16 April 2012
Power drives home the points in Long Beach
Wilson led from the first corner of the race through the initial green flag period until a full course caution on lap 20 that was triggered by Sébastien Bourdais burying his Lotus Dragon into the tyres at turn 1. The recovery only took a couple of laps, but the new pit lane rules introduced by race director Beaux Barfield meant that pit road remained open and several of the leaders including Wilson, Pagenaud, Dixon, Kimball and Will Power took the opportunity to duck in before the green came out. That meant that the leader at the restart was Takuma Sato, and the #15 was looking surprisingly pacey.
They managed only one green flag lap before there were problems in the midfield: Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti were closing up on the back of Scott Dixon, running in 10th place after his pit stop. Marco saw an opportunity to take two places with one go and made a move on Rahal into turn 8, but Rahal was lining up his own move on Dixon and jinked out just a second later. That meant the Andretti Autosport's front left wheel ran into the right rear of the Ganassi, and that's never a good thing in open wheel racing.
Even so, the sight of Marco's car suddenly being flung into the air - twisted to the right and also turned on its side nearly perpendicular to the ground in the process, throwing the back end of his car through Rahal's rear wing before landing across Dixon's path and skidding into the tyre wall - would have been a disturbing and unwanted surprise to the IndyCar organisers, who had hoped that the rear wheel guards (or "bumpers" as fans have taken to critically calling them) would eliminate that fusing of rubber-on-rubber contact that leads to such scary airborne moments. It clearly failed to do any such thing at Long Beach, and you can assume that a lot of engineers are urgently reviewing the data on Monday morning and assessing just what happened and why the safeguards were so ineffective.
Naturally, the two drivers themselves had their own ideas about what had happened, and they were mutually exclusive.
"It's one thing blocking but it's another thing chopping, and that was a chop," fumed Marco Andretti. "I'm lucky I didn't get upside down, I could have been killed."
"He wasn't going to make the corner no matter what," refuted Rahal, who denied blocking. "I think it slipped underneath me - he was going to shoot long how deep we were because he was already braking."
Even with the new pit road rules designed to make full course cautions short and snappy, this one extended for seven laps. Katherine Legge had also had an off and needed recovering; last year's race winner Mike Conway also stopped out on track, with a gearbox issue; and finally - just when race control were prepping the field for the restart - Scott Dixon's #9 suddenly choked and rolled to a stop in the turn 8 runoff.
"It just died on track and we don't know why yet," said Dixon. "The safety team did everything to get us back going but it wouldn't restart."
Conway's #14 AJ Foyt Racing car was returned to pit lane and the team got to work dismantling the rear engine cowling to fix the problem. While they got him back underway (several laps down), he would eventually suffer a small fire that put him out for good toward the end of the race.
"Gearbox issue was the reason for the loss of laps," he said later via Twitter. "A fuel rail fire ended the day in smoke. On to Brazil."
At this point it looked as though the race was going to be stuffed full of cautions and accidents, and that the sheer rate of attrition would hand the win to the last man standing. But in fact, after the race restarted on lap 30 it ran caution-free for the remaining 56 laps until the chequered flag, with Barfield and race control doing everything they could to handle any subsequent incidents under local waved yellows. That turned the focus away from mere survival and toward the importance of fuel strategies.
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