It certainly wasn't the prettiest of races at times, and when the track was completely blocked for the third time by a multi-car accident at a restart you'd have been forgiven for rolling your eyes and wondering whether you were watching the circus clowns performing. But when the race sparked into life it truly delivered a thrilling and wildly unpredictable event, one that gripped right to the chequered flag and left fans with an unexpected podium trio.
"We got very lucky on the restarts, we didn't get collected," admitted race winner Simon Pagenaud as he headed to victory circle for the second time in 2013. "Awesome job for the HP team. They've been awesome this weekend and I guess it's good for the championship."
Scott Dixon and Will Power had brought the field to the green flag for the beginning of the 75-lap Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT, and Dixon was able to fend off Power in the run down to turn 1 for what would subsequently be shown to be a rare clean start. However, Dixon found himself powerless to keep the #12 behind him through the turn 3 hairpin and be forced to cede the lead to Power.
Helio Castroneves also tried a look down the inside of Josef Newgarden at the hairpin and quickly regretted it as his front wing got heavily stepped on, forcing him into pit lane for a replacement. Indirectly caught out at the same time was Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose car went into anti-stall mode as the traffic ahead backed up, and while he was finally able to get the car moving forward again he had dropped to the back of the field in the meantime.
Power was cruising away at the front with soon stretched out more than six seconds over Dixon with Simon Pagenaud a second further back, and Josef Newgarden continuing his impressive weekend with a solid move on Justin Wilson for fourth at the same time that Graham Rahal was able to pass Tristan Vautier for seventh.
Not everyone was having a good day of it, however: a fiery gearbox problem left James Jakes in the run-off at turn 1 on lap 5, while an engine problem saw Takuma Sato crawl back to pit lane to retire. He was joined there by Ganassi's Dario Franchitti who had been having no luck at all this weekend with two engine changes and now brake issues putting him out of the race.
"About half of a lap after our pit stop our gearbox control unit broke and it was game over," said Jakes. "Only five laps in. It's frustrating, obviously."
As for Sato, he commented that he'd "Made a good start and everything was under control, but only a few laps into the race I had a sudden loss of power and it couldn't be fixed so we had to retire."
"After about six laps the brake pedal went to the floor both in turn 1 and turn 12," said Franchitti of his own issue. "We came in and bled the brakes, it was okay until we got them hot again and then it did exactly the same thing. There's obviously a problem because I generally don't use the brakes that often."
Luca Filippi's day also ended early on lap 13 with the back of the #98 Barracuda Racing/Bryan Herta Autosport car catching fire in turn 3 while the race was already under yellow when Ed Carpenter made what he himself described "a dumb mistake" which saw him lock up and slide into the tyres at turn 5.
"I felt the car stop, I lost the drive," said Filippi. "It's a shame because the Barracuda Racing car was very fast during the weekend and especially in the race. I felt that I was following the guys at the top and I actually think I was faster."
Racing resumed on lap 19, with Pagenaud passing Dixon for second in turn 1 and Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal moving up to fifth and sixth. Wilson had opted to join the group of cars to pit under the caution putting him down in 13th with all but one of the cars ahead yet to make their first stops; unfortunately a lock up sent the #19 Dale Coyne Racing car down a run-off and Wilson plummeted to 19th spot by the time he was able to rejoin.
A close encounter with the wall saw Newgarden haemorrhage multiple positions and drop to eighth spot moments later before his own first visit to pit lane of the afternoon on lap 25. The leaders weren't in for another four laps however: Pagenaud in first, Kimball and Rahal in on lap 30, Dixon stretching it another lap further and Power not coming in until the end of lap 32 having built up a seven second lead. A slow stop for the #12 as a result of running over an airhose and ending up being out of position too close to the wall saw the time margin at the front that Power had previously built up promptly evaporate; when it rejoined, the Penske car came under all types of pressure from a determined Dixon over the next few laps, but ultimately to no avail despite a furious Dixon's accusations of blocking.
