IRL: Round 4 – The 93rd Indianapolis 500 – 24 May

If you were to write a film script, then the Indianapolis 500 could have had only one feel-good winner – Helio Castroneves, fresh from winning his battle with the US IRL just five weeks ago. But surely reality wasn’t going to deliver such a beautifully appropriate climax to Helio’s story?

The race got away to a scrappy start. The first start was waved off because the rows of three broke up before the green flag. Second attempt was good, but followed by a quick crash, when Mario Moraes moved up and squeezed Marco Andretti, putting them both into the wall. Moraes got turned into the wall, getting the worst of it but both were out. Marco was the innocent bystander – not that it is any compensation. Both drivers blamed the other; Marco eventually rejoined, but was 59 laps down by the time he did.

At the restart on lap 8, Dario Franchitti blasted past Helio Castroneves for the lead. Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal rounded out the top 6.

A lengthy second caution began on lap 22 for Ryan Hunter-Reay: he exited turn 4, lost grip and understeered into the wall with his front right tyre; bounced off, spun across the track, rear-ended the inside wall and then gradually skidded to a half actually inside the pit lane area. Once it was cleaned up, everyone streamed into the pits for their first stop of the day and Dario retained the lead with Ryan Briscoe beating Helio out for second.

The next green flag stint saw Scott Dixon mount a sustained assault on the leaders after a sluggish start, rising into the top three by lap 35. EJ Viso looked to have problems and came in for an out-of-sync pit stop, but remained off the pace afterwards and eventually retired on lap 152 over a dozen laps off the pace by that point.

The running order remained pretty consistency, with Franchitti leading Briscoe, Dixon, Castroneves, Rahal, Kanaan, Raphael Matos, Will Power, Danica Patrick and Hideki Mutoh as the top 10 at lap 50, quarter distance.

Robert Doornbos scrapped the wall on lap 51 despite a valiant attempt to save the slide, and pitted with some damage to the suspension that took some 28 laps of downtime to repair before he could rejoin the race. It didn’t bring out a caution, however. Doornbos eventually tired on lap 136.

Dario Franchitti then seemed to lose pace and ceded the lead to Briscoe on lap 53, as the leaders started to hit slower traffic to lap and as some of the cars reached the end of their fuel and started to come in for green flag pit stops.

But a yellow was out on lap 57: Graham Rahal slammed the wall after getting high on the exit of turn 4 attempting to avoid Milka Duno and hit the wall hard. The damage was major and his drive was done for the day. It confirmed turn 4 as the danger spot for the day, seemingly lacking grip in the hot, humid, grey, overcast conditions of race day.

That gave the majority of the field the chance for yellow flag stops after all; it proved a costly stop for Justin Wilson who managed to spin the number 18 in the pit lane, dropping him to the back of the lead lap. It was better for Danica Patrick, who made up two spots for the second pit stop in a row, putting her up to 7th. Briscoe retained the lead, but Scott Dixon leapfrogged his team mate Dario Franchitti for second; Helio Castroneves, pitting behind Franchitti, got slightly blocked and dropped a place himself back to 5th.

At the restart. Briscoe was left for dead by Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan and a host of others as he fell to ninth, complaining of zero grip that forced him into the pits for an emergency change of tyres to try and fix the problem. putting him a lap down – a disastrous turn of events for the man who was leading just moments before.

Another caution came on lap 83 when Davey Hamilton made contact with the wall down the front straightaway after getting loose through the blackspot of turn 4. After the pit stops, Franchitti retook the lead by a nose but much of the rest of the field remained more or less unchanged with Kanaan retaining third, and Dixon took the lead back right after the green flag came out.

As the field came up on half distance, on lap 98, the 5th caution came out for a violent accident involving Tony Kanaan. The car simply sheared off to the right going down the backstraight, slamming him into the wall – but worse, the car carried on at high speed and headed into the wall a second time at turn 3. Half the car was decimated and flames shot out, but when the car came to a halt the marshals were quickly there to help Kanaan climb out, battered and limping but not seriously hurt. TV footage showed that something in the back of the car simply broke, after which Kanaan was a passenger along for a very uncomfortable ride. There was plenty of debris and fluids left on the track, however, meaning a lengthy delay. Certainly time for pit stops.

The running order at halfway after the latest round of pit stops under yellow was: Dixon, Franchitti, Will Power (who had opted to take fuel only, no tyres), Matos, Castroneves, Dan Wheldon, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Ed Carpenter and Danica Patrick (down four spots after she had slightly overshot her pit box, needing to be backed up before the crew could get to work.) Power’s tactic, while giving track position, seemed suspect when Ganassi showed the metal shards that they had found in Dixon’s tyres from Kanaan’s wreck.

The race restarted without Oriel Servia, whose car lost power with an oil leak, the sixth retirement of the afternoon. Nelson Philippe was next to slide into light contact with the wall on lap 132. That gave everyone a chance to pit, something especially welcome to Danica Patrick who seemed to have picked up problems with severe vibration affecting handling.

The pit stop proved disastrous for Vitor Meira, who pulled away from his pit before the fuel hose was fully disengaged, tearing off the nozzle. It resulted in a flash fire which engulfed the car for a few seconds before the pit crew were able to douse it with water’ remarkably they even sent him back out again after the fire was extinguished – to the cheers of the crowd who appreciated the sheer guts involved.

Franchitti had had a similar near-miss, pulling out before the fuel hose was fully off apparently after mishearing a radio signal saying “no, no, no”. But he was able to react faster and stop the car before the hoseline broke, meaning no fire – but a lose of seven positions, falling to 8th on track.

