by Andrew Charman
Several thousand spectators paid good money for seats at Miami's Homestead Speedway and spent very little time sat on them on Sunday, as the Indy Racing League burst back into life with a typical race of wild two and three abreast action. In the end the colours at the head of the field were the familiar red and white of Marlboro Team Penske but the driver in victory lane was the new boy, Sam Hornish Jnr squeezing past team-mate Helio Castroneves on the final lap and no doubt raising 'Captain' Roger Penske's blood pressure in the process.
Stung by massive and ultimately tragic accidents last year the IRL had acted to cut speeds for 2004, but they were never going to be any slower at Miami. Since the last visit the track had been entirely reprofiled, what was formerly only a four degree slope in all the corners being changed to progressive banking rising to a maximum of 20 degrees. All of a sudden cars could easily run two and three wide, and the result was a race that never had a dull moment.
After his surprise pole position on Saturday, Buddy Rice led the early laps in his #15 Team Rahal G-Force Honda, but rapidly coming through the field after a poor qualifying effort were the two Dallara Toyotas of Team Penske. By lap 11 Sam Hornish Jnr had climbed from seventh to second in the #6 car, while the #3 of Helio Castroneves was making progress from 10th. Then on lap 32 help for the Penske cause came in the form of the first caution, for debris. This forced everyone into the pits for fuel, smaller 30 gallon tanks ensuring methanol refills would be a more regular occurrence this season, and when the field regrouped behind the pace-car the Penskes were in front.
Hardly had the yellow been withdrawn than it was out again, as rookie Mark Taylor ended his first IRL start by spinning his #2 Panther Racing Dallara Chevrolet into the turn 4 wall – harmless for the Brit but not his car. The green flag caught Hornish out, the Penske dropping behind reigning champion Scott Dixon in the #1 Target Chip Ganassi Racing G-Force Toyota and Tony Kanann's #11 Andretti-Green Racing Dallara Toyota. Dixon then went past Castroneves for the lead, and we were treated to a sight that evidence suggests will become very familiar this season, the two Penskes battling each other hard. The duo soon regained the front of the field, while behind Dixon reigning Rookie of the Year Dan Wheldon was impressing, the Brit moving into fourth in his #26 Andretti Green Dallara Honda.
With 75 laps down green flag pitstops seemed likely, and Dixon soon peeled off, only to lose control on the entry road and slam hard into the end of the pit wall, throwing sand from the barriers all over the track. As Dixon stepped out of his very secondhand G-Force the resultant caution pitstops shuffled the order, and when the green flew eventually again on lap 102 pole-man Rice challenged leader Castroneves as Hornish again slipped back. But almost immediately the yellows were back out as Kosuke Matsuura, in his first IRL start, tapped his Super Aguri Fernandez G-Force's front wheel onto the left-rear of Dario Franchitti's Andretti Green Dallara Honda. Franchitti spun backwards into the wall, stepping out none too-pleased with the Japanese driver. “I'll have a word with him,” Dario said later.
Yet again the pack was shuffled in the pits, and on the lap 115 restart Rice led the highly impressive Robbie Buhl, who had run close to the front all day in his #24 Dreyer & Reinbold Dallara Chevrolet. But on a mission was Wheldon, past Buhl by lap 120 and into the lead four laps later. Soon the young Brit was holding off that man Hornish again, but another yellow, as Alex Barron bounced his #51 Red Bull Cheever Dallara Chevrolet off the second Ganassi car of Darren Manning and into the wall, resulted in another flurry of pitstops. Here it all went wrong for Wheldon, he stalling on the restart and resuming at the tail of the field.
The green flag on lap 137saw yet another leader, Brian Herta in the #27 Andretti Green car chased by Scott Sharp's #8 Kelley Racing Dallara Toyota. Neither had taken fuel on the last caution, and their gamble failed as both were forced to pit under green with 40 laps left, though not before they had played their part in a frenetic two and three-wide lead scrap which at one point seemed to involve half the field. When it all shook out Tomas Scheckter's #4 Panther Racing Dallara Chevrolet led Hornish, Buhl, Castroneves and amazingly, Wheldon.
A backmarker gave Hornish his chance and he jumped Buhl, as did everyone following, poor Robbie going from first to fifth in the space of half a lap. Now the Penskes began scrapping again, but everyone needed one more pitstop and both Marlboro cars and closest follower Wheldon all headed pitwards on lap 181, briefly making Manning the race's seventh leader. This time there were no pitlane miscues and Wheldon squeezed his way past both the Penskes out of pitlane to again assume the lead.
He couldn't hold it for long however, and once again Castroneves and Hornish used the now lapped Herta to pincer poor Wheldon, Helio regaining the lead with his team-mate under his gearbox. As the final 10 laps wound down they scrapped very hard, until with three to go Hornish made a move to the outside and Castroneves moved up and blatantly blocked him. As they passed the white flag Helio looked almost secure, but Hornish had other ideas and surprised his team-mate with a move down the inside to squeeze past and snatch the win. Wheldon crowned an excellent day with third, though he had to fight off Tora Takagi, who had come from nowhere in his #12 Mo Nunn Racing Dallara Toyota, and Scheckter, while Manning and disappointed pole-sitter Rice were next up.
As Castroneves tried to work out how he'd let the race slip, Hornish was beaming in victory lane. “I couldn't get by him on the outside, I went low and got a good run,” he said to the cheers of the crowd – a crowd who were also trying to work out just how their nerves are going to cope with this new, supposedly calmed-down form of Indycar racing. Next stop Phoenix on the 21 March – there will be fireworks...
[Penske picture courtesy of Toyota Motorsports.]