Scott Dixon and the Ganassi team as a whole had been having a pretty miserable time of it in 2013, right up to last weekend's race at Pocono which saw Dixon combine with his team mates Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti to deliver the first 1-2-3 in the squad's history in any motor sport series.
As wonderfully encouraging as that was for the team, it was far too early to start thinking that this marked the definitive turnaround point of the year. It would surely take at least another couple of pole positions, maybe a front row lockout, together with at least one win and a podium position over the double-header Honda Indy Toronto weekend before you could start entertaining wild dreams like that.
Well, Ganassi fans can indeed dare to start dreaming once more: all the above has indeed been accomplished and with a race still yet to run in Ontario, Canada - although it took some hard fighting both on and off the track on Saturday afternoon not just to win the race but also to keep the further podium position.
Unfortunately the proceedings didn't get off to the best of starts, with the much-anticipated first-ever IndyCar Series standing start for Saturday's race 1 failing to materialise after Josef Newgarden stalled on the grid. Because of concerns about the cars overheating, that forced stand-in race director Brian Barnhart to switch to Plan B and go for the traditional rolling start instead, once Newgarden had been rolled away into pit lane, but as a result of the anti-climax IndyCar announced that they'd switch race 2 to a standing start format for a second bite at the format.
As well as Newgarden, Justin Wilson had also got off to an unwelcome start to the day: his own #19 Dale Coyne Racing car had stalled on pit road even before the grid formation laps. That meant he had to give up his hard-earned eighth place on the grid and start instead from the back, and it looked like being a long day at the office for the Englishman.
Once the green flag was finally waved it was polesitter Dario Franchitti who went into an the early lead in front of of Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power ahead of a flying start into fourth for Ryan Hunter-Reay, with around a second soon separating each of the cars over the opening laps. However, the red-walled soft option tyres of Franchitti, Power and Hunter-Reay soon started to wear, giving Bourdais alone on the harder black prime tyres the whip hand and allowing him to move past Franchitti into the lead on lap 21.
Soon after losing the lead, Franchitti was among the first of the leaders to pit for fresh tyres. Bourdais himself was in on lap 30, after which the momentum shifted and it now seemed that among the leaders it was Power who had the advantage, moving to the front shortly before the first full course caution of the afternoon on lap 35. That was for contact between Tristan Vautier and Graham Rahal in turn 4, and Vautier was penalised for causing an avoidable collision by keeping his nose stuck too far up the inside of Rahal's #15 through the narrow left hander.
Power led at the restart on lap 40 with Bourdais battling hard but ultimately failing to hold second from Scott Dixon who had already got the better of his team mate Franchitti. Behind the Scot, Hunter-Reay found himself unexpectedly deposed from fifth place by his Andretti team mate EJ Viso, despite the Venezuelan having started from 14th on the grid - making him the biggest mover at this stage of the race. The #1 was clearly unsettled and Hunter-Reay also quickly lost sixth spot to the 2013 Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan; this combined with a costly 'stutter' on pit road where the clutch refused to bite. Things only got worse in the final round of pit stops 30 laps from the finish when the car stalled completely as Hunter-Reay tried to pull away, forcing the pit crew to drag the car back into its pit stall to refire it.
Will Power waited till lap 61 to come in for his own final pit stop, while Dixon stayed out an extra lap and in the meantime dropped the hammer on his in-lap in a bid to jump the Penske on pit road. It worked: Dixon emerged from pit lane just in front of Power, who did his best to use his brief advantage of up-to-temperature tyres but ended up getting caught out by Dixon having to brake early into turn 3. Power nearly ran into the back of the #9 Ganassi, and the time lost in in the incident meant that when Bourdais pitted next time around it was Groundhog Day all over again for Power who now found himself staring close-up at the back of the #5 Dragon as it emerged from pit lane.
Before Power could pressure Bourdais into letting him through, lap 65 saw the second full course caution of the race triggered by Charlie Kimball being punted into the tyre wall at turn 5 by contact with Justin Wilson, who received a drive-thru penalty for causing the accident by trying for an inside line that simply was never on.
"Things were going well and I went to pass him and I was alongside before the brake zone and when I hit the brakes I thought it was going to be an easy pass," said Wilson of the incident. "But I didn't realize that he was taking a short cut across the inside of the corner and he started turning. That was a bit frustrating."
Ryan Briscoe was also caught up in the incident and had injured his wrist, calling for an ice pack to apply to his right hand as he was checked out by the medical team. After the race finished, he was dispatched to hospital for X-rays where it was confirmed that he had suffered a broken wrist that would rule him out of Sunday's race 2 as well as next weekend's American Le Mans Series race at Mosport, where he was due to drive again for Level 5 Motorsports in the LMP2 class after success last weekend at Lime Rock.
“All of us at Panther Racing hate to see this happen to Ryan, but we've spoken with Dr Terry Trammel [IndyCar's orthopaedic consultant] and the quick recovery time for this type of injury is very encouraging,” said Panther Racing managing partner John Barnes. "We all wish Ryan a very speedy recovery and look forward to seeing him back in the National Guard car very soon."
