Ever since the IZOD IndyCar Series team and drivers had first turned a wheel at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway tri-oval on Thursday during open testing, it had been painfully clear to the Honda contingent that they were doomed. Chevrolet and in particular Andretti Autosport had been in the ascendency all week, and Marco Andretti had absolutely dominated every single session on his way to claiming pole position for the Pocono IndyCar 400, the first open wheel race at the Tricky Triangle since 1989.
Surely nothing could possibly go to wrong on the day?
The three-wide start went without incident, the all-Andretti Autosport front row quickly dropping into what looked like a pre-arranged single file through turn 1 with Marco Andretti taking point. If that had been planned, however, then what followed most definitely hadn't as the team plan went awry seconds later: the #27 bobbled innocuously, but James Hinchcliffe's attempts to catch the spin backfired and the car snapped into a hard hit against the wall to bring out the first caution. Scratch one.
Having banged his knee in the impact, Hinchcliffe limped away from the shattered GoDaddy.com car but he was quickly cleared by the doctors in the infield medical centre, now simply disappointed to be watching the remainder of the 160-lap race from the sidelines. He was quickly joined there by Dragon Racing's Sebastian Saavedra, whose car had suffered a stuck throttle even before the green flag and forced the Colombian to take the car to the garage where attempts to rectify the issue came to nought.
Marco Andretti led at the restart on lap 5 with KV Racing's Tony Kanaan moving into second spot ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay. Marco was still comfortably in charge when it came to the first round of green flag pit stops: Andretti himself was in unexpectedly early on lap 31, while the majority stayed out another five laps before coming in, but once the stops had cycled through the #25 was still on point, now with Hunter-Reay in second and AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato up into third spot after a stuck fuel nozzle cost Kanaan some time on pit road. Nothing to the time lost by Tristan Vautier, however, who overshot his Schmidt-Peterson pit box and spun the #55 trying to correct the mistake, all of which left him two laps off the pace.
Marco Andretti was in for his next green flag pit stop on schedule on lap 61; behind him, his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay followed him on the same lap in as did third-place man Takuma Sato. Only, the #14 seemed to be completely oblivious of the pit lane speed limit and was a good 20mph faster than allowed, meaning that he went flying into the side of the slowing #1 car directly ahead of him.
"I think I misjudged it, simply too fast. We came off the corner, and I lost the back end and slid into Ryan," said Sato, not offering any excuses for the incident. "Extremely sorry to Andretti Autosport and their crew and my crew."
Hunter-Reay had been punted into a sharp impact with the outside pit wall causing front wing and right suspension damage, while the left rear of Sato's car had a large crack in it that looked very terminal for the Japanese driver's hopes of continuing. Hunter-Reay faced a lengthy wait on pit road to see if the damage to the #1 could be repaired and eventually did come back out albeit 20 laps down, but retired once there was no further prospect of gaining any further positions and revealed that the impact had exacerbated an injury to his right hand that had been sustained at Barber Motorsports Park earlier in the season which was a concern heading into the bumpy Toronto street track double-header next weekend.
Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves were among those able to make their stops before the track went full course caution and pit road briefly closed, leaving Will Power, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti among those having to wait for Hunter-Reay's car to be recovered before being able to make their stops. All of this jumbled the running order up somewhat for the restart on lap 72 with Tony Kanaan ahead of Andretti and Castroneves, with Simon Pagenaud finding himself up into fourth place ahead of Power who was running in front of a Ganassi trio consisting of Dixon, Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti.
This rise of the Honda teams was against expectations after their dismal showing at Pocono all week. Several of the cars - Dixon, Pagenaud, Vautier and Sato - had taken receipt on Friday of a new specification of Honda engine that they had run for the first time on Saturday, successfully enough to persuade other Honda runners Franchitti, Justin Wilson and Pippa Mann to make the change as well even at the cost of a ten-place grid penalty that had them at the back of the field for the start. Dixon had joined them there after it was found his 'approved' engine change had been a miscommunication, and Alex Tagliani also had a grid penalty after being forced to change his own Honda after crashing in qualifying. Despite the grid handicaps, however, it was clearly paying off for the Dixon and Franchitti and for Wilson who was also up into the top ten. But could there new engines propel them any further up the standings in the remaining laps of the race? Chevrolet still looked in control and Marco Andretti still marching to victory despite the woes that had waylaid his team mates.
And Marco wasted no time getting around Kanaan for the lead as the cars went four-wide on the restart, and Castroneves had his hands full with Pagenaud for third place while his Penske team mate Power quickly lost out to Dixon flexing his new-spec Honda's muscles. Andretti continued to lead until he kicked off the next round of green flag pit stops on lap 95, but a delay on the left front tyre change meant that he ended up running behind Tony Kanaan and Will Power after the pit stops shook out.
