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Hunter-Reay hat-trick shakes up standings

9 July 2012

It hadn't exactly looked like the streets of Toronto were paved with gold for Ryan Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosports team mates, after they failed to get any representatives into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying on Saturday.

On a street course - where overtaking is so much harder than ovals - that seemed to put paid to any ideas that Hunter-Reay might have had of extending his run of wins that had already seen him go to victory lane in both of the proceeding races, in Milwaukee and Iowa. And anyway, the last time that the American had won on a street or road course was back in April 2010 when he beat Justin Wilson to the chequered flag at Long Beach. It hardly seemed likely that he was about to turn that round on the tight, twisty and treacherous 1.75-mile, 11-turn temporary street track in Toronto.

The early laps certainly seemed to suggest that the weekend was business as usual, with Dario Franchitti pulling away from pole position, and Will Power losing a position in the first run through turn 3 to Justin Wilson. But Power's lapse was temporary, and on lap 4 he got his revenge on Wilson and then swiftly caught and passed Franchitti to lead the race - just like old times for the Australian, who totally owned the street races in 2011.

That was all well and good, but other teams had different ideas how this should play out, and were willing to try some varying pit stop strategies to see what they could achieve. While most of those who qualified high up were maximising their track position by going for a fuel conservation two-stop strategy, those further back were inclined to shake it up and come in early, find some free space back out on track and have fuel to burn. Simon Pagenaud and Rubens Barrichello came on to pit lane on lap 14, Ryan Briscoe was on a lap later, and then it was Alex Tagliani, James Hinchcliffe and then Tony Kanaan and Oriol Servia were in. Most of these were unremarkable affairs, but Kanaan managed to pit a wheel laid out in Oriol Servia's pit stall as he exited, and he was penalised with a drive-thru after the tyre hit a crew member.

Up to now, there had been no caution periods although two cars had retired with engine problems - Ganassi's Scott Dixon as early as lap 7, and HVM's Simona de Silvestro on lap 9.

"I think it was the engine," Dixon said later. "It was definitely something mechanical. I'm not very happy of course."

"I'm pretty disappointed, something happened with the engine ... It's hard to say right now, we just did a couple of laps," said de Silvestro for her part. "We were hoping for a good finish, trying to stay out of trouble."

The nearest thing to a caution had been on lap 18 when Ganassi team mates Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball had gone into turn 3 side-by-side, neither willing to concede the position, leaving Kimball with his nose up against the tyre barrier. Fortunately the engine was still running and he was able to reverse out under local yellow flags, and the race went on.

Ryan Hunter-Reay had just come in for his pit stop when Rahal hit problems for a second time: chasing Helio Castroneves down the main straight, his car bounced over the bumps and lost grip causing the #38 to fail to make the turn-in to the first corner. A crunching hit against the wall ensured, and this time a full course caution was required to allow the car to be retrieved.

Pit lane was immediately temporarily closed to new traffic: and that was very bad news indeed for those cars who hadn't yet pitted, including Power, Franchitti, Castroneves, Sebastian Bourdais, JR Hildebrand and Mike Conway. They had no sensible option but to come in under the caution when pit lane was reopened, even though that would shuffle them all to the back of the field: Simon Pagenaud, as the first of those cars to have already come in for a pit stop earlier in the race, duly inherited the lead while Power dropped to 11th place.

It was even worse for Dario Franchitti, who dropped to 21st place after an agonisingly long pit stop, a result of him stopping the car too far away from the pit wall for the refuelling rig to reach which meant vital seconds were lost as the #10 was manhandled into position. Nor was it a good stop for James Hinchcliffe, who came in complaining of a "weird hesitation" in the engine that wasn't going away. The Andretti Autosport crew took off the engine cowling, checked around - and pronounced it terminal. If nothing else it meant that honours were even between all three engine marques in terms of unit failures in Toronto.

"We had a mechanical issue and started losing power in the engine and it's too bad," said a disappointed Mayor of Hinchtown. "It's a heartache to go out early here. The whole weekend has been incredible - all the support from everybody here in Toronto. Like I've said, it's the best city in the world!"

The race resumed with Pagenaud holding a steady 1.5s lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay for the next 20 laps, until it was time for Pagenaud's second pit stop of the afternoon on lap 49 whereupon he surrendered the lead to Hunter-Reay who was happy to keep it until the time came for his own second stop on lap 55. As the last of the cars to come in before the Rahal caution, Hunter-Reay was in the privileged position of being one of the few who was on a two-stop strategy and good to make it to the end of the race, who hadn't lost track position like Power and Franchitti had. Better yet, he jumped in front of Pagenaud after the pit stops, after the Frenchman's pit crew had suffered with a problem on the right rear wheel nut. It seemed that the race wasn't so much idly falling into Hunter-Reay's lap as it was enthusiastically jumping in and eagerly performing an erotic dance for him.

