IRL: Round 14 – Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, Infineon – 23 August

Dario Franchitti led the field to the green flag at the classic Infineon road course (also known as Sears Point). Two of his close rivals were right behind him (Penske duo Ryan Briscoe in second and Helio Castroneves in third) but the major threat to his championship campaign – and his own team mate – Scott Dixon was mired back in 10th after brake problems during qualifying. It was a major opportunity to make up some serious points over Dixon and the others – but would Dario pull it off?

It was a messy start that arguably should have been waived off after Briscoe got loose, but the green flags came out nonetheless and Franchitti got away perfectly – it was behind him that all hell was breaking loose.

First up was contact between Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti up the hill going into turn 2, but this caused more serious incidents behind: Tony Kanaan checked up and the unsighted Scott Dixon ploughed straight into the back of him. The rest of the field scattered to avoid both incidents, meaning some ten cars ended up going off onto the dirt, and debris flew everywhere. Only Dixon was left stationary, but several of the other cars were walking wounded and needed urgent pit stops, meaning a big shakeup was in store as the full caution yellow was shown.

At the restart, Franchitti, Briscoe and Castroneves still held the top three spots, while Kanaan, Dixon, Andretti, Duno, Rahal and Danica Patrick were among those in the pits for emergency repairs. Rahal’s car had a broken driveshaft, meaning he was in the pits for a length stay and rejoined 23 laps down. Only EJ Viso was officially listed as out after the first lap, while Kanaan was now 17th, Dixon 18th – lots of work to do as the course went back to green.

With the cat firmly among the pigeons after all that, Justin Wilson decided to really mix things up by coming in for a pit stop on la 6 to get off-sequence and switch to the preferred, faster red walled tyres, even if it put him to the back of the lead lap in 19th in the process. It was a gamble, but since he’d qualified in 19th in the first place, a gamble was called for if anything was to be salvaged for the afternoon: fortune favours the brave. But just seven laps “shift” didn’t seem like it was enough off-sequence to really pull anything off.

Dario continued to lead, but Briscoe was sticking close to him as the two of them dropped off the rest of the field by some 6s by lap 13. Hideki Mutoh had the advantage of the red wall tyres as he battled Helio for 3rd, but Castroneves was too strong for him; whereas Mario Moraes was all over the back of Dan Wheldon, and managed to get past him for 5th place on lap 13.

The first round of pit stops started on lap 24, but cars arrived in ones and twos until lap 28 when the majority of runners came in; Dario lasted a lapp longer and emerged with an impressively extended lead over Briscoe. Further back, Ryan Hunter-Reay had to come in twice – once for the regular stop, and then a couple of laps later for a new front wing after an attempt to overtake Oriol Servia saw his nose get emphatically chopped off.

The Penske duo gradually reeled in Dario in front so that by midway on lap 38 little more than a second covered all three cars, with fourth placed Hideki Mutoh almost 9s further back. Midfield, Scott Dixon was doing all he could to fight his way back up the points standings, and had some excellent duels with the likes of Robert Doornbos to finally take 11th spot, and Marco Andretti also fighting back from the first lap problems to successfully wrest 14th spot from Ed Carpenter the following lap. Less successful was Franck Montagny, who ended up violently colliding with Richard Antinucci on lap 41 and suffered significant suspension damage as a result.

As the race got close to lap 50 and pit stops started to loom, Tony Kanaan had Raphael Matos’ 9th place in his cross hairs, only to run off onto the dirt at turn nine and cede his own position to Justin Wilson; while further ahead Helio was showing there was no love lost between team mates as he made his intention to pass Ryan Briscoe clear – just as clear as Briscoe slammed the door in his face: but the intra-Penske battle was letting Dario get away again up front.

Just how hard Helio was pushing became clear when he almost rear-ended Ryan as he headed for pit lane for his final pit stop; and then when he nearly lost the car coming out onto the hill on cold tyres (no tyre warmers in IndyCar.) But the biggest drama was when he was challenged by Tony Kanaan, yet to pit himself, and the two touched wheels into a chicane – Helio’s car was thrown up into the air and bounced heavily. There was initially some smoke from a tyre rub but that seemed to abate and he was lucky not to have done any apparent major suspension damage. However he was now losing ground on the leaders and on lap 59 Helio lost third place for the first time this afternoon to Hideki Mutoh. He would lose 4th to Moraes a few laps later and then Mike Conway a couple of laps further on.

