added. "I've found like it's living the dream. So we're very happy today. What else can I say, really? It was just a fantastic day for us."

It might have been a somewhat improvised 15-lap shoot-out, but it had actually been worth the wait in the end. And certainly for Ganassi, those last few laps and final restarts had been a dream come true to make it an all-Honda podium in General Motors' backyard at a race that Roger Penske himself had been promoting.

"Hats off to the fans who stuck around through something that was totally unexpected," said the race winner, Scott Dixon. "I'd like to give a lot of credit to everyone at IndyCar and the Detroit staff for getting the track back in shape so we could race. The final 15-lap shootout was exciting for me, so I sure hope the fans liked it."

Dixon's victory and Franchitti's second place should make the remaining races of the season a very interesting cat-and-mouse affair between the various Ganassi and Penske, Honda and Chevrolet camps. And one can't help but think that some of the tensions coming into the race - especially on the Chevy team owners' side - have hardly been calmed by the end result.

Final race positions available.


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