The first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston double-header weekend turned the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship battle on its head, with success for Scott Dixon combined with disaster for Helio Castroneves ensuring that the leading contenders go into the final two races of the season neck-and-neck.
Race 1 turned out to be as eventful and gruelling as forecast, with technical issues and on-track incidents making it a serious war of attrition even though the one aspect of the circuit that had been on everyone's minds coming into the race - the now-notorious Reliant Park turn 1 bump - proved to be the least of anyone's worries once things got going.
Having claimed pole position in a delayed qualifying just a few hours earlier, Takuma Sato lined up on the front row of the grid alongside Will Power for the standing start at the Reliant Park Stadium circuit. The first attempt to get underway was thwarted by a stalled Charlie Kimball which cost the #83 his 16th position on the grid, and the second was subject to a long hold before the lights went out.
The prolonged pause was not kind to James Hinchcliffe, who stalled the #27 when the race finally got underway which left him a sitting duck as the other cars streamed past. For a moment it looked as though he would escape unscathed, but the last car by - the #67 of Ed Carpenter - just tagged the left rear of the stricken Andretti Autosport car putting both drivers out of the race and bringing out an immediate caution.
They were not the only cars in trouble: Tristan Vautier had made contact with the wall while avoiding Hinchcliffe, and had to be retrieved by the safety team and brought back to pit road; Kimball was already there to have that clutch issue investigated that had caused that first start to be aborted; and pole man Sato had his own nightmare start after picking up a right rear puncture in those opening corners which forced him to pit for a new set of tyres, dropping him down to 12th place.
As a result of the bumpy surface at Reliant Park that had already given organisers headaches in the run-up to the event, all restarts thereafter had already been decreed single-file affairs. Will Power was best placed to take advantage of that change after he had inherited the lead ahead of Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, with Simona de Silvestro in fourth ahead of EJ Viso and Luca Filippi when the green flags came out again on lap 10.
Stuck further down the order, championship leader Helio Castroneves opted to go off-strategy by making his first pit stop early at the end of lap 13, with Dario Franchitti following suit a couple of laps later; the Scot emerged from pit lane right behind Castroneves on track in 19th and 20th positions respectively. Both drivers advanced a position when Tony Kanaan managed to maroon himself in the turn 6 run-off with overheating brake issues, which was handled under local waved yellows without resorting to summoning the safety car into action.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had just made his first stop of the day on lap 23 when there was a dramatic return to pit lane for Castroneves who had reported gearbox failure with major repercussions for the championship. As the Penske crew worked feverishly to replace the unit - which ultimately took nine laps - Justin Wilson came in for his earlier than ideally planned first stop after reporting a slow puncture on the #19 Dale Coyne Racing car.
“We tried to move up at the start, but about 15 laps in, I felt the tyre going down and we had to come in a bit early," he explained after the race. "We knew the fuel window was going to be tight, but we just had to go for it. We had to conserve fuel a little bit, but I was just pushing, the whole way."
In amongst all these tales of woes it was a relief to see some good news - good for Simona de Silvestro, at least, who put on a lovely slide pass on Pagenaud for third place in the race. Power and Dixon were still in a commanding lead, but Dixon's race was briefly frustrated when Marco Andretti exited from pit lane right between the #12 and #9 and made it impossible for the Ganassi car to get by, temporarily freeing up the Penske to scamper down the road in the meantime. However once Dixon did get by the lapped car, he was soon able to hunt down the leader and resume his watching brief right on the back bumper of the Verizon car until they reached the pit window for a two-stopper. Dixon was in first at the end of lap 36 and Power responded next time around: a great outlap by Dixon and a slight glitch with the jack on the #12 was enough to swing the situation in the Kiwi's favour.
There was less cheer for Dixon's team mate Franchitti, however, who was the cause of the second safety car of the day when he spun at turn 3 while battling de Silvestro, which left the #10 broadside on across the middle of the track and giving race control no choice but to show the full course caution. That was something of a relief to the AJ Foyt Racing team, who had lost radio comms with Sato and had been forced to get race control to show their driver the black flag to call him in for his pit stop to attend to the matter.
The race went back to green at the midway point of the 90-lap race, Dixon convincingly holding onto the lead while Pagenaud struggled on the cold prime tyres and lost positions to Luca Filippi, Sebastien Bourdais and Simona de Silvestro in short order to drop to sixth ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay and EJ Viso. However, once the #77 warmed its boots Pagenaud was soon able to start fighting back on on lap 54 he made a smooth move by de Silvestro to get back into the top five again. Both cars were in early for their final calls to pit road on lap 62.