Scott Dixon had managed an even better seven-second flying pit stop, however, and came out into the lead ahead of the others. In contention for the $1 million Triple Crown bonus prize, Kanaan was in no mood to play second fiddle and soon made a passing move on Dixon - only to misjudge it by an inch and clip his front wing on the left rear wheel guard of the Ganassi #9. The wing was in a clearly precarious condition and the team had no choice to bring him in for a replacement, pretty much ending his race (and million dollar) winning hopes.
In the meantime Will Power and Marco Andretti had both passed Dixon, and Marco continued the momentum of that moment to also move into the lead ahead of Power on lap 109, rapidly extending out a six tenths margin of safety. However, the big concern on the Andretti pit wall was about fuel mileage, with most of the field - and certainly the #25 - looking around 5 laps shy of making it to the finish with just one more visit to pit road. The question now was whether to lean off and run the risk of running too slowly, or try planning a splash-and-dash late stop, or simply to put it into the lap of the Gods and hope for a safety car period to extend the current fuel window.
Aware of Marco's dilemma, Will Power applied the pressure to force Andretti keep his foot on the gas, and Marco was forced to drop from the lead as he was quickly passed by both Power and Dixon, both of whom were looking better for making it to the finish with just one more tank of gas.
The pit stops started to play out on lap 126 with Marco in with 34 laps to the finish of the race - still further than he'd managed in his previous stints. Castroneves was in two laps later and Power in next time by after that, but Dixon was comfortable cruising through to lap 131. By the time the pit stops had cycled through, Dixon was back out in front ahead of his Ganassi team mates Kimball and Franchitti, a Honda 1-2-3 that hadn't seemed remotely feasible at any stage through all the Andretti/Chevrolet-dominated testing, practice and qualifying sessions at Pocono before today - let alone Ganassi's comparatively dismal form all season by their own high standards which Franchitti himself had declared "embarrassing" as recently as 24 hours earlier. How much was it down to the new specification engines, and how much did it once again underline that while the Chevys might have the whip hand on raw speed, the Hondas hold the advantage when it came to fuel mileage?
Will Power's attempt to break through the Ganassi cabal took the air off his front wing and dropped him back behind Simon Pagenaud to fifth place, just ahead of the fuel-saving Marco Andretti in sixth. The rest of the top ten was rounded out by Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden, Penske's Helio Castroneves, Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson and finally by owner-driver Ed Carpenter in the #20 who was just ahead of Tony Kanaan, although the Indy 500 champion was off-sync due to that enforced wing change and still had his final stop to make with came on lap 140 and put him a lap down again with 20 to go.
When he came out, Kanaan was on the freshest tyres and had the most fuel to burn, so Scott Dixon was wise enough not to do battle with him for track position and instead allowed the #11 to unlap itself. That had the bonus effect of giving Dixon and his team mates a fast-moving car running immediately ahead of them that could act as an early warning system others to assist their way past backmarkers such as Panther's Ryan Briscoe and Dale Coyne Racing's Pippa Mann, who were the last cars to go a lap down before the end of the race finally arrived.
There were no last minute upsets: the Ganassi cars flew in formation across the finish line to pick up the team's first-ever 1-2-3 finish in any motor racing series that they have ever competed in. Will Power managed to claim fourth position for Penske and for Chevrolet, but behind him was another trio of Honda cars - Newgarden, Pagenaud and Wilson - in a total inversion to what everyone had expected coming into race day.
Castroneves came home in eighth ahead of Carpenter, while long-time race leader and runaway favourite for the win Marco Andretti finally limped home in tenth place and then promptly ran out of fuel, having to pull over on the front straight, graphically demonstrating that his fuel woes had been very real indeed. "It absolutely ripped my guts out," said Marco after he ended up as the only Andretti Autosport car to finish the race out of four to star the race, leaving team boss Michael Andretti wondering just where their meticulous planning had gone awry.
Looking if anything more astounded with the outcome was race winner Scott Dixon, who had become the first Ganassi winner of a hitherto barren 2013 season. It's Dixon's 30th win in the IndyCar Series putting him tenth on the all‑time win list, the 100th for sponsor Target and and Honda's 200th victory.
It was clear on the faces of Dixon and his team mates as well as team owner Chip Ganassi that they were all fervently hoping this marked a sea-change and a major turning point in the squad's fortunes moving into the remainder of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season.See full race results
and championship standings