Power meanwhile had been trying to make a go of recovering from his earlier misfortune by trying some clever out-of-the-box thinking on fuel strategies, but they came to nought on lap 57 when Power made glancing contact with the barrier in turn 12. His front wing had been damaged a few laps earlier after contact with the rear wheel guards of the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing #67 of Josef Newgarden, and an element had broken off and hit the front left wheel of the #12. The combination of a tyre going down and the front wing damage had then caused the understeer. Power limped back to the pits for a change of tyres and went back out again intending to tough it out with the front wing damage in the hope a caution would materialise, but a few minutes later he went down a lap anyway and the plan was moot. He came back in again for the new wing, but his hopes of recovering were now done for the day.

Power's woes didn't trigger a caution even though the broken front wing element was lying in the middle of the track, and Hunter-Reay duly cycled back to the lead. Up into second place was Tony Kanaan, who had recovered from his early pit stop problem beginning with a flying restart after the first caution that saw him blast past a three-wide battle down the main straight to zip past all of them in one go into turn 1. However, much of the lost ground had been made up by his relying on an aggressive fuel-conservation strategy and in the closing laps Kanaan had to lean off the gas so much that he started haemorrhaging positions and dropping down the running order.

Taking over in second place was Charlie Kimball, who pulled off a lovely move on both Kanaan and Pagenaud into turn 3 on lap 72 while the other two cars were busy battling side-by-side and leaving the inside line wide open for him as a result. Even so, Kimball had little hope of catching Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was around 8s up the road - unless there was a caution.

One had come close to fruition a few laps earlier, when Justin Wilson had run wide out of the final corner and slapped the wall on the main straight with some force. Wilson was able to carry on for a few minutes, but the engine was cutting out and it seemed that the impact had done some terminal damage inside the car: all he could do was come back round to pit lane and climb out.

That meant the race was now just six laps from its conclusion, with only one caution in the books: there had never been fewer than five in this event, and it wasn't as if there was a shortage of fierce driving and great overtaking moves going on through the field. What was different? It was hard to tell from the outside, but some combination of the aerodynamic form of the new DW12 plus the re-introduction of push-to-pass from this event were possible suspects, together with race director Beaux Barfield's new rules on overtaking and blocking and the revised approach to throwing cautions. The new bodywork protecting the wheels could also be a factor in preventing minor scraps between cars becoming major conflagrations. Whatever, the new car had once again demonstrated what an improved road racing machine it was over its oval-centric predecessor.

But all good things come to an end, and on lap 79 the green flag period that had lasted 51 laps duly did so when Josef Newgarden took on Simon Pagenaud for third place. Pagenaud - looking as though he was still struggling to get to grips with IndyCar's "no blocking" rule - finally realised he was defeated and handed Newgarden the line, but it was too late: the #67 outbraked itself right into the tyre wall. It wasn't a heavy contact but it was enough to stall the car, and the howls of anguish from the SFHR pit stall could be heard from miles around as Newgarden himself beat his steering wheel in frustration. Not that things were any happier in the Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports camp, as Pagenaud had to concede defeat on the fuel-stretching strategy and come in for a costly splash and dash; and then to rub salt in the wound he was handed a 30s penalty by race control for blocking Newgarden in the first place.

"I don't know whether to be happy or mad," Pagenaud said afterwards. "I don't see why I got penalised ... I think I respected the rule, which is to keep your line. I kept my line, but Newgarden went into a hole where there was no space."

Newgarden admitted that he had a share of the blame for the incident. "Unfortunately at the end I attempted a pass on Pagenaud that l don't think I should have tried. I went into the tyres and that was the end of our fantastic run today."

It was at least a quick clean up, and race control were relieved to be able to restart the race with three laps to go in order to finish the race under green. Except that it didn't work out like that: cautions breed cautions, and in this case it was twins.

The first incident was at turn 1, when Sebastien Bourdais and Mike Conway pressed Charlie Kimball for second place at the restart, going three-wide into the tight corner. Conway tapped the back of Kimball's car, who in turn knocked Bourdais out wide and nose-first into the tyre wall. He was joined on the scene by Rubens Barrichello, who seemed to be pirouetting down the main straight in an entirely private incident of his own - although the Brazilian was able to spin his car around and exit the area without a problem while the Frenchman was stuck fast.