Less happy with life was Hunter-Reay, who was on pit lane minutes later with what looked to be a similar gearbox issue as had earlier afflicted Castroneves, but which turned out instead to be more terminal electrical issues that the Andretti crew were unable to locate and fix. Also suffering from electrical or gear-related problems was the #4 Panther Racing car of Oriol Servia who was left coasting to a halt in turn 3 on lap 65 to bring out the caution flags once more.
That was just after Scott Dixon had just pitted for the final time. He'd exited in fourth place which was soon third after after Bourdais came in for his own final stop under the yellow, but both Power and Filippi opted to stay out ahead of him despite knowing that they still had to make their own final stops of the afternoon and desperately hoping for a miracle in the final 19 laps remaining of the day's racing.
Pagenaud once again struggled to make the #77 work at the restart, making him easy prey for both Dale Coyne Racing cars of Justin Wilson and Mike Conway to get past him in what had been proving to be an effective and feisty afternoon for both Brits. Unfortunately, Conway was caught out by the next caution, which was triggered by Sato running wide and into the tyres on the racing line out of turn 3 while battling with James Jakes. The #14 was stuck under a collapsed pile of tyres as Conway came through the corner without realising that the racing line was blocked, and he was forced to spin into the run-off to avoid crashing into the stricken Sato. His recovery plunged him from fifth all the way down to 14th place and a lap down by the time he got back underway.
Castroneves had also been caught up in that incident, and he was also the cause of the next caution on lap 79 when he ran off and stalled at exactly the same spot as he had a few minutes earlier, this time stalling and needing to be restarted. This was all excellent news to Dixon, who knew that he if he made it to the finish in the lead then he'd have made up huge ground in the points standings over Castroneves.
Dixon's campaign was helped by Power and Filippi having to make their final stop: Power dropped to 11th and was quickly passed by Filippi and Andretti at the restart, Filippi quickly moving past Kimball as well to make a rapid return to the top ten. At the front, Dixon took off for safety at warp speed despite fears that he might have a slow puncture as a result of running over debris behind the safety car. With Power and Filippi out of the way, de Silvestro and Wilson had moved into podium positions ahead of Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and James Jakes.
Mike Conway's day - which had looked so bright only a few minutes ago before that incident falling over Sato's accident - was going from bad to worse. First he accidentally tapped Dario Franchitti into a spin, and then a few minutes later he ran wide into turn 3 while battling with Marco Andretti. That planted him into the same tyre barrier that Sato had himself been stuck in: initially it looked as though the #18 might be able to reverse out of the problem, but the car stalled and race control had no option but to call a full course caution. With only two laps remaining there was now no chance to restart, so the race duly finished under yellow.
It was a triumph for Dixon, his fourth victory of the year and a huge boost for the Kimi's title prospects given the disastrous day experienced by his chief rival Helio Castroneves who ended up listed in 18th position, wiping out almost all of his lead in the title battle. Dixon's celebrations were made just that little bit sweeter by the sight of Power left moribund in 12th place.
Justin Wilson had put in a in his usual low-key but highly effective stellar performance to rise from 12th on the grid to third place, but his achievement - and even Dixon's to a degree - was somewhat overshadowed by the identify of the person joining them on the podium for the very first time in her IZOD IndyCar Series career: it has been an inch-perfect run by Simona de Silvestro who had maximised her fifth place grid position to press home the advantage, and won genuine battles for track positions with the likes of Pagenaud on her way to locking up the runners-up spot in the first race in Houston.
Pagenaud himself finished in fourth place just ahead of Josef Newgarden and and James Jakes, with Graham Rahal having battled all the way from the back of the grid to finish in an impressive seventh place ahead of Sebastien Bourdais, who like Power had been caught out by the timing of the late cautions just before his final pit stops. EJ Viso managed to hold on to ninth ahead of Filippi, arguably another driver of the day candidate for his strong performance in his latest IndyCar outing - one that had surely attracted attention from a number of team owners starting to think of their 2014 line-ups.
But that's for the future, and right now the focus is on the 2013 title - which thanks to a gruelling afternoon's events in Reliant Park on Saturday had been converted into a nail-bitingly close knife fight with just eight points between Dixon and Castroneves going into the remaining two races of the season. And we have less than 24 hours to wait before the first of those two encounters, when fortunes could swing all over again just as fast and decisively as they had in race 1.See full race 1 results