The last time that Ryan Briscoe was in victory lane was at Texas in 2010. He's finished second, third and fourth at Sonoma in the past, but always been the bridesmaid and never the bride - until today, when a late caution gave him the opportunity to leapfrog the dominant car of his team mate Will Power in pit road.
"It's big!" said Briscoe when asked what this victory meant for him. "I wasn't sure if I was ever going to win again. It has been too long. Especially here in Sonoma, I've always done so well at this track and I got my first ever pole position here and we've been top-five every year pretty much for the last five years so it's great to finally get the win."
There was arguably more action and drama in the opening five laps of this year's GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma than in the entirety of the 2011 race, although that's admittedly not setting a particularly high bar. The top five cars of Power, Briscoe, Sebastien Bourdais, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon quickly fell into line after the double-file start, Dario Franchitti initially lost out a position to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the process, but the rest of the field stayed surprisingly two abreast for a longer time than anyone was expecting, Alex Tagliani and Simon Pagenaud in particular fiercely contending for eighth position.
Trouble came early, when Helio Castroneves tapped the back of Scott Dixon's car into the remodelled turn 7 hairpin. The contact spun the Ganassi around to that it was facing traffic and pinned into position, so that - while he kept the engine running - Dixon still had to wait for the rest of the field to get passed before he could spin the car around and get going again. Castroneves got handed a drive-thru penalty for causing the accident, which dropped him down to 21st.
Simon Pagenaud ended up in trouble in the aftermath of Dixon's accident as the cars scattered to avoid the #9, and in the process Pagenaud had his wing clipped by Tagliani. Despite littering the track with debris as the wing fell apart, Pagenaud was able to carry on until his earlier-than-intended pit stop on lap 18 and the track officials were able to clean up without resorting to a caution.
In the meantime, Franchitti had been able to re-pass Hunter-Reay for fourth place with Tagliani also benefiting by following through into fifth place, and Tony Kanaan pulled of a smooth pass on Marco Andretti for tenth place having started in 16th. However, there was bad news for Takuma Sato as an engine problem saw him pulling off at turn 8 and into retirement on lap 3.
"Unfortunately we had engine failure, so it was a very short race," he said. "It was a shame because we made some setup changes after the morning warm-up that I felt were positive changes.
But there was no question about the state of affairs at the front of the race, with Will Power having disappeared into the distance well ahead of Ryan Briscoe, who also had a significant margin ahead of Sebastien Bourdais in third place.
With the race extended by ten laps this year to make fuel strategies more difficult to optimise, lap 14 was the earliest time that anyone could come in to pit lane and make it home on just two more stops. Scott Dixon rolled the dice by being first in for fuel in his attempt to find some way back from his first lap disaster; Castroneves sought a similar route back to the front the next time around. After that there was a growing trickle of visitors to pit road, including James Hinchcliffe who added a side order of a new front wing after contact had left him with damage in the opening laps, as did Pagenaud a couple of laps later to take care of his own battle scars.
The early pit stops left the leaders coming up fast on the back of the slower cars fresh out of the pits, and Power followed the sensible route by coming in for an earlier than planned pit stop on lap 19 in order to keep him away from unnecessary danger. Unfortunately for Power, he came back out on track just behind the still-to-pit Hunter-Reay, who had good reason to do whatever he could to frustrate Power's progress until his own stop on lap 22.
A brief off into the California dirt for Josef Newgarden on lap 19 didn't trouble the officials with the need for a yellow flag, so as the first cycle of pit stops was completed it was Power back in charge at the front once more ahead of Briscoe, Bourdais, Franchitti and Tagliani, with Hunter-Reay restored to sixth after his own late stop.
Dixon had partially recovered from his first lap disaster and was back up to seventh with a move on Rubens Barrichello, albeit over half a minute off the leader and fast coming up on his next trip don pit road after having gone off-sync with his early first stop. There was no such quick recovery for Castroneves, who was unable to even ward off a beautifully smooth move from Sebastian Saavedra for 19th place as the two circulated at the middle of a train of cars forming behind an ailing James Hinchcliffe, that also included Oriol Servia, Charlie Kimball, Justin Wilson and James Jakes. Saavedra later put in a fiercely brave and clean move on Servia on lap 47, but that was after he'd lost positions again for speeding on pit lane.
Servia himself did manage to get past Hinchcliffe, but less tidily than Saavedra had managed in his own overtaking moves. Contact between the two left Hinchcliffe off line and off the pace, although Servia escaped sanctions from race control. A few minutes later Hinchcliffe was on pit road with an oil pressure problem which after brief inspection resulted in the Andretti Autosport team calling it a day on the GoDaddy.com #27 on lap 35.