Dario meanwhile had outlasted both Penskes before pitting, and the extra laps had once again given him a big 2s lead over Briscoe. They were followed by Mutoh in 3rd ahead of Mario Moraes, Mike Conway, Helio Castroneves, Oriol Servia and Dan Wheldon. Wheldon lost 8th place to Wilson who passed him using the power button coming out of the Carousel. Wheldon had been nursing a damaged front wing from the first lap incident, and clearly it had worsened – he had to pit on lap 60 for a new nose section putting him down to 17th place after all that hard work.

Now all eyes were on the battle at the front between Dario and Ryan. Briscoe had closed right up again on Franchitti and it was impossible to tell which of them had the faster car, but they were both far out ahead of the rest of the field – until the second yellow of the day came out on lap 66 for two retirements.

One – not surprisingly, perhaps – was for Helio Castroneves, whose suspension finally seemed to break sending the number 3 car straight-lining off into the dust. Simultaneously Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car also abruptly stopped working and coasted to a halt, requiring a safety car to enable it to be recovered to the pits.

That left a sprint race of five laps to the chequered flag once racing resumed on lap 70, and closing up the field re-energised the race so that there ere battles up and down the running order. Hideki Mutoh got shuffled back two spots to 5th, overtaken by Moraes for 4th and a terrific IRL career-best showing for Mike Conway taking 3rd place; Justin Wilson half-spun trying a move on Servia for 6th place but managed to pull off a spectacular recovery to carry on only one position down behind Matos, who promptly got wide and dropped two positions in the final lap.

Scott Dixon looked to have pulled off a decent recovery to finish the race in the top ten when he passed Marco Andretti, but Marco got his revenge on the final corners of the race by hitting the back of the Ganassi car and tipping Dixon into a spin that meant the Kiwi ended up 13th place instead.

But up front, Dario looked in control of the restart and – while always pushed hard by Briscoe – never seemed in doubt for the race win. He duly took the chequered flag, a key victory in his title bid especially with Helio and Scott doing so badly this time around.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Team                      Time/Gap
 1.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi              1h49m23.0073s
 2.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske                  +  0.2488s
 3.  Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold       +  0.8293s
 4.  Mario Moraes       KV                      +  3.6171s
 5.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green          +  5.4536s
 6.  Oriol Servia       Newman/Haas/Lanigan     +  6.3801s
 7.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                   +  6.6997s
 8.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green          +  7.1808s
 9.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon            +  8.5936s
10.  Robert Doornbos    HVM                     + 10.8175s
11.  Ed Carpenter       Vision                  + 11.3688s
12.  Dan Wheldon        Panther                 + 12.4000s
13.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi                 + 13.8968s
14.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green          + 14.8978s
15.  Richard Antinucci  3G                      + 19.0650s
16.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green          +    1 lap
17.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold       +   4 laps

Retirements:

     Helio Castroneves  Penske                  66 laps
     Ryan Hunter-Reay   Foyt                    65 laps
     Franck Montagny    Andretti Green          57 laps
     Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan     30 laps
     Ernesto Viso       HVM                     0 laps

IndyCar championship standings

By coming second and never being shaken off the rear of Franchitti all afternoon, Briscoe just retains the championship lead by a slender 4pts. DIxon’s campaign is harder hit and is now 20pts off the lead, while the race confirms that Helio is essentially out of the running for the title now.

Pos Driver  Points
1   Ryan Briscoe        497
2   Dario Franchitti    493
3   Scott Dixon         477
4   Hélio Castroneves   371
5   Danica Patrick      335
6   Marco Andretti      323
7   Tony Kanaan         318
8   Dan Wheldon         306
9   Graham Rahal        301
10  Hideki Mutoh        297
11  Justin Wilson       296
12  Ed Carpenter        258
13  Ryan Hunter-Reay    254
14  Raphael Matos       252
15  Robert Doornbos     245
16  Mike Conway         220
17  Will Power          215
18  Mário Moraes        213
19  Ernesto Viso        206
20  Tomas Scheckter     137
21  Alex Tagliani       114
22  Paul Tracy          113
23  Milka Duno           88
24  Richard Antinucci    63
25  Vitor Meira          62
26  Sarah Fisher         61
27  Oriol Servià         57
28  Jaques Lazier        53
29  Stanton Barrett      50
30  Darren Manning       38
31  Townsend Bell        32
32  A.J. Foyt IV         26
33  Alex Lloyd           17
34  Scott Sharp          16
35  Nelson Philippe      16
36  John Andretti        12
37  Franck Montagny      12
38  Davey Hamilton       10
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