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Dixon beats Power in pit lane at Mid-Ohio

5 August 2012

Given the atrocious conditions in the morning, you'd have got high odds against the track drying to the point where slick tyres were the only sensible call for the start of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

You'd have got nearly as absurd odds over the race not only staying dry throughout, but running entirely caution-free just as it had done at the previous event at Edmonton - there haven't been back-to-back caution-free races in IndyCar and its predecessor series in 25 years.

And only slightly less unlikely than all this was the prospect that polesitter Will Power would have the lead prised from his hands before the chequered flag came out.

All these things did indeed come to pass on an overcast but surprisingly rain-free Sunday afternoon in Lexington. Ohio, with the race starting on schedule and Will Power soon pulling out a comfortable lead over fellow front row man Dario Franchitti, who never seemed to have quite the same pace of the rest of the leaders as he struggled to stay in front of Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon.

Overtaking has been a problem in the past at Mid-Ohio, but that didn't seem to be the case this year as Sebastien Bourdais was quick to show how it was possible to make clean, assertive passes as he worked his way past Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden to settle into fifth place behind Pagenaud over the opening half dozen laps, and seemingly while preserving his push-to-pass overtaking boost allocation at the same time.

Also on the move and showing how easy overtaking could be on the 2.258-mile, 13-turn permanent road course was Justin Wilson, although in his case the situation he found himself in was a sightly less than happy one: he'd been the meat in a Rubens Barrichello/Marco Andretti sandwich on the first lap, and while he'd just about backed out in time to avoid disaster in the initial action he then ended up making contact with the back of Barrichello's KV Racing car and spinning, which dropped him to the back of the field and made his ensuing overtaking moves a desperate necessity in the circumstances rather than a nice-to-have luxury.

Oriol Servia was in the pits very early for mechanical problems on lap 3 and EJ Viso came in on lap 9, but the majority of cars didn't come on to pit road until around lap 15. These were the drivers who had accepted that they weren't going to be able to stretch their fuel load nearly far enough to even try a two-stopper, and who instead would try to make up the extra time in the pits by burning the fuel at a richer setting and by making use of clearer track. Among those taking this route were James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan, EJ Viso, Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato - who got a drive-thru for speeding in the pit lane, the only penalty handed out all afternoon.

Other drivers tried to lean out the fuel mix far enough to make it to the two-stopper window, but had to admit defeat and pit early thereby converting to a compromised three-stopper after all: Josef Newgarden, James Jakes and Rubens Barrichello appeared to fall into that category when they were forced into pit lane at the end of lap 25, leaving only the hardiest souls to go for the summit.

Franchitti, Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay were on a knife-edge coming in on lap 27, while Power, Dixon and Bourdais seemed to have a better chance of making it the full distance by stretching it one lap more. That extra lap proved invaluable when it came to track position as well, with Power retaining the lead out of pit lane but now with Dixon falling into second place ahead of Hinchcliffe, Bourdais, Kanaan and Franchitti - although Hinchcliffe and Kanaan needed to come in just six laps after for their second of three stops, shuffling them back down the running order again for the time being.

The main pack of three-stoppers had just cycled through pit road again when some spots of rain flirted with making their presence known as the cars hit lap 35. A heavy shower at this point forcing everyone to pit lane for rain tyres would have completely upset the strategy apple cart; but the proper rain didn't materialise, the spots stopped, and the track remained dry.

As the race reached the halfway point of the 85-lap distance, the drivers started to realise that a caution-free race was actually a viable prospect - and that left even Power and Dixon, the longest-lasting of the two-stoppers, fearing that they were two laps short if the race went all the way to the finish on green flags. They had to keep a tight control on their fuel usage, and that handed the momentum back to the best of those on three stop strategies such as Hinchcliffe and Kanaan who had no such concerns about running flat-out for as long as it took.

Power was still in the lead ahead of Dixon, Bourdais, Franchitti, Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay, but they couldn't feel comfortable about how it was going. Pit stops for the "failed two-stoppers" including Newgarden signalled that the final round of stops for everyone were fast looming, but before he could reach that point there were already problems for Ryan Hunter-Reay who was visibly off the pace on lap 54 and dropping multiple positions.

The engine sounded sour as it passed pit lane, and it soon emerged that one of the injectors was pumping too much fuel into the Chevrolet unit: it was, in essence, being slowly poisoned to death. Hunter-Reay tried to coax it to the finish in the hope of salvaging some points but in the end he dropped all the way to 23rd place and off the lead lap having been tapped off the track entirely at one point by Takuma Sato who had been preoccupied with his own battle for position with Giorgio Pantano.

"The engine just started losing power and it just gradually got worse the longer we tried to run," said Hunter-Reay after the race. "It finally just gave up there at the end. It died a slow death."

It was indeed ultimately a lost battle for Hunter-Reay, and a big blow for the American in his IZOD IndyCar Series championship title battle, especially with Power looking set to lead every single lap of the race and come out with maximum points for the weekend.

