IndyCar Sao Paulo 2013: Hinch wins Brazilian thriller
6 May 2013
There have been some excellent races in the IZOD IndyCar Series over the years, but few of them can hold a candle to the thrilling finish of the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 in Brazil on Sunday afternoon, which culminated in a no-quarter-given three-way battle for victory between AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato, Andretti Autoport's James Hinchcliffe and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden.
As if that line-up wasn't enough, there was also some stunning hard racing between Marco Andretti and Oriol Servià, a cameo guest appearance in the lead for local hero Tony Kanaan that set the crowd alight with approval - and a literally fiery end to the day for Will Power, the three-time winner of the event.
Polesitter Ryan Hunter-Reay had got off to a good start as the green flag waved for the start of the 75-lap event, but EJ Viso alongside him had a less successful time of it and immediately succumbed to both Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan as both men had the advantage of starting the race on the faster, grippier red wall option tyres. It was a clean start, although further down the field there was front wing damage to Josef Newgarden and subsequently to Helio Castroneves who tapped the back of his team mate Will Power's car through a congested hairpin. However the first full caution didn't materialise until seven laps into the race, when local star Ana Beatriz ground to a halt in her Dale Coyne Racing #18 and needed collecting by the safety crew.
"The exhaust broke on the car and ended our day way too soon," explained Beatriz. "I'm disappointed that we couldn't have had a better finish for our sponsor Ipiranga today. Things were going really well this weekend and we thought we were going to have a good result today in the race."
It was far too early for the leaders to pit, but some of those at the back decided nothing ventured was nothing gained and went for the off-sync three-stop strategy. Heading into the restart, Tony Kanaan found a beautiful line through the final corner onto the start/finish straight that gave him the perfect line to jump Franchitti for second spot, and he liked it so much that he tried it next time around on the race leader Hunter-Reay, as well. It paid off just as well second time around, as the huge cheer from the exuberantly partisan crowd could attest.
The early hopes that Will Power might charge through the field and contend for the race win were boosted when he made up ten positions early on, only to be dashed again on lap 18 then an oil fire set light to the rear right of the #12 car and forced him to come to a rapid halt and jump out before the barbecue really began. It's the first time that the Australian has failed to finish a road/street course event since 2011 at Toronto, and the first time that he's failed to win the Sao Paulo race since the event joined the IndyCar calendar in 2010.
"Obviously burned something with the gear shift because it stopped shifting," Power told the media once he got back to pit road. "I was looking for the automatic shift or the manual shift, but yeah it was a fire. We don't know what happened, I had no real warning, unfortunately. I had such a good car man, I was passing a car a lap."
Power's on-track bonfire of used parts brought out the second caution of the afternoon, the timing of it not ideal for those teams going for a two-stop strategy. Even so the top 12 all dutifully came in, leaving those cars that had come under the first yellow - Sebastien Bourdais, Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servià - in charge of the race for the restart. Ryan Hunter-Reay narrowly won the race off pit road over Scott Dixon, while Tony Kanaan's lead had evaporated with his pit crew's problems fitting the fuel nozzle.
The restart on lap 23 was a messy one, Castroneves overshot the first chicane while Bourdais lost his rear end and clouted the tyre wall with the right rear wheel; then James Jakes ploughed in, missed his braking point and sustained a more heavy hit with the same tyre wall. That left him stationary and backed up the rest of the field, which left race control with no option but to throw a third caution straight away to get everyone re-fired.
The next restart attempt was not without its jostling through turns and 2, but this time everyone just about got away with it, with the exception of Castroneves who was spun out by light contact from Dixon. The #3 was able to get going again without assistance, meaning that another return to caution was not required this time. Bourdais had been battered and bumped but retained the lead ahead of Josef Newgarden who had been one of the main beneficiaries of the restart scrambles, while Hunter-Reay was quickly back up into third place ahead of Simon Pagenaud. The man really on the move in the ensuing green flag laps was Takuma Sato, now on the red-wall tyres that allowed him to pull off a beautiful overtake on Kanaan to move into fifth place.
