IRL: Round 1 – St Petersburg, Florida – 5 April

After becoming IRLs youngest ever polesitter, Graham Rahal’s time at the front was brief. He was sluggish into the first turn, allowing Justin Wilson to take the lead as Dario Franchitti staged a brilliant strike down the inside to take up second. Rahal himself was tapped into a spin by Tony Kanaan, and the ensuing chaos saw cars have to take evasive action. Both Rahal and Kanaan had to pit for new front wings under the first caution, that was brought out when rookie Mike Conway was struck in the right rear wheel, the suspension damage making his début appearance in IRL a very brief affair.

So as the race progressed, Wilson and Franchitti led Ryan Briscoe, Will Power (subbing for Helio Castroneves at Penske), Darren Manning and Scott Dixon forming the top 6 on lap 20, with Kanaan and Rahal running in 15th and 16th respectively after their emergency pit stops. Drivers deeply unhappy with the red option “sticky soft” tyres had already pitted (including Marco Andretti, EJ Viso, Hideki Mutoh and Ed Carpenter) despite this meaning a three-stop race where the majority of drivers would be hoping to hang it out to lap 33 and make it a two-stopper.

On the stroke of pit stops, the caution flags came out – for multiple incidents on track. The most serious was a clash between Danica Patrick and Raphael Matoes: Matoes tried overtaking coming into turn 12 but didn’t get far enough up alongside, meaning that the two cars collided mid corner and spun into a destructive encounter with the tyre wall (both drivers were fine, but the cars were in pieces.) At the same time, Mario Moraes was left spun around after a clash with Hideki Mutoh, and Alex Tagliani was left limping back to the pits after he punctured his rear wheel on Vitor Meira’s front wing.

Ryan Briscoe had come in just before the mayhem broke out, meaning that he emerged from the caution period as the leader. His team mate Will Power had problems, overshooting his own pit box which in turn caused Scott Dixon to overrun to such an extent that the fuel hose wouldn’t reach. It was a disastrous stop for the reigning champion, who ended up bounced down to the very back of the lead lap.

Briscoe led Dan Wheldon, EJ Viso, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Robert Doornbos and Marco Andretti in a completely reshuffled, new look running order post-pits. Justin Wilson, Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal were quickly making progres up past the likes of Doornbos and Andretti to move toward the front, but Briscoe himself was pulling away into a comfortable lead of over 3s over Wheldon in the meantime.

The next caution (for Stanton Barrett stalling on track) on lap 55 came too early for most of the drivers to come into the pits, although it fell perfectly for EJ Viso on his three-stop strategy. Briscoe and Wheldon came in on schedule under green on lap 67 instead, deep enough into the race to make it to the end without any further stops, which allowed Justin Wilson to inherit the lead as he gambled on staying out till lap 70 to gain track position – if the track had gone yellow at this point it would have put him to the back, but his luck held. He emerged right in front of Briscoe as he blended back onto the track, and held it together on cold tyres to keep the position.

Pit stops had just completed when the yellow did in fact fly for an accident involving Ed Carpenter who made heavy contract with the tyre barrier in turn 3. There was a lengthy delay to proceedings as the track was swept clean of the marbles that has accumulated, and the tyre wall that collected Carpenter was repaired. EJ Viso retired under the caution, with a failure in the front end of the car affecting the steering of his car.

When the race restarted on lap 78, it was Justin Wilson leading Briscoe, Wheldon, Hunter-Reay, Franchitti and Kanaan in the top six. Franchitti made another spectacular lunge into the first turn and nearly lost control after near-contract with Hunter-Reay, but he held it and the big loser was Dan Wheldon who was shuffled back to 6th place.

Racing didn’t last long: Scott Dixon clashed with Hideki Mutoh going into the first turn of lap 80, bending his front left suspension so that he wasn’t able to make turn 3 and ending up instead solidly into the just-repaired tyre barrier. Racing resumed on lap 86 with just 14 to go to the chequered with a brilliantly judged move by Ryan Briscoe to cleanly steal the lead from Wilson. Ryan Hunter-Reay also managed to squeeze past Wilson as the Brit lost his rhythm, and Wilson was lucky not to lose 3rd to Dario Franchitti at the same time – a full course yellow came to his rescue.

That yellow was triggered by Dan Wheldon trying a move on Tony Kanaan into the first turn that didn’t come off; he lost momentum, giving Robert Doornbos a chance to overtake him, but the race track wasn’t wide enough and the two clashed, breaking Doornbos’ suspension and shunting Wheldon square into the now-infamous tyre wall of turn 3. Hideki Mutoh had nowhere to go and ploughed into the back of the stationary Wheldon. Wheldon and Mutoh were done for the day, and Doornbos was four laps down after emergency repairs were completed.

Briscoe held off a determined lunge from Hunter-Reay at the restart, as the two Ryans left the rest of the field standing, but another yellow was forced on lap 96 when Alex Tagliani spun Marco Andretti across his nose while making an uncommitted, clumsy overtaking move. Andretti couldn’t get the car moving in the right direction, focing a brief yellow and giving the leaders one final crack at a turn 1 restart lunge.

No one was able to pull off a killer move, and Briscoe led Hunter-Reay, Wilson, Franchitti and Kanaan into the final lap and all the way to the chequered.

Race result

Pos  Driver            Team                 Gap
 1.  Ryan Briscoe      Penske
 2.  Ryan Hunter-Reay  Vision               + 0.4619s
 3.  Justin Wilson     Dale Coyne           + 0.9490s
 4.  Dario Franchitti  Ganassi              + 1.5230s
 5.  Tony Kanaan       Andretti Green       + 2.3214s
 6.  Will Power        Penske               + 3.4622s
 7.  Graham Rahal      Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 4.0672s
 8.  Dan Wheldon       Panther              + 4.7283s
 9.  Vitor Meira       Foyt                 + 5.9559s
10.  Alex Tagliani     Conquest             + 1 lap
11.  Robert Doornbos   Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 4 laps
12.  Stanton Barrett   3G                   + 4 laps

Retirements:

     Driver            Team                 Laps
     Marco Andretti    Andretti Green       94
     Dan Wheldon       Panther              86
     Hideki Mutoh      Andretti Green       86
     Scott Dixon       Ganassi              80
     EJ Viso           HVM                  75
     Ed Carpenter      Vision               71
     Danica Patrick    Andretti Green       31
     Raphael Matos     Luczo Dragon         31
     Mario Moraes      KV                   31
     Mike Conway       Dreyer & Reinbold    1

Championship standings

                        Pts Gap
1.  Ryan Briscoe        50
2.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    40  -10
3.  Justin Wilson       37  -13
4.  Dario Franchitti    32  -18
5.  Tony Kanaan         30  -20
6.  Will Power          28  -22
7.  Graham Rahal        27  -23
8.  Darren Manning      24  -26
9.  Vitor Meira         22  -28
10. Alex Tagliani       20  -30
11. Robert Doornbos     19  -31
12. Stanton Barrett     18  -32
13. Marco Andretti      17  -33
14. Dan Wheldon         16  -34
15. Hideki Mutoh        15  -35
16. Scott Dixon         14  -36
17. E.J. Viso           13  -37
18. Ed Carpenter        12  -38
19. Danica Patrick      12  -38
20. Raphael Matos       12  -38
21. Mario Moraes        12  -38
22. Mike Conway         12  -38
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