That alone would likely have triggered the third caution, but events in the run down in turn 3 sealed it. The cars spread out down the straight, with Ryan Briscoe finding he was being pushed wider and wider by the gaggle of cars getting frisky down the inside. Unfortunately for Briscoe, he didn't realise that Dario Franchitti had been making a play for the outside line at the same time: Briscoe squeezed the #10 hard against the wall until finally contact was inevitable and the two scrunched together down the concrete.

"We finally got the yellow we needed on the last restart," sighed Franchitti. "There were massive amounts of marbles and cars going three-wide, and I went for a gap that closed. It was just one of those things today."

In a sort of sympathetic panic, the three cars of Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud and Ed Carpenter running further back ended up piling into one another at slow speed. Little damage was done to the cars, but it was a mess for the track workers to pull everything apart and there was no question that a full course caution was required - and that there would be no time to restart. The race would end under caution after all, for the second race in succession.

And the winner would be the same as last time, too: Ryan Hunter-Reay had stayed out of trouble in that last two incidents and commanded the restart with assurance to retain the lead ahead of Kimball, who managed held on to second place ahead of Mike Conway who came away with the best result of the year for AJ Foyt Racing in third place.

"We saved the tyres and gapped them at the end," said Hunter-Reay. "Three in a row. I don't even know what to think about this. It shows that this team can get it done on all venues."

Kimball meanwhile gave the credit to his Ganassi crew: "The car was great all day. All I had to do was turn the wheel and press the pedals," he said, adding that the plan was to get used to podium finishes from here on.

As for Mike Conway, he revealed that he and the AJ Foyt crew had only finally managed to finish dialling in the car in the Sunday morning warm-up session.

"I knew that we could walk a way forward, but I was surprised at how good we were on that first stint and we could just move our way forward and work our way out to the front," he said. "We started out kind of hanging in there. I could see the other guys were going off around me, kind of hung in there, was picking off people. The car was really strong down into turn three. I could pretty much pass everybody without using the 'push to pass' too much."

Tony Kanaan had benefited from the late cautions to rise back up to fifth place, while the ever-miraculous stealthy Oriol Servia had managed to capture another top five finish of the year without leaving any footprints of how he'd actually pulled it off.

“I had to work a lot," said Kanaan, still unhappy with his drive-thru penalty for hitting pit lane equipment. "But after that, same story. Front to the back, back to the front."

Servia was surprisingly underwhelmed by his fifth place, saying that Sunday "wasn't the most spectacular day" for the team. "Honestly, we just didn't have the speed. I felt a lot better in the practices, but not during the race. We just didn't have the speed."

So how had he made it up so high? "Dennis [Reinbold, team co-owner] has a great strategy. We were able to keep our nose clean. There were a lot of drivers that were not driving that smart out there. It was just a question of letting them make the mistakes."

Meanwhile, Helio Castroneves was rather delighted with his 'mere' sixth place, and thanks to the problems that had hit Power and Briscoe he was the best placed of the three Penske team mates.

"It was very crazy out there today," he beamed. "I think finishing sixth here in Toronto is my best finish so I am pleased with that. This is the first time I have been able to keep my nose clean out here, literally I had no damage on my nose and how things were going today that was good ... I am glad that we were able to stay out of the wrecks and finish like we did."

Panther's JR Hildebrand finished ahead of Dale Coyne Racing's junior driver James Jakes, while Takuma Sato and Alex Tagliani rounded out the highly unlikely top ten - making it ten different teams represented in the top ten positions, a rare if not entirely unique event.

"For me the biggest takeaway is that we got to the point where we had a good car in the race," said Hildebrand. "I think honestly if we had caught the first yellow on the right side we could have had a podium finish."

"Very happy today," said Jakes. "We had a good car at the end of the race and we managed to pick quite a few guys off. A lot of people were saving fuel there so that was good because we were good to go till the end."

Ryan Hunter-Reay's win, at the same time that championship contenders Power, Dixon, Franchitti, Hinchcliffe and Pagenaud all suffered misfortunes, puts the American at the top of the IZOD IndyCar Series championship standings. But it's all closed up very tight at the to, and with five races still to run in the 2012 season it's very much an open question as to who is going to emerge at the winner after Fontana in September.

"This is awesome, there's a championship run going on right now and I'm a part of it," said Hunter-Reay, with his eyes set on extending his winning streak all the way to the title. "Now I'm thinking we've got to do it again next weekend."

Full race results available.
Full qualifying times available.
Session times from Practice 1, Practice 2, Practice 3 and Sunday warm-up are also available.


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