Hunter-Reay did get one small break of fortune, however, when Power and Dixon once again timed their final pit stop together at the end of lap 57. Dixon had the pit stop right before Power, and got a smoother entrance which allowed to line up the #9 exactly square and in line with the refuelling hose. Power, on the other hand, had to manoeuvre around Dixon's pit crew which cost him a fraction of a second and made it just that slightly bit more awkward for his refueller to insert the hose. It was a matter of fractions: just as the margin by which Dixon beat Power out of pit road proved to be.

That put Dixon and Power out in second third place well behind Hinchcliffe, whose three-stop strategy gave him two laps out in front before it was time for his own final visit to pit road. The fuel strategy was working for him, and he came back out on track right alongside Dixon and Power: however, they were already up to speed and their momentum saw them fly past the GoDaddy.com car as they left Hinchcliffe embroiled in the battle for third place between Bourdais, Pagenaud and Franchitti.

Bourdais and Pagenaud just squeezed past before Hinchcliffe was up to speed, but Franchitti was not so lucky. He tried to line up a full overtaking move on the lime green #27 but misjudged it, clipping his front wing on Hinchcliffe's rear wheel guards. The Canadian escaped without any significant damage; but Franchitti's wing was wrecked. He would have to come in to pit lane for a replacement, and that was going to drop him down from sixth place all the way to 17th - symbolic of the "no luck other than bad luck" that had dominated much of Franchitti's season outside of his Indy 500 win in May.

"I just made a mistake, I drove into the back of Hinchcliffe," he admitted. "I just misjudged how long the nose of the car was. It's totally my mistake. We had to come in and change it, so that was really our day. I think up until that we were struggling a little bit to make fuel mileage but at the end of the day it's my fault."

After that, it was just a matter of seeing whether anyone was going to run dry on fuel before the finish line, with Simon Pagenaud looking the most at risk for last minute heartbreak as he'd come in a lap earlier than the cars in front and they themselves were still nervous about being able to make it all the way home.

"I was saving heaps of fuel on that last stint to finish the race," admitted Pagenaud afterwards.

There was indeed no final sting in the tail for any of the leaders, with Dixon well in front by over three seconds at the end to claim his fourth win in the last six races at Mid-Ohio.

"I think it definitely helped we had an open pit and Will had to come around us," he said in victory lane when asked for the secret of his success. "I think if you look at the replay I hit the marks before he even did, that's just how it goes now and then.

"Everyone thought we would be pitting at the exact same time and same place on the track so I got a good in," he continued. "The guys in the crew did a fantastic time plugging in the fuel and getting the tires changed, big credit to them. Its just one of those perfect moments. Got the jump on him out of the pits and the rest was certain."

"These are such tight pit boxes here, and he had a clean in," agreed Power. "We had a tight in so some of that was me getting in. It's hard for the fuel to get in clean because he has to step back from my front wing to swing in. Still it's a very good points day."

However, Bourdais had a scare on lap 66 when he ran wide and off onto the wet grass: he was able to get right back on the track, but it meant that Pagenaud was able to steal third place from him, while Bourdais himself held on to fourth ahead of the best of the three-stoppers - Hinchcliffe and Kanaan, all the way from 15th and 18th on the grid.

"That was probably the toughest race of the year running, flat out every lap at this track," said Hinchcliffe. "I think I had more fun than anyone but Dixon. It was like a qualifying lap every lap. We ran some good lap times and I'm just happy to bounce back after what happened in qualifying."

Kanaan was equally pleased with his weekend's work. "I am very happy with today's result," he said. "The car was very good in the race. We went with a three stop strategy and despite no yellow flags we made it work. It was a very physical race with no cautions. Now we have to build on this over the last few races."

Ryan Briscoe pulled off a nice overtaking move on Marco Andretti on the final lap to claim seventh place, while JR Hildebrand and Alex Tagliani rounded out the top ten. Giorgio Pantano finished a strong 14th place as a late substitute for an injured Charlie Kimball, in his first outing at Mid-Ohio or in the new DW12-spec car.

"I want to thank the whole Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing crew because they just gave me a perfect car today," said the Italian. "Unfortunately, I need to learn more about the car. I think I need to shake out a few things but I did as much as I could today."

Ryan Hunter-Reay watched the finish from the pit lane knowing that his championship lead was gone and Power was back in control: but Dixon's late move to the front meant that Power's margin over Hunter-Reay ended up being only 5pts.

"It's disappointing to start the day with a 23-point lead and leave in second place, but we'll get over this quick," said Hunter-Reay. "There's a lot of racing still to go, and the only thing we can do is dig deep and move on.

"I think it's going to be a good championship fight, but you can't have any more days like this," he admitted. "I'm confident we're going to be right in it until the finish - it's certainly do-able for us to win it all."

Helio Castroneves finished the race in 16th place but retains third in the championship battle just 26pts off Power despite the weekend's setbacks; and Scott Dixon's race win puts him into fourth place just 2pts back from Helio. With three races still to run before the end of the 2012 season, the title really could go to any of the four.

Full Honda Indy 200 race results available.


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