IRL: Round 17 – Belle Isle Detroit Grand Prix – Aug 31

The best laid plans of the two men at the top of the IRL championship went awry in Detroit. Not so much as to be a disaster for either or them, but enough to leave both frustrated – and the title undecided going into the final race of the season at Chicagoland Speedway in a week’s time.

Scott Dixon should have had the whip hand here, having beaten Helio Castroneves to the all-important pole position on a bumpy street circuit where overtaking isn’t exactly impossible, but all too frequently does require divine intervention.

Dixon and Castroneves got away well enough, and even a brief hiatus caused by Milka Duno being spun into a stall sideways across the track on lap 1 by contact with Bruno Junqueira (who was sent to the back of the field for causing the accident) didn’t stop a routine procession for the first 19 laps, although a few backmarkers chose to pit for the random chance of going off-sequence.

Then Dixon’s team mate Dan Wheldon tangled with Conquest’s Jaime Camara and bought out the second yellow on lap 17. This was early for first pit stops – most teams would have been expecting to pit on lap 30-31, making it possible for them to reach the end of the 90 lap race with just one further stop.

Really it was a no-brainer, everyone should stay out at this point. Except … Ganassi called Dixon in. Heads up and down pit road were being scratched, because with no one else coming in there seemed to be no upside for Dixon in this move. He ended up being dropped back to 18th place, firmly in traffic, and behind some fierce battles between backmarkers that could at any second end in a wreck that would gather up Dixon with it.

Why had Ganassi not chosen the safe route and simply copied Castroneves’ strategy at every turn? Stay out when he stayed out, come in when he comes in? No one could figure it out. But Helio was at the front when the green flag flew, and with clear air in front of him he quickly started laying down fast laps and pulled away from KV’s Oriol Servia, Newman/Haas/Lanigan’s Justin Wilson and Andretti Green’s Tony Kanaan, while Dixon made slow progress through the midfielders.

Castroneves completed 30 laps before pitting, and even though it was under green he had built up a sufficient lead to come back out on track ahead of Dixon who was left stuck back in 5th place. Whatever had been in the Ganassi team’s mind when they tried that strategy hadn’t paid off.

There was a yellow flag a few laps later when Danica Patrick and Vitor Meira tangled and ended up with damage to their cars, while in a separate incident on the same lap EJ Viso lost the back end coming out of a corner and hit the concrete barriers lining the track with considerable force, writing off the car for the day.

The final pit stops around lap 60 also happened under green, with Castroneves retaining the lead and Wilson jumping Servia in the pits for second, but the field was compressed once more by the fourth and final yellow of the afternoon brought out because of separate incidents for Wheldon and Mario Moraes (Dale Coyne Racing) with 25 laps to go. The caution meant that the race wouldn’t go the full distance and would hit the two hour time cap instead, but if this had ever been part of Dixon’s strategy in coming early it was by now long snce a moot point, making no difference at all.

Castroneves had been the fastest car on track all afternoon, easily pulling away from the pack at restarts, but when the green flag flew for the final stint of the race he seemed oddly slow: and Wilson now in second place seemed very, very fast. It was clear Justin had the edge on Helio, but the Brazilian was focussed on the title fight and wasn’t going to let Wilson through for love nor money.

Even if it meant … blocking. Which he did, quite blatantly, on lap 70. The problem is of course that blocking is forbidden in IRL, punishable by being forced to give up the place to the person you just blocked – and that’s exactly what race control decreed minutes later.

There was a pause before Castroneves complied. He was clearly fuming at the decision – normally a driver would be warned first, not penalised straight away. But if he didn’t cede Wilson the lead then he risked getting black flagged with even more dire consequences for his title prospects, and so he finally allowed Wilson past on lap 73.

