Ryan Briscoe kicked off the 2009 IndyCar Series season with victory in the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg, but the win could happily have gone the way of drivers signing late deals with teams not usually expected to run at the front of the field.
Briscoe led for 46 of the race's 100 laps and, having passed Justin Wilson's Dale Coyne Racing entry at a late restart, went on to hold off Vision Racing's Ryan Hunter-Reay by 0.4619secs at the flag. Wilson eventually finished a series-best third for the Coyne team after leading a race-high 52 laps. The win was Briscoe's third, and Team Penske's 30th, in the IndyCar Series, and makes it two in a row for the Australian, who also took Penske to victory in the non-points race at Surfers Paradise last season.
“At the end there, I was able to get Justin down on the inside," Briscoe said, having added to Penske's two previous St Pete wins from 2006-07, "The team gave me a great car today. Roger Penske calls my strategy, and it was just absolutely perfect. This is our first race of the season, and it's such a great feeling to kick it off with a win.
"The conditions were tough – it was very tricky on restarts. The tyres would get very cold, and it would be very slippery. It was a challenge to keep it between the white lines and off the wall. I had some strong challenges from behind, but my car was very strong today, and I was able to hold them off.”
Wilson took the lead at the first corner, coming from second on the grid as the field went four wide into the first corner. Graham Rahal, who a day earlier became the youngest pole winner in IndyCar Series history, was not so lucky, however, and, having seen Dario Franchitti come scything down his inside, was then hit and spun sideways by Tony Kanaan.
The #02 Newman/Haas/Lanigan car - which, ironically, Wilson had campaigned in 2008, ended up on the grass and fell back to 21st as Rahal headed to the pits for repairs to his front wing, which had been trodden on as Alex Tagliani attempted to take avoiding action. Having been placated by his crew - which reminded him that he had spun early in the 2008 edition, defending race champion Rahal then proceeded to drive back through the field to an eventual seventh-place finish.
“The race started bad right from the beginning," he sighed, "I was conservative on the start, and I'm guessing it was Kanaan that punted me. It's absolutely ridiculous, and you would expect a guy like that, with experience, to know it's the first corner of the first lap of the first race of the season. Why make moves like that?
"From there, it was just battling back all day, trying to find a way to get the car back up to the front. We certainly inched away at it to get back up to seventh from last place, and I'm pretty happy with that, but I think the results should have - and could have - been better."
Wilson led the first 34 laps on Firestone's alternate 'red' tyres, only handing the initiative to Briscoe when finally forced to pit, but grabbing the lead back at the next round of stops, when the Coyne team got him out in front. The Briton was still the leader at the lap 86 restart, but Briscoe moved to the inside of the #19 heading into turn one and pull off the decisive pass for the lead.