With the next round of pit stops now underway, Dixon fell back from seventh spot and right into the middle of a different pack of cars that were being held up by a struggling Tony Kanaan in tenth with front wing damage of his own. Among those frustrated by the #11's pace were Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, EJ Viso, Mike Conway and JR Hildebrand. Andretti managed to tap the back of Rahal's car and damage his front wing, making him easy prey for Viso and Conway to get past even before he headed to pit lane with an engine problem that forced his retirement from the race on lap 46; meanwhile Kanaan himself finally had to yield positions to both Rahal and Dixon who were using their push-to-pass buttons.
The ongoing cycle of pit stops ended up temporarily breaking what had been up a spirited battle between Bourdais and Franchitti over third place, and when Franchitti exited from his pit stop he found that not only had Bourdais pulled away from him but that Scott Dixon had once again stolen a march on his rivals and slipped in between them thanks to his early stop. Dixon was able to harry Bourdais much more effectively, but next time around Ryan Hunter-Reay emerged from pit road to join the party and become a complicating factor. Bourdais managed to get past him while the Andretti Autosports #28 was still warming up its cold new tyres, but when it came to his turn Dixon found himself stymied. In frustration he ended up locking up his brakes and running into the back of Hunter-Reay's car, damaging the Ganassi #9's front wing and causing him to briefly run off the track because of the lack of downforce that ensued.
Dixon was determined to tough it out long enough to reach lap 58, the earliest possible to make it home on a full tank of gas. He haemorrhaged positions in the attempt and briefly ran off course again, finally falling to tenth place by the time he was able to come in for his stop; and then to rub salt in the wound he ran over an air hose exiting his pit stall and was handed a drive-thru penalty. His chances of a heroic recovery drive through to the field to glory was terminally over.
Not that things were going entirely to plan for race leader Will Power at this point either, as he was finding himself increasingly held up as he came up on more and more cars to put a lap down. He was looking forward to his own final visit to pit lane on lap 65, but it was an unusually problematic stop as the crew hit problems and vital seconds ticked away.
And then a more serious development occurred out on the course: Sebastien Bourdais had pitted a lap earlier and come out into traffic that included a feisty Josef Newgarden, and the two battled their way through the turn 7 hairpin without incident. But Bourdais put too much faith in those cold tyres, lost grip on the marbles offline on the way down the hill to turn 8, and ended up sliding off the track and through the dirt - rejoining the track right at the point that Newgarden was already attempting to occupy.
The contact was bad enough, but the thump sent both cars flying off the left hand side of the track with Newgarden taking a hard hit into the tyre wall. Newgarden's car bounced back out, hit Bourdais' car which was still sliding past on the dirt, and was promptly knocked into the tyres for a second time. The Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car was badly wrecked and Newgarden himself clearly very shaken, but escaped the frightening hit relatively unscathed.
"Unfortunately Bourdais came right across the track and I had nowhere to go," said the youngster. "I kept my hands on the wheel because it happened so fast and that's when my finger got hurt. It's the hardest hit I've ever had."
Bourdais' impressive weekend was also well and truly over - to the despair of Dragon team owner Jay Penske, who had already earlier seen his other driver Katherine Legge retire with mechanical issues. The driver later revealed the severity of the damage to his own car, and how lucky he had been to escape serious injury.
"It was a very bad impact the tub is broken in two and the gear box pretty much went through my shoulder so it was a really bad hit," explained Bourdais. It's a shame. I feel very bad because at first I don't know what happened the car just refused to turn and it's my mistake for sure, it's me turning the wheel. I have no idea what happened."
That brought out the first caution of the race - and stopped the prospect of a third caution-free race in a row for the first time in a quarter of a century of US open wheel racing - as the wreckage was cleared up and the tyre wall rebuilt. Pit lane remained opened, which saved Ryan Briscoe from disaster. He had inherited the lead after Power came in and still had to make his own stop, and now a possible disaster turned into an opportunity in the course of seconds: Briscoe was able to make it round, pit and come out while Power was still stuck further back in traffic after his own sluggish stop, unable to overtake the lapped cars because of the waved yellow flags. Power had been demoted to second place, his seemingly inevitable anointment in victory lane now in jeopardy. He badly needed an outbreak of team orders to help him out, but team owner Roger Penske said while he expected the pair to work as a team, there would be no order to Briscoe from the pit wall - it would be up to him to decide, or to Power to force the issue when the two started side-by-side on the front row for the restart on lap 74.