Bourdais leapt to the front at the restart on lap 71 to Dixon's intense displeasure, the Kiwi convinced that the Frenchman had jumped a tardy green from the flag stand, although race control reviewed it and gave Bourdais' move the all-clear. Bourdais also had the advantage of the red-walled soft option tyres for this early part of the final stint, unlike the six cars behind him (Dixon, Franchitti, Power, Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan) all of whom were on the harder black-walled 'prime' compound. But just as the first phase of the race had shown, that edge would prove short-lived and on lap 77 Dixon was able to make the pass in the run down to turn 3 to retake the top spot from Bourdais with eight to go, leaving the Dragon driver now working hard to stop Franchitti in the second Ganassi car following Dixon's example in the remaining laps.
Hunter-Reay's hopes of charging back into the top ten from his earlier dual pit lane stalls ended in contact with the tyres at turn 3 while trying to outbrake his team mate EJ Viso. The damage was limited to a brief local yellow while Hunter-Reay was got back on his way, albeit back down in 18th again after all his earlier hard work. However a few minutes later a full course caution did materialise, when Alex Tagliani's #98 was left in the middle of the track in turns 1 and 2 after spinning while battling for position with Simon Pagenaud. With just minutes remaining in the race, this set up a cliffhanger restart and one-lap sprint finish.
Dixon took no chances when the green came out and was well away down the start/finish straight before Bourdais could even think about pulling anything; but Franchitti wasn't as fortunate behind them and got caught up in a tussle for third place with Will Power, only for Power to end up repeating his ambitious late-braking into turn 3 which this time put him into the tyres as the top three raced on to the chequered flag. Power clearly blamed Franchitti for the incident, telling the media afterwards that "Me and Dario just don't like turn 3," harking back to their infamous spat here in the 2011 Toronto crash-fest.
Franchitti took a less than humorous view of Power's complaints, telling reporters after the race that "It's always somebody's fault with Will." But in this case, race control agreed with the Penske driver and Franchitti was practically yanked off the third step of the podium after being handed a 25-second penalty for causing the collision with Power, handing third spot to Marco Andretti and dropping Franchitti himself down to 13th spot.
"He chose a line, he couldn't stop. I just don't get it," fumed Franchitti. "There's a lot of frustrations with IndyCar and this says a lot," he added as he and the Ganassi team stormed off to argue an appeal with race control. When they emerged they were considerably happier with the state of affairs, the penalty rescinded and Dario reinstated to third place after all.
"I was defending," explained Franchitti. "I went to the outside, and he went to the inside when there was only a half a car length" he said, pointing out that everyone had been driving the corner in exactly the same way without issue all afternoon.
Watching from the sidelines, racing icon Mario Andretti had sided with Franchitti: "[Dario] did not block, he defended his position on the last lap like a champion is expected to do," he posted on Twitter, adding the hashtag #CommonSense to make the point.
While Franchitti was back on the podium after the appeal, there was no such reprieve for Power who ended up losing fourth place and dropped to 15th in the final classified results, classified as the first car a lap off the lead. His misfortune was a boost for others including Marco Andretti who claimed fourth (albeit not quite as good as his brief elevation to third) ahead of Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves.
Britain's Mike Conway finished in seventh place, the Dale Coyne Racing team finally having found some grip for the #18 that they had been lacking in both the qualifying sessions and which had left Conway starting the race from 20th position. Although a long way off the dream performance that saw him win the first double-header race at Detroit, it means that Conway finished ahead of his team mate and compatriot Justin Wilson who'd had a torrid day of it, with his pit lane stall before the start and then his involvement in the accident with Kimball and Briscoe that saw him penalised.
“It was a difficult day,” said Wilson, who finished in 11th place behind James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud and Simona de Silvestro. "After the stall on the pre-grid, I had to start at the back of the grid which seemed a little harsh but that's the rules. We just had to make our way through.
"The car was working well. We had a good car, we were quick and we were coming through," he continued. "I really wanted to get a good result for the Boy Scouts of America guys but obviously we'll concentrate on tomorrow now. We're going to try to tweak it just a little bit overnight so we can find a little bit more speed and I think we have a good chance tomorrow."
That was a common refrain up and down pit lane: those teams and drivers that had performed poorly on Saturday were hoping that they could find something overnight to transform their fortunes for race 2 in less than 24 hours time, while those who had done well like Dixon and Bourdais were fervently hoping that they could maintain their edge and score another big success on part two of the Honda Indy Toronto - same time, same place on Sunday.
And Bourdais had one more task for the day: sweeping up the shards of the glass trophy he'd received for second place. The bowl had detached from the base during the podium celebrations and crashed to the ground, leaving a sadly forlorn rump of glass with very jagged edges in the startled Frenchman's hands. Not that this seemed to dent Bourdais' joy at what had been by far his best result of the last year.
"I got plenty of trophies, it's not what makes your day - what makes your day is to have a day like this, make the result," he said. "We were hoping for that a long time ago, never quite got the break. Today we drove well, fought hard, and got the result in the end."
And now all he and the other 22 drivers in the field (sans
Briscoe) have to do on Sunday is the whole thing all over again one more time.See full race 1 results