IRL: Round 9 – Camping World Grand Prix, Watkins Glen – July 5

Fourth of July weekend certainly gave us the best in US motorsport venues: Daytona for NASCAR, Laguna Seca for MotoGP – and the beautiful, historic Watkins Glen road course for IRL. Which driver would this former F1 track suit best?

Form the start, it was clear that Justin Wilson was the class of the field. Starting second, he was immediately all over polesitter Ryan Briscoe and determined to get past; finally he pulled off a neat pass on the Penske car on lap 4 and started to pull away.

In early incidents, Ryan Hunter-Reay was an premature exit on lap 1 when he was caught out by a compression effect at the back of the field caused by Raphael Matos spinning ahead of him exiting turn 7. Hunter-Reay himself ended up going off the track and into the barrier to avoid crashing into the mess in front of him.

“Everybody just stopped,” Hunter-Reay said afterwards. “We were just in fifth gear, sixth gear at top of the hill. It was the accordion affect. Everyone just stopped and ran into each other. It was just a bunch of cars racing in the back of the pack. We’re just a victim of circumstances from where we were starting. It was just bad luck.”

Marco Andretti and EJ Viso also had a minor collision, where Viso tried a lacklustre move to overtake Andretti and had his front wing crushed for his troubles; but ironically it was Marco who came off worse from the encounter with a cut right rear tyre from the wing’s sharp edges and had to pit.

Well down the timesheets, Marco then proceeded to make a nuisance of himself, first holding up the leaders who came up to lap him – allowing Briscoe to close right up on Wilson and threaten to go three-wide to overtake them both – and then also delaying Mario Moraes in third place to the cost of some 6s before he was able to get past the Andretti-Green Racing car. It was a graceless showing from Marco.

By lap 10, Wilson and Briscoe were pulling away from Moraes, Scott Dixon, Mike Conway and Dario Franchitti making up the top six. The front two continued to pull away from the rest of the field at an alarming rate, making this a two-car race unless we got a yellow soon – but it seemingly came at a price for race leader Wilson who had to pit a lap before the optimal lap 20, calling into question whether he could pull off a two-stop strategy.

But it turned into a stroke of luck for Wilson when, seconds after he pitted and just before Ryan Briscoe could come in a lap later, the race went full course yellow after Richard Antinucci went off at turn 1 and the safety car had to come out to allow recovery. Briscoe couldn’t get into the pits before they were closed, except for an emergency top-up of fuel to keep him running, and so when he did finally get to pit he emerged in 11th position on the track – a cruel twist of fate and one that Franchitti will know all about, as a similar situation last week cost him the race win in Richmond.

So now Wilson led Conway, Graham Rahal, Hideki Mutoh, Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon away at the restart – all cars that had been forced to pit early, or had chosen to get off-sequence before the caution.

But the green flag racing didn’t last long, with an impact between Ed Carpenter and Mario Moraes colliding through the bus stop chicane, and then behind them Dario Franchitti getting caught out by the incident unfolding in front of him and spinning as he tried to brake crossing the chicane kerbing, landing deep in the gravel trap. He was pulled out and sent back on his way, but a lap down. Several of the off-sequence cars including Graham Rahal used the opportunity to pit, while Moraes got a penalty for causing the collision with Carpenter before green flag racing resumed on lap 25.

As the race past the halfway point, we got the third caution of the afternoon – Paul Tracy got on the throttle too early out of turn 7, spun all by himself and put the back of his car into the barrier, putting him out of the race from 11th position. It was too early for the leaders to come in for the final pit stop, but the laps under caution saved valuable fuel and made a two-stop race a comfortable reality.

The leaders started to pit on lap 42, but Ryan Briscoe stretched it two laps longer and Scott Dixon a lap still further with impressive fuel conservation. It helped speed up their refuelling time and when they emerged from the pits, Wilson was leading Briscoe, Dixon and Castroneves with Mike Conway losing out and falling to 6th place.

Wilson’s lead was around a second – not helped by a slight stutter getting away from his pit box – and Briscoe was closing the gap ever so slightly every lap. And the lap disappeared altogether when the fourth caution of the day came out on lap 52 after Hideki Mutoh spun off turn 7 in the same spot where both Tracy and Moraes had done before him.

Now there were just 6 laps to go at the restart: could Wilson get a good enough restart to hold off the challenge from Penske and Ganassi? He had the advantage of running the softer red wall tyres and got the jump on Briscoe at the restart, who seemed to be struggling on the harder compound and creating something of a logjam. A couple of laps later and Wilson had a 2.8s gap over Briscoe. Surely Wilson’s job was done, barring another full course yellow?

There was no yellow, and WIlson made no mistakes. By the time he took the chequered flag he was almost 5s in front, and his victory – the first for team owner Dale Coyne in his 23 years of IndyCar and Champ Car competition – was a genuine David versus Goliath achievement for both driver and team.

And after getting in the way in the opening laps, Marco Andretti pulled off a good recovery to finish 5th, pipping Conway in the closing laps. Andretti had managed to regain his lost lap in the yellow-interrupted first round of pit stops, and then stayed out to lap 45 before his second and final stop to climb up the standings.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Team                 Gap
 1.  Justin Wilson      Coyne
 2.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               +  4.9906s
 3.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              +  5.1632s
 4.  Helio Castroneves  Penske               +  7.0755s
 5.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       +  8.5595s
 6.  Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold    +  9.3646s
 7.  EJ Viso            HVM                  + 11.3804s
 8.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green       + 13.0020s
 9.  Robert Doornbos    Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 13.2633s
10.  Dan Wheldon        Panther              + 18.0412s
11.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       + 18.5656s
12.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon         + 18.9342s
13.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 23.0413s
14.  Mario Moraes       KV                   + 23.3821s
15.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi              +    1 lap
16.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               +    1 lap
17.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold    +   2 laps
18.  Richard Antinucci  3G                   +  13 laps


     Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green          51 laps
     Paul Tracy         KV                      29 laps
     Ryan Hunter-Reay   Foyt                     0 laps

Championship standings

Scott Dixon settled for third place in the race and is rewarded for his troubles by the points lead in the IRL championship, after Franchitti went a lap down early in the proceedings.

Pos Driver  Points
1   Scott Dixon         313
2   Dario Franchitti    294
3   Ryan Briscoe        294
4   Hélio Castroneves   257
5   Danica Patrick      238
6   Dan Wheldon         224
7   Marco Andretti      215
8   Tony Kanaan         214
9   Graham Rahal        197
10  Justin Wilson       187
11  Hideki Mutoh        186
12  Robert Doornbos     163
13  Raphael Matos       162
14  Ed Carpenter        157
15  Ryan Hunter-Reay    155
16  Mário Moraes        138
17  Mike Conway         136
18  Ernesto Viso        129
19  Will Power           99
20  Tomas Scheckter      99
21  Alex Tagliani        75
22  Vitor Meira          62
23  Milka Duno           51
24  Stanton Barrett      50
25  Paul Tracy           47

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