Bourdais, Newgarden and Pagenaud all soon headed to pit lane - Bourdais blowing his opportunity of a successful race by missing his pit stall and having to come back in again next time by - which left Hunter-Reay back in the front. That was for all of a matter of seconds, it turned out, before Sato blew past him to assume the lead on lap 34. Clearly the AJ Foyt Racing driver wasn't worrying about excessive fuel consumption, while Hunter-Reay was dutifully hitting the conservation numbers.
A lockup into the tyres for Graham Rahal in turn 2 left a piece of the #15's front wing on the track, necessitating another caution on lap 37; Sato did what he could to charge back to pit road, but a sluggish pit stop still meant that he emerged from pit road demoted to 19th place just ahead of Charlie Kimball, while the leaders - Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, Franchitti and Dixon - were still looking to stretch the current stint out far enough to facilitate their two-stop strategy meaning that they were in no mood to come onto pit road anytime soon.
Hunter-Reay held on to the lead at the restart on lap 40 despite locking up into the first turn, but all eyes were on a thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle between Marco Andretti and Oriol Servià for fifth place. Marco looked to have pulled it off, but Oriol held on and forced the #25 to yield into the next left hander - at which point the track was back under another full course caution. This time it was for a five-car jam in turn 8, which had started when Simon Pagenaud had attempted to go double file around the outside of his compatriot Sebastien Bourdais only for the two to collide against the outside barrier, blocking the track and thereby collecting Castroneves, Kimball and JR Hildebrand who literally had nowhere to go to avoid the blockage.
At the restart on lap 45, it was immediately clear that there was something wrong with the #1 car: it turned out that Hunter-Reay had a slow puncture, which forced him to surrender the lead and come in for a costly unscheduled pit stop which inevitably dropped him out of the top 20. Tony Kanaan briefly inherited the lead, but he was also struggling with a technical issue that gradually reduced him to a crawl, causing him to haemorrhage positions in short order to Marco Andretti, Oriol Servià, Dario Franchitti and EJ Viso.
Now in the fuel window to make it to the end, Servià was the first of the leaders to pit with 25 laps to go, with the others coming in a lap later just as Kanaan's pace declined to the point where a new full course caution was required to retrieve the ailing #11. The KV Racing team subsequently confirmed that the car had run out of fuel after the earlier problems on pit lane with the refuelling rig.
Having pitted only 12 laps earlier, JR Hildebrand assumed the lead at the restart. Five laps off the lead, Graham Rahal nonetheless lined up alongside him on the front row for the green flag, a complication that might have contributed to Marco Andretti losing several positions to Sato, Hinchcliffe and Newgarden in the mêlée. However the racing was short-lived before separate incidents saw James Jakes glance the wall and Justin Wilson bury his own car into the barrier at turn 5 to bring out the seventh caution of the day, a new record for Sao Paulo.
"I was trying to trying to pass Viso and I just locked up the brakes coming into turn five," said Wilson. "The front wing got wedged into the tires and we needed to be pulled out. That ended up putting us two laps down."
"I was behind Marco and I tried to set him up for one of the corners and I just ran wide and hit the wall and had to come in for a new nose," contributed Jakes about his own incident. "That put us in the back again and we moved up a couple of spots from there."
JR Hildebrand was forced onto pit road this time in order to get a new front wing, and that handed the race lead to none other than Long Beach victor Takuma Sato who was ahead of Hinchcliffe, Newgarden, Andretti and Pagenaud with 17 to go at the restart. Significantly, Ryan Hunter-Reay was also threatening to creep back into contention again in sixth place, albeit having run six laps longer than those around him and compromised by having to excessively save fuel to make it to the end.
