There was a time, not so long ago, when Sonoma could be relied upon to deliver the quietest, least interesting and most incident-free free race of the year as far as race fans were concerned. And not just the quietest outing of the IZOD IndyCar Series season either, but pretty much the dullest race of any championship anywhere.
Where did such easygoing times go? Such torpor was certainly not in evidence in this year's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sunday. Far from it, this was was eventful and exciting as you could hope for from an open wheel race on a permanent road course. And that was even before the controversy erupted during the final round of pit stops on lap 64, which could end up having huge repercussions for the entire 2013 championship.
It had been a fast and furious affair long before that, however. Polesitter Dario Franchitti leapt away at the green flag even as his Ganasssi team mate Scott Dixon was working hard to fend off a determined lunge for second from Penske's Will Power through the first corners of the 2.385-mile, 12-turn Sonoma Raceway. There was less happy news for the third Ganassi car deeper in the field, however: Mid-Ohio race winner Charlie Kimball got caught out when the traffic bunched up through turn 2, made contact with Helio Castroneves and spun onto the dirt at the top of the hill. That brought out an immediate full course caution while the #83 was recovered to pit road for a checkover; already on pit road was the #67 of Josef Newgarden with gearbox issues on top of front wing damage for a clash with EJ Viso on the opening lap.
At the restart on lap 3, the Ganassi pair at the front made heavy weather of getting going which handed Will Power a golden opportunity to attack Dixon for the second spot again. Dixon held fast and forced Power to run the dusty outside line through turn 2, and the loss of grip not only thwarted Power's ambitions to pass the #9 but also lost him two positions as Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves streamed past before he could pick up speed again. Also losing out from the compacting of the field was Sebastien Bourdais, who was forced onto pit road after crushing his front wing on the back of Marco Andretti's car.
An overly optimistic lunge by EJ Viso down the inside of Justin Wilson at the hairpin triggered the second caution on lap 7 when the #19 stalled and was left spun around across the track at turn 7, although Dale Coyne Racing car was restarted without losing a lap. The yellow gave Wilson and the select group of cars that had started the race on the problematic hard primary tyres a chance to come in and change to the red-walled options before the restart on lap 10, which saw Will Power successfully recover one of his earlier dropped positions by passing his Penske team mate Helio Castroeneves for fourth.
The Ganassis started pulling away the field with alarming speed and it was probably a relief when a new caution materialised on lap 17 after Bourdais turned Simona de Silvestro around with hefty contact at - inevitably - turn 7. That allowed all the leaders to pit save for Ryan Hunter-Reay who stayed out to assume the lead while Franchitti was back in traffic in sixth place. Power managed to jump ahead of Dixon on pit road, but Dixon quickly reset that when the track went green again on lap 19, at the same time that Charlie Kimball cheekily managed to blast his way past the race leader to put himself back on the lead lap after his incident at the start of the race.
There was soon more incident, with Graham Rahal spinning after being trapped in the middle of a three-wide sandwich through turns 1 and 2 and bounced like a pinball between Marco Andretti and Simon Pagenaud. Despite being hit by AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato, Rahal was able to keep the car running and get back underway without requiring another full course caution. That wasn't the case moments later when JR Hildebrand was spun around by Tony Kanaan in turn 7 on lap 22, and this time Hunter-Reay used the opportunity to come onto pit road as he really should have done under the previous caution. Because of the delay, he now dropped out of the lead and well outside the top ten.
The action continued to be fast and furious at the restart on lap 26. Running in second place behind Justin Wilson - who has assumed the lead after the pit stops thanks to being off-strategy after pitting following his early spin - James Hinchcliffe was tapped into the dirt in turn 2 by contact with Sebastian Saavedra. Hinchcliffe recovered and was able to continue having dropped four positions, and that left Wilson clear at the front with Dixon now in second ahead of Power while polesitter Dario Franchitti had been shuffled back to fourth spot during the stop-start action.
With Newgarden back in the race after his gearbox was repaired on pit road and the AJ Foyt Racing crew still working feverishly on repairing the damaged suspension on Sato's #14 car, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's James Jakes became the first official retirement on lap 28 when the Honda engine on the #16 failed, leaving the Englishman parked in the run-off at turn 9 and triggering a fifth full course caution - already a record number for Sonoma barely a third of the way way, an amazing turnaround from the near caution-free events in the recent past.