15 August 2011
Hunter-Reay wins amid controversy
Before all the pit stops could be completed, however, the weather made its presence felt by ramping up the drizzle that had been in the air for the previous 20 minutes. Race control threw a caution on lap 75, and the next 32 laps would be a frustrating slow run behind the safety car waiting for the drizzle to ease off and the weather to improve. Finally the conditions improved sufficiently for the race to go back to green, with Will Power - already at the back of the lead lap - diving in to pit lane for an opportunistic fuel top-up just before the restart on lap 108.
With Dario Franchitti now joined at the front of the double-file restart by Takuma Sato, the field made it through the first lap without incident. But next time around Tony Kanaan and Tomas Scheckter were battling side-by-side as they came up on the struggling, slow car of Marco Andretti: Kanaan went low to pass him while Scheckter went high, but there wasn't enough space to make the three-wide moment work: Andretti clipped the rear left of Scheckter, spinning the #22 around across his front wing and sending him down the track to collect Kanaan.
All three cars were out: Andretti's front right suspension was wrecked, while Scheckter had been sent through the grass infield to hit the tyre wall. Kanaan followed him, but he got a nasty bounce-off from the tyres that leveraged the car onto its side and then flipped him upside-down, leaving the safety crews a tense few minutes while they righted the car and extricated the Brazilian - who was fortunately none the worse for his wild ride.
Scheckter and Kanaan were quick to blame Andretti, but Marco felt that was unfair and that he'd done his best to stay out of the way and let them through. "The car had a bent right rear from the Conway incident, trying to miss Conway earlier," he explained. "I was just trying to bring it home. I was basically a bystander in the middle of the racetrack, I didn't move my line and I think Scheckter came across my front and took me and Tony out. I had nowhere to go. I would have let them by but I had no idea."
Again, race control was keenly aware of the weather fronts in the area and hustled to get the incident cleaned up and everyone back to racing. But as they headed down to take the green flag on lap 119, suddenly the rear left of Franchitti's #10 and the front right of Sato's #5 made contact: it was just the lightest of touches but it was enough to send Franchitti spinning around. While no one hit him, the contact he made against the inside wall right on the start/finish line was enough to put the car out on the spot. Further back, Sato's team mate EJ Viso bumped with JR Hildebrand, and the Conquest car was out as well.
Franchitti was nearly speechless with fury and frustration when interviewed afterwards, visibly trying not to launch into an angry tirade against Sato. "I didn't put a wheel wrong in the race, and I don't believe I did at the restart," he said, describing his exit from the race after dominating it up till that point as "devastating." Before the accident he had been looking to come out of New Hampshire with a near-hundred point lead in the championship; now, he was likely to see his advantage slashed with both his main rivals Scott Dixon and Will Power still in the running.
Whose fault had the clash been? Sato apologised unreservedly afterwards: "No excuses, my fault," he said. "I was too close to Dario ... I should have given him more space." Dario did indeed complain of feeling crowded by Sato, and the replays seemed to suggest that he had moved down the track slightly to try and force the KV Racing Technology car to go wider and give him some space on the run down to the green flag when the contact happened. Dario saw it differently when viewing the replay and asserted that it was Sato who had moved up the track into him instead: "He started coming up into me before the restart. I really don't know what he was thinking."
But assigning blame wasn't going to help Dario in the championship battle. And Power had most definitely got the message: having struggled early in the race, he saw the opportunity to make huge inroads in the championship with Dario out, and at the next restart he was immediately pushing hard and doing everything he could, hoping to get up to the front before the weather closed in again and mindful of his extra quantity of fuel that would allow him to stay out longer than almost anyone else and put him near the front if and when it did rain. The only driver in a similar position was Takuma Sato, who had needed to pit for repairs after his clash with Franchitti and had used the opportunity to take on fuel at the same time, but the rest of the field had prioritised track position over yellow flag pit stops and opted to stay out.
The race resumed on lap 125 with Ryan Hunter-Reay having emerged as the leader ahead of Oriol Servia, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Briscoe and Danica Patrick, and this time at last there was a decent green flag stint in store for the spectactors.
There was also a rather spectacular scare for Alex Tagliani in the #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car, which caught fire on lap 137. Tagliani didn't initially know that there even was a fire and reported problems with his brakes instead, which explained why the pit crew were caught out when the car arrived in pit lane. They belatedly realised it was aflame, and had to scramble to get extinguishers and to encourage Tagliani out of the cockpit with all possible speed.
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