Briscoe certainly had no intention of handing it to his team mate on a plate, and executed a perfect restart to ensure he kept the lead. But on the first run through turn 7, Alex Tagliani got over-optimistic with a wild late-braking lunge down the inside of the hairpin that was always going to find someone to have an accident with - and it happened to be fourth-place man Ryan Hunter-Reay who was tapped into a spin. Unlike Dixon on lap 1 he was unable to keep the car running when he tried to get back underway, and he lost a lap while the safety workers refired the car under the second full course caution of the afternoon.
It was also costly for Tagliani, who got a drive-thru penalty for causing the avoidable incident, but the driver to benefit from all this was Rubens Barrichello. He had been the best of the KV Racing drivers all afternoon and in the top ten for most of the race. Now with Bourdais, Hunter-Reay and Tagliani all eliminated in short order so near the end of the race, the Brazilian had emerged with fourth place immediately behind Dario Franchitti.
Meanwhile at the front, Ryan Briscoe was still firmly in command of the subsequent restart on lap 77. And with his chief championship rivals now running well out of the top ten, Will Power had little need to force the issue and appeared to signal to his team mate that he was going to settle for second place, quickly slipping into line behind the #2 even before they crossed the start line. Further back, Graham Rahal tried a move on Rubens Barrichello for fourth but had the door firmly shut in his face causing him to fall back, almost setting off a panic among the chasing cars caught out by the sudden manoeuvres.
There was yet further incident at turn 7 - Hunter-Reay this time being the offender as be tipped EJ Viso into a spin. Hunter-Reay got a drive-thru penalty for causing an avoidable contact, just as Tagliani and Castroneves before him. And there was one more encore at the same hairpin, when Oriol Servia managed to tap Mike Conway into a spin five laps again leading to a drive-thru penalty, this time for Servia.
But none of this had any effect on the battle for the race win. With problems creeping in on his push-to-pass system and apparent random engine cut-outs causing him to fall backwards into the clutches of Dario Franchitti, any thoughts Will Power might have had about contesting for the win quickly evaporated. He concentrated on getting the car home, and duly came to the chequered flag in second place behind a jubilant Ryan Briscoe - who promptly stalled his winning car while attempting a burnout on the backstretch and had to get refired before he could make it to victory lane to celebrate with the rest of the team.
"I look forward to drinking the red wine," said Briscoe when he finally showed up. "Great battle with Will at the end there. He definitely had some bad luck in the pits, but we were there all day. I'm really excited and I hope to be able to work on my burnouts a little bit more in the future!"
"Excellent for Ryan - his first win, and he's a bloody good driver," said Will Power of his team mate. "He's a had a tough time, but he's definitely one of the fastest drivers in the series."
That's not to say he wasn't disappointed at losing out on the win himself, however. "It's tough when you lead so many laps and have the quickest car," he said. "Just disappointed to lead so many laps and I haven't won in so long."
He explained that the race slipped way form him in the crucial moments during the caution: "I had a bunch guys that didn't understand that we had to get to the blend line. Although there was a big crash. I was surprised the pits stayed open. I can't win. If I go long on yellow, I get screwed by a yellow and if you go short, you get screwed by yellow.
"The delay on the push-to-pass cost me, too," he added. "I couldn't engage it. It kept undoing every time I got on the power."
The race had certainly been wildly more entertaining than last year's version - not that this was too difficult. Whether it was the new-specification cars and engines in 2012, or the tweaks to the course, the race length or the push-to-pass system it was hard to tell. However, the underlying problems of open wheel racing at Sonoma remained: once drivers got stuck behind a slower moving car, there remained precious little that they could do about it. Especially during the lengthy caution-free period in the first 63 laps of the race, that spread out the cars and seemed destined to cause the race to end in a dull procession with Power at its head. Only that late crash between Bourdais and Newgarden changed the script.
But such planning for the future are thoughts for another day. In the Californian afternoon sunshine, the Penske squad were celebrating another win, and were joined by Chevrolet who were celebrating their clinching of the 2012 manufacturers' championship over Honda and Lotus with two races remaining in the season. Dario Franchitti was also happy to gain a solid podium position after a frustrating spell, and Rubens Barrichello was also celebrating his best performance so far in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Maybe it' a breakthrough result that will convince him to stay put at KV Racing in 2013 after all.
"We seem to get caught behind guys, we just didn't have enough to get by them, but we were definitely quicker," said Franchitti of his fairly quiet run, in the top five for pretty much the entire day. "Lost a place each pit stop and then just had to sit behind guys, and that was kind of frustrating. It's nobody's fault but our own really. In the end, I was lucky to stay out of trouble."
As for Rubens, he was quick to praise his team for the day's success. "It's really good to have some good points. You know the season started a little bit slow so, thanks to the whole team and thanks for all the support," he said. "Today was a good day. The track really worked well. I was able to put some really good laps in."
Full race results