Wheldon big in Japan
17 April 2004
By Andrew Charman
Indycar racing has a new star, and he's a Brit. Dan Wheldon started from pole position in his Andretti Green Racing Dallara and dominated the Indy Japan 300, giving Honda its first victory in seven races at its home track in Motegi, northwest of Tokyo. In the process he assumed over the series points lead which he will now take to the season's highlight, the Indianapolis 500. Wheldon beat Andretti Green Racing team-mate and former points leader Tony Kanaan to the finish line by 1.4454 seconds while Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves climbed from a 17th starting spot to finish third ahead of Target Chip Ganassi teammates Darren Manning and Scott Dixon.
Under cloudy skies the race got underway on schedule, though there was a brief scare for front-row occupant Greg Ray when his Access Motorsports #13 G-Force Honda stalled on the grid. He got going before the green flag flew, but it was clear immediately who was going to be the dominant factor in this race as Wheldon's #26 Andretti-Green car swept into the lead, team-mate and third-place starter Tony Kanaan in the #11 car going round Ray for second by the time they had completed one lap around the egg-shaped 1.5-mile oval.
Over the opening laps Wheldon maintained an advantage of around a second to Kanaan, Ray third while Buddy Rice's #15 Team Rahal G-Force Honda took fourth from impressive local driver Kosuke Matsuura in the #55 Fernandez G-Force Honda and then with 17 laps down passed Ray for third. Positions remained static until the first set of green flag pitstops, Wheldon the last of the leaders to pit on lap 47, briefly handing the lead to Scott Sharp's #8 Kelley Racing Dallara Toyota.
Shortly after the stops Greg Ray's excellent run came to an end when he disputed the same piece of track in turn 1 with Vitor Meira's #17 Rahal G-Force Honda. The resultant wheel banging did not bring out a caution but damaged the suspension of Ray's car sufficiently to see him retire within seven laps. Already out was rookie Ed Carpenter, mechanical dramas claiming his #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara-Chevrolet.
With the fuel stops cycled through Wheldon again led Kanaan, and by lap 65 they were lapping the third Andretti Green car of Dario Franchitti, holding 10th place. Meanwhile a frantic battle raged for sixth place between Scott Dixon's #1 Target Chip Ganassi G-Force Toyota and the Marlboro Team Penske pairing of Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jnr, Hornish almost losing his car as he tried to go high round his rivals and dropping back to eighth in the process.
Lap 77 saw the first caution, for debris in turn 3, and Wheldon led Kanaan, Rice, Darren Manning's #10 Target Chip Ganassi G-Force Toyota and Matsuura in for fuel. The green was out again on lap 84, but only briefly as Hornish ran into the back wheel of Matsuura's G-Force, the Penske spinning heavily into the wall but its driver escaping unhurt. “I just went in the corner, and there were too many cars in the same spot at the same time,” said Hornish later. “The car in front of me slammed on its brakes, and the car beside me ran over the corner of my car and pushed me straight into the wall.”
Castroneves pitted for tyres and fuel during the yellow period, and was down in seventh when Wheldon led Kanaan and Manning to the green on lap 95. This began 73 laps of green flag racing which the Andretti Green driver led virtually all the way, only briefly giving up his spot to Manning when he pitted on lap 136 for fuel. Manning's stop dented his race ambitions, the Ganassi driver missing his pit box and losing a couple of vital seconds as he was pushed back.
Lap 168 saw the second and final yellow of the day as Mark Taylor's #2 Menards Dallara-Chevrolet smacked the wall in turn 2. As the rookie climbed out of his damaged car the field pitted for fuel and tyres, and while Wheldon, the now second-placed Castroneves and Kanaan rejoined without difficulty Alex Barron hit problems, his #51 Cheever Dallara-Chevrolet losing a rear wheel as it left its pit box.
The green flew on lap 176 and Kanaan immediately passed Castroneves but could do nothing about the leader, Wheldon simply reeling off the remaining 24 tours to take his first IRL victory and a six point championship lead, having led 192 of the 200 laps. But speaking after the race he suggested that it hadn't been as easy as it looked. “This race was very, very difficult,” he said. “I think Honda performed absolutely excellently. I think Andretti Green Racing did an awesome job. You could see me and TK (Tony Kanaan) were very, very dominant. It's awesome. My last set of Firestones stuck really well. When TK is on your gearbox it's never easy.”
Kanaan suggested he could have challenged for the win had his car not lost a vital part of its aerodynamics. “We have a gurney on the undertray, and I lost the right-rear gurney. I knew right there that I wasn't going to be able to win, so I told the team guys, 'Let's do our best.' Because of that, my car was handling really badly, so I came in early, made an adjustment, and I'm happy with second. Honda tried to win this race so much. Dan (Wheldon) deserves it. He led the most laps and had a strong car. “
After his lowly qualifying position, Castroneves was happy with third; "Coming from the back, going to the front, going to the back again -- I was all over the place. I have to thank Firestone Tyres for giving me more than I expected on the last stint, and especially, Toyota. Even though I over-revved the engine so many times trying to go fast, the engine is still intact.“
Now the teams will have some time to reflect on this race – the next is not until the end of May. But it's also the one everyone wants to win – the Indianapolis 500.
(Photos: Firestone Racing)