Despite Helio’s best counter-attacking efforts for the remainder of he race, Justin had the pace to hold him off and make it to his maiden IRL victory. Castroneves had to settle for second, 10pts worse off than if he had keep the lead, and critical in the title race as it would mean that he went into the final race 30pts behind Dixon, whose 5th place wasn’t enough to clinch the title this round and would mean he has to face a last-race decider like he did in 2007 – when Dario Franchitti had stolen the title from under his nose.

Franchitti was in Detroit for the race today, interestingly enough. The idle chatter was that Chip Ganassi are trying to lure him back to pen wheel as compensation for axing Franchitti’s NASCAR operation. Are they planning on replacing Wheldon in the number 10 car?

So the race had brought satisfaction for neither Dixon nor Castroneves, who was so furious by the penalty that he refused to say more than a few words with the pit lane reporters – highly unusual for the likeable and normally talkative Helio.

They finished comfortably clear of third-placed Kanaan, with Servia holding off Dixon for fourth and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Rahal Letterman) rounding out the top six. Bruno Junqueira used some brilliant strategy to recover from being penalised and sent to the back of the grid on lap 1, and ended up an impressive 7th ahead of KV’s Will Power, who lost ground when he damaged his front wing on Hunter-Reay’s car, and Ryan Briscoe (Penske), who became caught in traffic having followed the same pit strategy as Dixon.

The misconceived pit stop strategy also backfired for Wilson’s teammate Graham Rahal, who dropped back from sixth to 13th when he had to make a late extra fuel stop.

Marco Andretti’s uncompetitive weekend ended in a gearbox failure. Tomas Scheckter’s Luczo Dragon car broke a half-shaft on the opening lap, but he was able to rejoin following a long stop for repairs, as was Alex Tagliani, whose Conquest Dallara developed gearbox problems in the early laps.

Pos  Driver             Team                       Time
1.  Justin Wilson      Newman/Haas/Lanigan      87 laps
2.  Helio Castroneves  Penske                +   4.4058
3.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green        +  17.6815
4.  Oriol Servia       KV                    +  26.5468
5.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi               +  27.7185
6.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Rahal Letterman       +  28.2688
7.  Bruno Junqueira    Dale Coyne            +  28.6815
8.  Will Power         KV                    +  28.8776
9.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske                +  35.5244
10.  AJ Foyt IV         Vision               +  38.1040
11.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       +  38.3811
12.  Darren Manning     Foyt                 +  44.4662
13.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +  47.8028
14.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               +1:01.2770
15.  Mario Moraes       Dale Coyne           +    1 lap
16.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       +    1 lap
17.  Vitor Meira        Panther              +   4 laps
18.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       +   6 laps
19.  Buddy Rice         Dreyer & Reinbold    +  11 laps
20.  Dan Wheldon        Ganassi              +  23 laps
21.  Tomas Scheckter    Luczo Dragon         +  31 laps
22.  Alex Tagliani      Conquest             +  33 laps
23.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold    +  41 laps
24.  EJ Viso            HVM                  +  55 laps
25.  Jaime Camara       Conquest             +  71 laps

Championship standings:

1.  Scott Dixon         606      Leader
2.  Helio Castroneves   576     -30
3.  Tony Kanaan         481     -125
4.  Dan Wheldon         464     -142
5.  Ryan Briscoe        412     -194
6.  Danica Patrick      359     -247
7.  Oriol Servia        345     -261
8.  Marco Andretti      339     -267
9.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    338     -268
10. Hideki Mutoh        334     -272
11. Justin Wilson       321     -285
12. Vitor Meira         314     -292
13. Ed Carpenter        310     -296
14. Will Power          301     -305
15. Darren Manning      297     -309
16. Buddy Rice          296     -310
17. Graham Rahal        276     -330
18. E.J. Viso           274     -332
19. A.J. Foyt IV        263     -343
20. Bruno Junqueira     244     -362
21. Mario Moraes        232     -374
22. Enrique Bernoldi    220     -386
23. Jaime Camara        162     -444
24. Marty Roth          152     -454
25. Milka Duno          124     -482

Next/final race of 2008:
PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300, Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday Sep 7

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