Opting for an earlier stop now left Sebastien Bourdais in charge of the race ahead of Vautier, Sebastian Saavedra and Helio Castroneves. Bourais came in for his second stop on lap 40 just before the second full course caution of the day for Stefan Wilson who had put the second Dale Coyne Racing car into the wall at turn 7. A flurry of pit stops in response to the yellow enabled Bourdais to reclaim the top spot ahead of Power and Dixon with Saavedra slotting into the gap left by a slow EJ Viso in fifth place, the #5 holding up a pack of cars that included Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe.
The caution was extended by Ryan Hunter-Reay abruptly coming to a halt in turn 10: "Out of nowhere the car just died," he recalled. "Electronics cut out on it, battery voltage looked good and then all of a sudden it just fell through the bottom. It's heartbreaking."
When the race resumed on lap 47 Bourdais maintained the lead into turn 1 but behind him Dixon was tipped into a spin by Graham Rahal that led to the entire track being blocked by the rest of the field piling into the corner behind them. Once everyone was restarted and sent on their way, race control sorted out the correct running order and cars made opportunistic visits to pit road leaving Bourdais still in the lead ahead of Rahal, Power and Servia with Dixon only dropping to fifth as a result of the incident ahead of Kimball, Viso and Saavedra.
At the restart on lap 53, the race didn't even make it down to turn 1 before there was a dramatic collision: Scott Dixon had got a huge run down the inside of Power as they passed the line, when the #12 suddenly jinked hard to the right, seemingly to make his own pass on Bourdais ahead rather than to ward off Dixon's move behind. The two made heavy impact, Dixon thrown into the wall and damage also done to Power's right rear suspension in a collision that will do nothing to soothe the skyrocketing tensions between the Penske and Ganassi camps on pit road after the controversial incidents last week at Sonoma.
"On the restart I had an overtake advantage on Power," said Dixon. "It must have been in fourth-gear, so they can't complain about wheel spin. Then I got beside him and he ran me straight into the wall."
"I feel really bad," said a chastened Power after seeing the replays. "I thought I had a really good run on Bourdais and I was going to the inside to get around him and I thought I hit a bump or just lost it on cold tyres. I really had no idea that Dixon was there. I actually didn't even know until I got back to the pits and they told me. I feel terrible for him and his team. All I can do is tell them how sorry I am and move on to Houston."
In fact Power wasn't the only target for Dixon's post-race fury, as the Kiwi directed a broadside at race control as well, and at race director Beaux Barfield in particular.
"The #15 should have received a penalty [for spinning us] and the #4 car passed us on a yellow," he complained. "Then [after the crash with Power] they wouldn't bring the car back [to pit lane]. Beaux needs to be fired, he was a complete idiot today."
In the meantime Rahal had managed to pass Bourdais and duly led at the next attempt at a restart on lap 57 which for the second time today ended up in a mass of cars stationary in turn 1, this time as a result of Bourdais locking up and turning late into the corner across the path of Servia. Bourdais had been tapped into a spin by the contact while Servia ended up in the outside tyres, leaving him to be collected by the traffic coming in behind him and forcing another full course caution. Rahal had maintained the lead through all this but was now forced to pit in order to change to the red-walled tyres for the first time in the race in compliance with IndyCar rules that requires cars to use both compounds during the race much as in F1. The stop dropped him down to ninth place for the restart.
Marco Andretti was duly handed the lead for the first time ahead of Tony Kanaan, with Pagenaud and Wilson in front of Bourdais and Castroneves in sixth ahead of Newgarden and Hinchcliffe. The restart on lap 60 was clean with Marco showing surprisingly good pace to pull away from a struggling Kanaan through turn 1, while Castroneves was called upon to serve a drive-thru penalty for hitting the Penske right front tyre changer Doug Snyder during his lap 41 pit stop which dropped him out of the top ten.
