St Pete 2007: Helio nearly perfect
1 April 2007
Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves led 95 of 100 laps as he successfully defended his 2006 Honda Indy Grand Prix crown on the 1.8-mile St Petersburg street circuit.
From pole position Castroneves was only headed thanks to the pit strategy of others and even went as far as to nudge an out-of-sequence Dan Wheldon out of the way before the green flag waved for the second of five restarts during the course of the race.
Escaping with no penalty, Castroneves only lost the lead for three laps from lap 34 onwards when Andretti-Green Racing's Marco Andretti inherited top spot during a round of green flag pitstops.
"It was all about consistency today," the Brazilian admitted, "Team Penske was incredible. The car was very consistent, although a little bit tough on the cold tyres.
"Almost everything was working perfectly. The gears started to wear a little and I had to be careful to not make any mistakes, especially on the brake point where the gears were tough. It was a great weekend. We worked very hard and it paid off in the end."
While nobody in the 18-car field had the machinery under them to pass Castroneves, Wheldon's Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon shadowed the fence-climbing Brazilian all the way home.
After dispatching Andretti for second place during the first green flag run between laps six and 28, Dixon never let Castroneves get more than a couple of seconds ahead and brought the gap down to just six-tenths of a second at the chequered flag after a dogged, but ultimately fruitless, chase.
"It's great for Target Chip Ganassi Racing," the Kiwi insisted after netting his second straight runners-up result of the season, "Two second place finishes after only two races this year puts us in the points lead.
"Helio had us covered, but I think we had a little more speed on cold tyres. We didn't make any mistakes and had a clean race, so it was a good day for us. Dan had a bit of a rough day, but he'll bounce back at the next race."
Tony Kanaan recovered from an embarrassing opening lap collision with his Andretti-Green teammate Dario Franchitti that resulted in Kanaan dropping to the back of the field to complete the podium, but only after star of the show Darren Manning spun away a potential podium with 25 laps to go.
"I didn't help the team when I crashed yesterday during qualifying and went back to sixth place, and that's probably why I caused the accident," Kanaan confessed, "I hate to say it, but we had the car to win the race, we just didn't put ourselves in the position to do it. It's done and third place is better than nothing. We'll just work on the next one."
Manning had been a revelation in his AJ Foyt Racing entry up to that point, but his spin dropped him several laps and he eventually finished twelfth.
"The last 30 minutes killed me," the Briton admitted, "My feet were numb and my hands were in such pain as I tried to keep ahead of Tony. The steering was so heavy on full tanks and new tyres because this track has so much grip, and it was tough to hold on.
"In hindsight, I should have let Tony go. It was a fantastic weekend overall for a one-car effort, and it's a testament to the spirit of this team. We're just scratching the surface on performance."
Marco Andretti overcame his poor start to the season at Homestead with a confident fourth place finish, while Franchitti had to fight back from his collision with Kanaan and a subsequent drive-through penalty for breaking the pit-road speed limit to take fifth.
"It was the first stint that killed me," Andretti insisted, "I was pushing so hard that I killed the front tyres, flat-spotted them, so I was hanging on for dear life. We lost a lot of ground, and you need to be a half-second quicker to pass. It's qualifying the whole race."
Franchitti admitted to being unclear as to what exactly happened on the opening lap, but paid tribute to his team for their efforts in getting him back on the road.
"I'm not sure what happened - Tony was going around the outside and I was trying to stay out of trouble, but I had a bit of understeer and we got together," the Scot revealed.
"I have to thank the Canadian Club crew for fixing the car. We had a couple gos at it and the guys did a great job getting it back together. They didn't get the car back 100 per cent, but they made a bloody good attempt. The big thing was that, in the last 50 laps, we lost the brake pedal, so I was just staying out of trouble."
Tomas Scheckter enjoyed a trouble-free run to sixth for Vision Racing, beating Sam Hornish Jr, Danica Patrick, a somewhat out of sorts Wheldon and Buddy Rice, who rounded out the top ten.
Rahal-Letterman Racing had another forgetful afternoon with Scott Sharp eleventh and Jeff Simmons a spin-delayed 14th. AJ Foyt IV survived a collision with his Vision team-mate Ed Carpenter to take 13th while Sarah Fisher stayed out of the way and brought her car home safely in 15th.
Vitor Meira and Kosuke Matsuura both crashed but managed to finish the race, while an upset Carpenter was the only official non-finisher after his first turn contretemps with his team-mate.
After two races in Florida on successive weekends, the IRL now has a three-week break before it reconvenes in Japan for its annual blast around the Twin Ring Motegi Speedway.