27 March 2012
Castroneves unstoppable in St Pete opener
In a quiet day for the newly revamped Race Control now team led by Beaux Barfield, the only other caution occurred just before the halfway point when Castroneves came up unexpectedly fast on the back of Ed Carpenter through the final corner. Carpenter was slowing for a pit stop but instead received the lightest of touches from the Penske car - almost nothing more than air pressure - that tipped the #20 into a spin right across the entrance to pit road.
"I can't say I appreciated the way Helio moved me out of the way when I was trying to get to the pits," said Carpenter, who said that he was disappointed with an eventual finish of 18th place as a result of the incident. "I'm just disappointed we lost a couple of laps due to the spin because I felt we could have finished on the lead lap. It would have shown how we ran today."
Barfield decided that no penalty was due over the incident. However, the decision to open pit lane even as Carpenter's car was being attended to by track staff right in the pit lance entrance raised eyebrows over safety. Barfield said his hand had been forced by how many cars were about to run dry, and that the officials had been able to handle the situation safely.
At the restart at the midway point of the race, Dixon led Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Andretti and Hinchcliffe - but the surprise of the day was Lotus Dragon Racing's Sebastien Bourdais briefly popping up into sixth place with a pass on KV's EJ Viso. Considering that many had feared until late in the day that Lotus wouldn't even be ready to field an engine at St Petersburg (and Bourdais' engine had indeed been missing in action right up until the day before practice started) it was a quite remarkable achievement for the Frenchman, Dragon and of course for the British engine marque. Unfortunately Bourdais' dream race subsequently ended prematurely on lap 73 when he went off with a mechanical issue.
Instead it was another Frenchman - this one with Honda power - who was doing impressively well in the second half of the race. Simon Pagenaud had qualified in sixth place but then had to start from 16th place on the grid after having to replace a faulty engine, but he demonstrated that his qualifying pace had been no fluke in his first race in IndyCar as a full-time driver for Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports.
Pagenaud was at the centre of some of the best action of the closing stages of the race, first battling over position with Ryan Briscoe - which Briscoe won with a terrific move around the outside of turn 1 and into turn 2 on lap 76 and then having to hold off Will Power to the chequered flag for sixth place (the honours going to Pagenaud on this occasion.)
But up in front, Castroneves's raw pace amid the leading pack of four was proving unstoppable. Helio finally passed Dixon for the race lead with a great move around the outside of turn 1 on lap 74. Once he had clear track in front of him there was nothing to hold him back, and the final 26 laps of the race just allowed him to build up a bigger and bigger lap over the fuel-conserving Dixon, Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe.
The one thing that kept the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport teams on edge was the possibility of a late technical failure: but rather amazingly, all four proved bullet-proof right to the end when the chequered flag came out and Casteoneves went for his catchfence climb.
Elsewhere, teething problems were inevitable given the newness of the equipment the teams were using, and were perhaps fewer than expected in the circumstances. Legge's stall on lap 11 that had brought out the first caution was put down to a gearbox issue; under the next caution for Jakes' accident, Tony Kanaan's KV Racing car also had ground to a halt with battery voltage problems seizing the car in gear.
"From lap 1, I started to get the low voltage alarm," said Kanaan. "I think it was the alternator. I could tell it was the battery because my dash went blank, and with the electronic nowadays you cannot pull out of gear, if the dash is not working. So even if the alternator or whatever they call it made the battery die.
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