When the track went green, Takuma Sato successfully protected the lead and Josef Newgarden went with him, blasting past Hinchcliffe for second place and forcing the Japanese driver to resort to using the push-to-pass boost to maintain his lead. It was one heck of a recovery for the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing driver, who had started from the back after an engine change on Saturday cost him a chance of participating in qualifying.
The battlelines were now drawn, and with no further yellow flags materialising for the remainder of the race the fans were treated to one of the best battles for a race win that the series has seen on a road/street course in recent times. Newgarden threw everything he had at the AJ Foyt Racing car and time and again seemed to come within inches of snatching the lead, only for Sato to hold him off on each occasion - at times coming within a whisker of being guilty of blocking.
As the two battled for lap after lap, Hinchcliffe was also also closing up on the pair from the rear. As they went through turn 11 for the penultimate time, the trio went three-wide and it was Newgarden who ended up losing out, demoted to the role of bystander as Hinchcliffe took the battle to Sato for the final 2.536 miles of the Sao Paulo race. He had the advantage of one remaining push-to-pass, but Sato was using every ounce of his skills to ward him off. Finally the cars approached turn 11 again for the last time - and Sato slightly outbraked himself, slithering into the corner and struggling to control the #14 into the right hander while Hinchcliffe was able to jump at the opportunity this presented. He got the cleaner, tighter line through the corner and emerged onto the main straight in front in the lunge for the chequered flag.
"There's no cooler way to win a race [than] in the last corner of the last lap!" laughed Hinchcliffe. "Takuma was making that race car really wide and he was defending the inside pretty well, almost too well a couple times. He just outbroke himself just a little bit and I was able to do a high-low and got the win."
Hinchcliffe had led the race for only 300 yards during the entire afternoon, but in doing so had claimed his second win of 2013 in the process, the second win of his IZOD IndyCar Series career. It also means that Andretti Autosport has won three of the first four races of 2013, with Hinchcliffe taking two to Hunter-Reay's one. Team owner was enjoying the run of good results regardless of which of his stable of drivers brought home the winner's trophy, of course.
"It's awesome to have two cars on the podium ... all-in-all it really was a great weekend for the whole Andretti Autosport group," he said, having thoroughly enjoyed the thrilling climactic battle in the final 17 laps. "That's IndyCar racing. That's what it's about. It seems that so many of these races go down the last turn of the last lap. That's what makes this such a great sport."
Hinchcliffe's win denied Sato achieving back-to-back wins, although the former F1 driver will at least take the consolation prize of leading the championship standings heading into the Indianapolis 500.
"Hinch did a great job," said Sato, the AJ Foyt Racing driver adding that he was still ecstatic at clinching second place for the team this weekend. "Today we started from 12th so it was a really solid day for us. It was a great, great race, and we're carrying good momentum into Indianapolis."
Further back from this truly epic finish, Newgarden's broken momentum cost him the final podium position in the final moments as he fell to fifth place by the finish. He was passed in short order by the still-battling Marco Andretti and Oriol Servià, both of whom performing impressively in Brazil - made all the more bitter-sweet in Servià's case coming hard on the heels of confirmation that Panther DRR is to shut up shop after the Indy 500 and leave the Spaniard out of work.
"It was a lot of fun - it was dicey at some points," said Marco. "Really it was just about conserving the push-to-passes for when it counts. At the end I was kind of using it when people weren't expecting me to use it so I could kind of snooker them."
"A little bit of a disappointment, I think we had a better car than fifth, but you've got to take what you can sometimes," admitted Newgarden of his last minute slide down the running order. "I thought we had a really strong race. Good solid points, top five is really good going into Indy, especially considering where we started."
EJ Viso, Dario Franchitti, Simona de Silvestro, Simon Pagenaud and Charlie Kimball rounded out the top ten, with Hunter-Reay unable to stop his slide out of the top ten and having to settle for 11th place by the chequered flag while his two team mates clinched podium positions. It certainly means that the championship is wide open heading to Indianapolis next week with everything to play for by all concerned.