The first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston double-header weekend turned the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship battle on its head, with success for Scott Dixon combined with disaster for Helio Castroneves ensuring that the leading contenders go into the final two races of the season neck-and-neck.
Race 1 turned out to be as eventful and gruelling as forecast, with technical issues and on-track incidents making it a serious war of attrition even though the one aspect of the circuit that had been on everyone's minds coming into the race - the now-notorious Reliant Park turn 1 bump - proved to be the least of anyone's worries once things got going.
Having claimed pole position in a delayed qualifying just a few hours earlier, Takuma Sato lined up on the front row of the grid alongside Will Power for the standing start at the Reliant Park Stadium circuit. The first attempt to get underway was thwarted by a stalled Charlie Kimball which cost the #83 his 16th position on the grid, and the second was subject to a long hold before the lights went out.
The prolonged pause was not kind to James Hinchcliffe, who stalled the #27 when the race finally got underway which left him a sitting duck as the other cars streamed past. For a moment it looked as though he would escape unscathed, but the last car by - the #67 of Ed Carpenter - just tagged the left rear of the stricken Andretti Autosport car putting both drivers out of the race and bringing out an immediate caution.
They were not the only cars in trouble: Tristan Vautier had made contact with the wall while avoiding Hinchcliffe, and had to be retrieved by the safety team and brought back to pit road; Kimball was already there to have that clutch issue investigated that had caused that first start to be aborted; and pole man Sato had his own nightmare start after picking up a right rear puncture in those opening corners which forced him to pit for a new set of tyres, dropping him down to 12th place.
As a result of the bumpy surface at Reliant Park that had already given organisers headaches in the run-up to the event, all restarts thereafter had already been decreed single-file affairs. Will Power was best placed to take advantage of that change after he had inherited the lead ahead of Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, with Simona de Silvestro in fourth ahead of EJ Viso and Luca Filippi when the green flags came out again on lap 10.
Stuck further down the order, championship leader Helio Castroneves opted to go off-strategy by making his first pit stop early at the end of lap 13, with Dario Franchitti following suit a couple of laps later; the Scot emerged from pit lane right behind Castroneves on track in 19th and 20th positions respectively. Both drivers advanced a position when Tony Kanaan managed to maroon himself in the turn 6 run-off with overheating brake issues, which was handled under local waved yellows without resorting to summoning the safety car into action.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had just made his first stop of the day on lap 23 when there was a dramatic return to pit lane for Castroneves who had reported gearbox failure with major repercussions for the championship. As the Penske crew worked feverishly to replace the unit - which ultimately took nine laps - Justin Wilson came in for his earlier than ideally planned first stop after reporting a slow puncture on the #19 Dale Coyne Racing car.
“We tried to move up at the start, but about 15 laps in, I felt the tyre going down and we had to come in a bit early," he explained after the race. "We knew the fuel window was going to be tight, but we just had to go for it. We had to conserve fuel a little bit, but I was just pushing, the whole way."