16 April 2012
Power drives home the points in Long Beach
Will Power said he genuinely hadn't expected to be able to fight back from his grid penalty to win at Long Beach, but in the end he made it look inevitable.
For a moment in the run-up to the start of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it looked as though the motor sports gods were moving Heaven and earth to hand Dario Franchitti a much-needed victory to help the reigning champion reboot a moribund 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season.
To start with there was the mass grid penalty applied to all the Chevrolet runners for a precautionary unscheduled engine change. Then there was qualifying itself, where not only did Franchitti have a rare good run to inherit pole position on the grid, but even better his most potent threat - his own team mate, Scott Dixon - suffered a fuel line fire to put him two rows down from him. That left Franchitti starting the race alongside series rookie Josef Newgarden - and if Franchitti wasn't able to maintain the lead over such inexperienced competition then really, what hope was there?
Any sense of optimism Franchitti had heading to the green flag evaporated just a few hundred yards later. Newgarden might be new at this, but that didn't mean he was going to rollover. He ran alongside Franchitti down the start/finish straight and then appeared to concede the position and dropped back; but then either through indecision or game strategy, he suddenly pulled out again and attempted to sweep around the outside of turn 1. Franchitti was caught by surprise as he took a wide line through the corner, and the two made contact: Newgarden came off by far the worst and was sent into a thumping encounter with the tyre wall that put him out on the spot.
"I felt like I got alongside him, I gave him the inside lane and I just got touched there on the exit and went right into the wall," explained Newgarden back on pit road. "Maybe it wasn't the right move. The plan was if he was braking alongside of me I would have just given him the lane and tucked right in, but I thought I had a good run on him and a good jump on him, so you know it's one of the those tough breaks."
At the restart, Newgarden's role was this time taken up by the far more experienced Justin Wilson in the Dale Coyne Racing #18, who positioned his car firmly alongside and slightly ahead of the Ganassi #10 into turn 1. He made himself as conspicuous as possible to Dario, the message clear: try that again this time and it'll take both of us out. And probably everyone behind us, too. Franchitti knew it, and had no choice but to allow Wilson the outside line that slingshot him through and into the lead.
In any case, the writing was firmly on the wall now for the Scot: whether it was lingering damage from the Newgarden encounter, or Dario's dogged determination to stick to the agreed-upon two-stop race strategy, or simply an issue with the car that was leaving it horribly down on straight-line speed, the #10 was a Sunday driver sitting duck for anyone who wanted to get past: Simon Pagenaud in the Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports #77, Takuma Sato in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan #15 and Scott Dixon in the Ganassi #9 all drove by with ease. Even Franchitti's junior team mate Charlie Kimball breezed past with little trouble; and this was even before the Chevrolet-powered cars started their inexorable march forward from their artificially low grid positions.
Franchitti's lack of pace was shocking during a subsequent restart which saw him drop five spots down the start/finish straight; and at the next, he ended up touching the rear of Ryan Briscoe's car and damaging his front wing, which required a replacement that put him off the lead lap. To top it off, the car's mechanical issues worsened and by the end Franchitti was in 15th place, 3 laps down.
"We were on a two-stop strategy obviously and thought that would be the way the race played out," Franchitti said later when analysing just how it had all gone so badly wrong for him. "We had a mechanical issue at the end and that was it.
"We didn't have the car handling quite right, but we were still staying close to the front," he continued. "[Then] Briscoe came across and damaged the front wing. After that we lost time making a wing change and to top it all had a mechanical failure."
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