Dixon was still in the lead, but now his main rival was Helio Castroneves followed by Power, Tracy, Wheldon, Bell, Carpenter, Franchitti, Patrick and Briscoe now back on the leap lap and into the top ten after his early handling problems were fixed by the unscheduled pit stop.

It was clear from the battling at the restart on lap 140 that things were now getting serious. Helio got the better of Dixon, while a lap later Wheldon and Bell got past Tracy in a hard fight. Briscoe had also got past Patrick, but race control ruled it a jump start infringement and ordered him to return the position back to Patrick a few laps later after Andretti-Green Racing appealed. Patrick still struggled to stay in front of Briscoe, however, and received a warning for blocking a few laps later before she finally picked up speed and got past Tracy and then set about challenging Carpenter.

On lap 156, Power overtook Dixon for second place coming out of turn 4 to make it a Penske 1-2; Dixon’s own team mate Franchitti was stuck back in 9th unable to help, making heavy weather of the traffic.

Justin Wilson was next into the wall on lap 161, Alex Lloyd taking the air off Wilson’s front wing into turn 1 causing him to spin one and a half revolutions before hitting the wall with the nose of the number 18. Compared to Kanaan, though, it was a gentle affair.

With only 38 laps to go, everyone had to make their final pit stops of the afternoon. Will Power’s crew had a problem fitting the right rear tyre, bumping him to 6th place. But it was still a Penske 1-2, as Briscoe had shortfilled on fuel to take second spot alongside Castroneves – he couldn’t get to the end without another stop, but it was a typically sly Penske strategy call. Wheldon was lurking in third alongside Danica Patrick, with Townsend Bell a surprisingly strong 5th place. Dixon had had a mysteriously slow stop and fallen to 7th, followed by Carpenter, Franchitti and Mike Conway in 10th.

Any thoughts that fuel for the majority of the cars might be marginal were dismissed by a lengthy eighth caution triggered by a battle between Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos. Meira was just following the usual line when Matos tried to pass on the outside, didn’t have the speed, dropped back but then moved down the track too soon just clipping Meira and sending them both into a crunching impact with the wall. Meira’s car was flipped up on its edge and proceeded to run on its side (the top of the car facing away from the wall itself, fortunately) along the curve of the wall for almost a quarter lap before finally coming to rest on the track rightside up. Meira, already chargrilled from the pit lane fire, was not able to get out of the car himself and needed to be removed by stretcher by the medical crew, reported as alert but complaining of severe lower back pain that required him to be transported to the nearby hospital for proper assessment and treatment. Matos, fortunately, walked away from his own wreck albeit in some pain too.

It was a big accident and it needed a fair bit of clearing up, including some spot welding on the safety barrier. Briscoe was forced to leave Castroneves’ side at this point for some fuel, leaving Helio ahead of Wheldon, Patrick and Power as the race resumed with just 17 laps to go till the chequered flag.

Hideki Mutoh skated onto the grass at the restart without any lasting harm, while the Ganassi boys Dixon and Franchitti were attempting a mad lunge to the front in the remaining time available, but which staled with them in 6th and 7th respectively. But in front, Helio was benefitting from Wheldon and Patrick fighting it out for second place, allowing him to build up a big 2s lead while they squabbled. It was his to lose.

No mistakes; no cautions; and no one close to touching him. Castroneves made it all the way to the chequered to join the select band of drivers who have notched up three Indy 500 wins. It was a remarkable fairytale return for the Brazilian who just weeks earlier was at risk of going to jail, but who returned to racing vindicated and seemingly better than ever behind the wheel.

The story of his victory against the US IRS had gripped the imagination of the crowd, who cheered him home and delighted at his trademark “spiderman” climb up the catch fence, joined by a good number of his Penske pit crew as well. When he was initially unable to speak to reporters, and then finally got to thank Team Penke for “giving me my life back”, everyone knew it was no exaggeration and was from the heart.

Even Roger Penske crasked a smile and looked pleased. Miracles do indeed happen.

Race classification

Pos  Driver             Team                      Time
 1.  Helio Castroneves  Penske                    200 laps
 2.  Dan Wheldon        Panther                  + 1.9819s
 3.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green           + 2.3350s
 4.  Townsend Bell      KV                       + 2.7043s
 5.  Will Power         Penske                   + 3.6216s
 6.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi                  + 4.2988s
 7.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi                  + 4.9159s
 8.  Ed Carpenter       Vision                   + 5.5096s
 9.  Paul Tracy         KV                       + 6.5180s
10.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green           + 7.3312s
11.  Alex Tagliani      Conquest                 +10.5351s
12.  Tomas Scheckter    Coyne                    +10.9874s
13.  Alex Lloyd         Schmidt/Ganassi          +11.1944s
14.  Scott Sharp        Panther                  +11.4259s
15.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske                   +12.6695s
16.  AJ Foyt IV         Foyt                     +15.4867s
17.  Sarah Fisher       Fisher                   +15.9774s
18.  Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold        +16.3488s
19.  John Andretti      Dreyer & Reinbold/Petty  +18.0868s
20.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold        +   1 lap
21.  Vitor Meira        Foyt                     + 27 laps
22.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon             + 27 laps
23.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                    + 40 laps
24.  EJ Viso            HVM                      + 61 laps
25.  Nelson Philippe    HVM                      + 70 laps
26.  Oriol Servia       Rahal Letterman          +102 laps
27.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green           +103 laps
28.  Robert Doornbos    Newman/Haas/Lanigan      +115 laps
29.  Davey Hamilton     Dreyer & Reinbold        +121 laps
30.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green           +144 laps
31.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan      +145 laps
32.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Vision                   +181 laps
33.  Mario Moraes       KV                       +200 laps
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