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Rice steals Michigan prize as pit crews suffer

2 August 2004

By Andrew Charman

Tony Kanaan led 185 of the 200 laps in the Michigan 400, but the Indy Racing League points leader didn't lead the one that mattered. With 10 laps left Buddy Rice rounded his Andretti-Green Racing rival to snatch the win and close the gap between them at the top of the table.

While the action on the track was of the frantic 200mph-plus variety we expect at Michigan, more worrying was the chaos that erupted in pit road. Three separate incidents resulted in crew members being hit by cars, thankfully all escaping serious injury in what looked frightening crashes.

Tony Kanaan had pole position for the Michigan Indy 400 and from the moment the green flag fell the driver of the #11 Andretti-Green Racing Dallara-Honda looked in a different race to everyone else, moving straight into the lead and proceeding to dominate the opening laps. Behind the green Dallara the surprisingly competitive Kosuke Matsuura held second in the early stages in his #55 Super Aguri Fernandez Racing G Force-Honda, but was soon demoted by the driver rapidly becoming Kanaan's biggest rival for the title, Buddy Rice in the #15 Rahal-Letterman G Force-Honda.

The man on the early charge, however was 2002 Michigan winner Tomas Scheckter in his #4 Panther Racing Dallara-Chevrolet. The US engine builder has so far struggled this season against its Japanese rivals, but appeared to had found something here. Starting 13th, Scheckter sluiced through the field, and by lap 24 had moved past Rice into second, the second Rahal-Letterman car of Vitor Meira fighting with the #6 Penske Racing Dallara-Toyota of Sam Hornish Jr over fourth, Matsuura close in behind ahead of Adrian Fernandez's self-run #5 G Force-Honda.

Lap 35 saw Matsuura initiate the first pit calls, a poor stop that dropped him down the field. Meira and Hornish came down pit road side by side next lap, the second Penske Dallara of Helio Castroneves in too and both he and Hornish getting ahead of the Rahal-Letterman car. But Scheckter had a complete disaster; as he turned into his pit Tora Takagi next door was let out, hitting the Panther Dallara which half-spun and pinned one of the crew members against the pit wall. Thankfully the crewman escaped uninjured but Scheckter's car needed a new nose.

Straight after the first caution flew for debris, and as the mess was sorted out Kanaan retained the lead, Dan Wheldon now second in the #26 Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda from Darren Manning's #10 Target Chip Ganassi G Force-Toyota and the rest, while Scheckter was 21st a lap down. The green flew on lap 45 and Manning immediately lost momentum, plummeting down the field. Rice went to third, Hornish to fourth, Castroneves and Meira chasing them in one long drafting line. Rice began working on Wheldon resulting in those behind all closing up, the two Penskes battling hard with Meira.

Rice finally got around Wheldon and set off after Kanaan, and both Penskes started to work on the Brit, Hornish getting through as the Andretti-Green car tried to block Castroneves. Helio's frustration intensified as Meira and Matsuura joined the scrap, and within five laps Frenandez, Dario Franchitti's #27 Andretti-Green machine and Manning had also joined the train.

For lap after lap the darting pack containing everyone from third to 10th provided edge-of-the-seat entertainment but not until 64 laps wer ein the books did Meira find a way past both Penskes to take third and set off after team-mate Rice, who in turn had been able to catch leader Kanaan but appeared not to have the pace to go past.

Matsuura was again first to pit for fuel on lap 78. Much of the leading pack came in two laps later, but Kanaan waited longest, peeling off on lap 83 and retaining the lead ahead of Rice, Meira, Matsuura and Wheldon, the Penskes losing out with Hornish sixth and Castroneves eighth. Scheckter meanwhile was up to 18th, among the lead pack and the fastest man on the track but still a lap down.

Lap 100, half-distance, and Kanaan earned his three bonus points for leading the most laps, but now he was under a two-pronged attack from Rice and Meira. The pack behind was headed by Scheckter, desperately trying to catch the leaders and get his lap back, but on lap 108 he peeled off and headed for pit road in the hope of trying to do the job when the leaders made their next stop. But minutes later the second caution flag flew, again for debris, and the entire field except for Scheckter headed in for fuel and tyres.