"I have to say sorry to Doug, I'm glad he seems to be all right," said Castroneves, who said that he'd never had an incident in which he'd hit a crewmember before. "It was very slippery in the pits and I just slid in. I'm not really sure what happened."
Pagenaud quickly passed Kanaan for second place and Justin Wilson was lining up to do the same when a new full course caution materialised, this time trigged when Wilson was spun around by slight contact from Bourdais at the turn 3 hairpin causing yet another track blockage, Rahal and Hinchcliffe the most seriously caught out by the resultant fracas.
The first restart attempt on lap 66 was waved off when Marco Andretti took off too soon, so the green finally came out with just nine laps remaining and everything to play for. Andretti held the lead into turn 1 but was clearly struggling on worn tyres and with the damage to his front wing, so that despite having no remaining push-to-pass overtaking boosts it was Pagenaud who soon out-braked him into turn 1 to take the lead at the start of lap 69. Bourdais quickly followed Pagenaud past Andretti and rapidly lined up his shot on his compatriot for the race lead when Pagenaud ran wide at turn 7, but Pagenaud was able to fend it off, the pair touched and Bourdais nearly ended up spinning into the tyres at turn 8 before just managing to gather it up and continue, albeit dropping two spots while he did so.
That allowed Newgarden to pop into second spot, and the youngster from Nashville tried to capitalise on his opportunity by closing the gap on the leader in the remaining laps only to find that it was too much to ask. Instead, Newgarden was forced to drop back and concentrate on successfully fending off Bourdais to the line.
"I really wanted to give Simon a run for his money there - I think we had the pace for him, we just had no brakes left," he explained. "Thanks to everyone as Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, they give me every opportunity to do this - I wouldn't be an IndyCar driver without them," he said, adding: "I'm happy to give them a second-place."
Meanwhile, Bourdais was left visibly frustrated at the way he'd been denied the win by that late-race robust defensive move from Pagenaud. "I will let people judge it," he said. "I have my own opinion. We're friends, but there are no friends on the track - I learned that the hard way."
With Andretti and Kanaan fading fast - Kanaan ended the race in the wall in turn 12 on the penultimate lap - there was a chance for some late storming runs further back. Justin Wilson emerged from a frustrating up-and-down afternoon with a decent fourth place, while birthday girl Simona de Silvestro was in majestic form in the closing laps as she climbed to fifth place ahead of Kimball who in turn narrowly held off a resurgent Hinchcliffe for sixth. Saavedra, Castroneves and Andretti rounded out the top ten and were the final cars left on the lead lap by the chequered flag, with Vautier, Servia, Viso and Carpenter all ending up a lap off the pace after the eventful race.
"It was a strange race but I'm really pleased that we managed to hang on and get fourth place" said Wilson, revealing that it was a minor miracle that he'd made it to the finish at all. "It was a tough race. I lost the rear brakes completely from about lap 4, the pedal was going to the floor so I was just trying to hang on."
"I'm definitely really happy with P5," beamed de Silvestro, who turned 25 on Sunday. "It was kind of a crazy race. I don't think we had the fastest car out there, but we had a pretty good call on the pits when we got stuck in one of the wrecks," she said, adding: "Not a bad way to celebrate my birthday!"
Pagenaud's second win of 2013 after claiming his maiden series victory in the second race at Detroit in June moves him up into third place in the championship standings ahead of Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay and very much in contention for the title going into the final three races of the season in October. But sitting pretty at the top of the points is Helio Castroneves, for whom survival to a top ten finish means that he extends his lead over non-finisher Scott Dixon to 49 points and gives him the whip hand going into the Houston double-header and the Fontana season finale.
"I am glad we were able to finish in the top 10 and keep our lead in the championship," said Castroneves. "Wow, what a crazy race!"
He sure wasn't kidding.See full race results
for the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT, and the complete championship standings
after round 16 of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season.