27 March 2011
Franchitti wins by staying out of trouble
After such a confusing, caution-laden stop-start first 15 laps it was good to finally get some green flag racing laps underway at last, especially as the clock was ticking and it was always going to be a close-run thing as to whether the race completed the full 100 lap race distance before the two hour cut-off came into effect. Up front it was to be a remarkably calm and quiet afternoon for Franchitti who soon built up a big lead over de Silvestro. Having the lead not only gave him control of the race, it had allowed him to stay out of trouble when others further back had been stumbling over each other.
The first cycle of pit stops was interrupted by a full-course caution triggered by Charlie Kimball on lap 39, who pushed too hard coming out of his own pit stop on cold new tyres and ended up smacking into the wall in a classic rookie error, which he admitted was the case as this was his first "hot" tyre change in IndyCar. It's all a learning experience, just occasionally a painful one at these speeds.
Will Power got the best jump out of the pit stops and was restored to second place. However, despite the blistering pace he had shown in practice and qualifying, Power never seemed to have anything really in reserve with which to challenge Franchitti for the lead. He confirmed, "Dario was just crazy fast," explaining: "Shortly after he passed me, someone hit me from behind. That damage took a bit of downforce off the car and it took a while to work our way back up to second."
Meanwhile Tony Kanaan had the outside line at the restart on lap 44, and once again used it to perfection to gain a place - this time ejecting de Silvestro from third place.
Although there was no full course caution, the restart was not without still more incident: Danica Patrick got too close to the back of the #22 of Justin Wilson and got her second wing of the afternoon crumpled for her efforts; further on, rookie James Jakes managed to lock up his brakes going into turn 4 and half-spun into the tyre barrier, catching Ana Beatriz up in the accident as he went.
The race settled down from this point on, with the remaining half of the race almost blissfully serene compared to the amateur hour antics of the first fifty laps. As a result of having no further full course cautions, the race did indeed just sneak in its hundredth lap before the two hour deadline. Franchitti was never threatened for the lead, although Power did take over in front briefly for two laps during the second round of pit stops, under green, on lap 71; Power's attention was more directed at holding Kanaan back, while Kanaan himself came under heavy pressure late in the race from de Silvestro resurgent after a quite mid-section of the race from her as she found the harder prime tyres less to her liking. He held on secure the final podium position, a remarkable achievement given how little preparation time he's had in his new car and team set-up.
On the final lap, Danica Patrick was judged to have made "avoidable contact" and was duly docked one position, putting her down to 12th place behind JR Hildebrand in the final classified positions. Justin Wilson had taken advantage of the pair's battle to overtake them both and gain back two positions, having fallen back during the middle of the race with a mid-race puncture and late spin.
The official non-finishers after all that early chaos were Ryan Hunter-Reay (who, despite rejoining the race after repairs from the collision on lap 14 eventually had to retire with handling problems), Charlie Kimball, Mike Conway, Marco Andretti - and Sebastian Bourdais. Bourdais was ruled out of the race following a serious accident in the morning warm-up which saw his #19 Boy Scouts of America car crash in the fast chicane. Bourdais said that he just clipped the inside of the right-hander, broke the front suspension and slid over the rumble strips to a hard impact with the wall. "From there I was just a passenger ... It's a really big mistake. There's definitely a lot of damage."
Bourdais himself was fine, but the car caught fire and would have required a substantial rebuild. Unfortunately the Dale Coyne Racing team's woes were compounded by Bourdais' team mate James Jakes having an almost simultaneous accident elsewhere on the track during the warm-up that also required extensive rebuilding work, the team not having any back-up car ready and available. Jakes car was the less extesnively damaged and so the team opted to work on that car rather than Bourdais', meaning that the four-times Champ Car champion failed to make it to the starting grid at St Petersburg although Bourdais himself was not injured in the accident.
Franchitti is eyeing Bourdais' four-times champion record with envy. If he were to win the 2011 IndyCar title it would be a third consecutive title - a feat only achieved twice before (Bourdais' titles in Champ Car not included.) Traditionally Franchitti and Ganassi have dominated the oval races while Power and Penske claim the road races, so this first time victory on the streets of St Pete is a significant achievement for Dario in his title campaign.
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