Kanaan came out first again from Rice, while Penske got their stops right this time, Hornish jumping to third from Meira and Wheldon. The green flew on 116 and the top three went across the line side-by-side, Rice moving ahead but Kanaan coming straight back to retain his lead

The yellow was out again on lap 124, caused by a combination of slight contact between Meira and Castroneves and Dario Franchitti's bad luck returning with a blown engine, last week's winner posting this week's first retirement. More chaos followed in the resultant pit stops, as Meira's slowing car was run into by Fernandez's exiting one, spinning into Wheldon's front tyre changer. Again he escaped unhurt, while as Meria dropped down the field so did his team-mate, Rice coming in after everyone else after earning some possibly vital bonus points for leading a lap but losing serious track position in the process.

The restart on lap 132 saw Kanaan back in the lead from Hornish and Bryan Herta in the fourth Andretti-Green Dallara, while Rice and Meira were coming back through the field. Ahead of them the two Penskes raced frantically three-wide with Wheldon, the two Marlboro-backed drivers only just avoiding contact and an embarrassing interview with their boss Captain Roger Penske.

Meanwhile the lap-down Scheckter had caught Kanaan, and on lap 145 he went side-by-side with the leader. Tony tried to hold him back and in the process allowed everyone else to close up, the pack now led by Rice after a storming recovery from the Rahal-Letterman team leader. On lap 149 he tried to go around Scheckter who was still side-by-side with Kanaan, but the move didn't work and Rice was again forced to defend from Hornish. Then it all went wrong for Scheckter, the Panther car slowing on the backstretch out of fuel, coming to a halt and sparking a caution just at the right time for everyone else to make their final fuel stop.

Amazingly the pits provided action of the frightening kind for a third time, Fernandez locking up and spinning backwards into his pit box, knocking one of his crew members flying but again so luckily without injury. Meira was also in trouble, potential suspension damage from his earlier clashes dropping him down the field, and as they lined up for the restart it was a familiar tale, Kanaan ahead of Rice, Hornish and Wheldon.

The green flew on lap 163 and Rice again moved alongside Kanaan, but still he did not appear to have the power to go past, and Hornish took advantage to snatch second. Rice regained the spot within five laps but by that time Kanaan had built a gap.

As the laps ran down, however, Rice closed back in while further back the two Penske cars ran side-by-side ahead of the similar side-by-side Ganassi cars of Manning and Dixon. The entertainment was here, because no matter how he tried Rice seemed to have nothing for the leader. As Hornish and Castroneves ran alongside each other Manning moved outside both of them, and on lap 177 he was third, team-mate Dixon immediately taking Hornish for fifth.

Now fuel became the talking point, most team owners fearing they'd only just have enough for lap 200. The drivers couldn't worry, they had their hands full as the lead pair were caught by the following six. Battling hardest were the two Ganassi cars, almost colliding with 17 laps left.

Into the final 10 laps and the top six runners were lined up in a drafting pack, and Rice now moved outside Kanaan again, but this time he made the move stick. Kanaan ducked in behind the Rahal-Letterman car, the lead two putting daylight over Hornish and Manning, and suddenly Rice opened a gap to Kanaan. The championship leader looked beaten, but with three to go he suddenly closed back in, while further back there was almost an almighty shunt as Meira and Castroneves banged wheels, amazingly keeping going.

Kanaan moved alongside as they took the white flag, but Rice had the measure of him and held on to snatch a win that had looked to be in his rival's pocket all day. Behind these two Wheldon emerged from the pack to take third, Hornish fourth and Meira recovering to fifth.

“I said yesterday we don't need to show anything until the last 20 laps,” grinned Rice in victory lane. “We knew what we had to do when we had to do it.” He had reason to be very happy, while Kanaan, who thought he might have run over a piece of front wing from the Meira/Castroneves clash on the last lap, has reason to be concerned. Rice has now matched him with three wins, and the points gap that so recently looked so dominant is shrinking fast. Next stop, Kentucky in two weeks time. It'll be a thriller…




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