IRL: Round 16 – Motegi, Japan – 19 September

Ryan Briscoe had the opportunity to clinch the IRL title in Japan; instead, a small mistake all his own making ruined his day and quite possibility his entire season.

It was a clean, caution-free first half to the race with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti quickly installed into the 1st and 2nd spots ahead of Mario Moraes and Ryan Briscoe.

Mario Andretti was one of the fastest climbers cutting his way through the field from considerably further back, while Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan laboured to improve from qualifying issues (Castroneves crashed, and Kanaan was sent to the back for a technical infringement.) Former Danica Patrick, meanwhile, was maintaining her position in the top six or so but at some considerable cost – she had used half her push-to-pass overtaking assists before lap 50 of 200, to hold off overtaking threats.

With no cautions in sight, the first round of pit stops were held under green. Moraes has refuelling problems and dropped back, replaced in third place by former Motegi winner Dan Wheldon; while Franchitti was able to run a lap longer than his team mate Dixon – who had also had to cope with being stuck behind Hideki Mutoh coming into pit lane – and came in on lap 52; that critical advantage put him back out on track on track in front of Dixon, and while the Kiwi challenged hard to take the lead back while Dario was still on colder tyres and getting up to speed, Franchitti was able to hold him back and went on to lead the race until the next round of pit stops.

The race was still under green when Franchitti and Dixon came in again shortly after the midpoint of the race; this time it was Dixon who got the better stop and jumped up into the lead, as Franchitti had a moment in turn 2 on his out-lap.

But Briscoe stayed out longer than everyone, and then just as he came down pit road the yellows came out for the first time as Mike Conway was jolted loose by the bump in the middle of turns 3 and 4, sending him into the wall. A lengthy yellow ensured as the marshals had to deal with a lot of fuel leaking from Conway’s car onto the track.

But critically, all this meant Briscoe was able to carry on with his pit stop under yellow. It’s the type of serendipity that crew chiefs dream of, and which hands drivers a win on a platter. Pressing home the advantage that had landed in his lap, Briscoe floored it as smoked his way form his pit box … And the car responded by suddenly skewing hard left. Straight into the pit wall. It was a hard enough impact to damage the suspension, and to add insult to injury Briscoe also ran over the cone marking the end of the speed limited area, which then lodged underneath the car. He limped back to the pits and had to endure a lengthy stop that left him 15 laps down, and very much out of the race. Instead of clinching the title here at Motegi, Ryan had well and truly handed the advantage over to the Ganassi team mates.

The lengthy caution period meant that all the cars were easily able to stretch their fuel past lap 160 putting them within easy reach of the finish on one final pit stop. Surprisingly, Dixon and Franchitti came in relatively early – and both on the same lap – but it was just as well that they did, because as they arrived in their pix boxes the track went to yellow for a heavy rear-end smash into the wall by Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Dixon and Franchitti, then, were gifted exactly the same advantage that had presented itself to Briscoe earlier in the day; unlike Briscoe, neither Ganassi driver threw it away on the pit exit, and returned to the track in the lead after the other cars still to pit cycled through their own stops. Showing just how much the timing of a yellow can affect a race, Dan Wheldon – who had been comfortably in third before his own pre-yellow pit stop – ended up in eighth place and with a lot of lapped traffic mixed in as well after all this, such was the advantage handed to the cars who were able to come in while the safety car was on track.

Graham Rahal took up Wheldon’s vacated third spot, but had to hold off strong challenges from Oriol Servia and Mario Moraes (recovering from his earlier pit stop woes) to keep that position to the chequered flags. But none of them were in the same leage as the Ganassi duo, of of the two front runners it was clear that Dixon was by far the stronger in the closing laps, which contained none of the drama of Chicagoland’s split-second finish. Dixon cruised it in the final laps, basically.

Despite sticking with it after his devastating pit lane mistake, Ryan Briscoe could do no more on the damage limitation front than 18th, just ahead of Stanton Barrett; the only other places that he was able to make up were accident (Conway and Hunter-Reay) or technical retirements (Tomas Scheckter out with gear box trouble, and Roger Yasukawa having a lengthy pitstop for attention to a brake problem.)

Japan ’09 certainly won’t have happy memories for the Penske team and Briscoe in particular. But it’s by no means over yet: Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti are too close to call for the title going into the final round of the season. It’s still all to play for – providing that Motegi doesn’t leave a lasting psychological scar on Briscoe’s title bid.

Meanwhile Dixon’s win not only gives him the momentum into the final race, but also a critical five wins to Franchitti’s four – a fact that would come into play as a tie-breaker in the event of the two Ganassi team mates finishing equal on points.

It’s going to be tight!

Race result

Pos  Driver             Team                      Time/Gap
 1.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              1h51m37.6411s
 2.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi                 +  1.4475s
 3.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan     +  3.2002s
 4.  Oriol Servia       Newman/Haas/Lanigan     +  7.3720s
 5.  Mario Moraes       KV                      + 12.7643s
 6.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green          + 16.1392s
 7.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green          + 16.6513s
 8.  Dan Wheldon        Panther                 + 17.2646s
 9.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon            + 17.5790s
10.  Helio Castroneves  Penske                  +    1 lap
11.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green          +    1 lap
12.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                   +    1 lap
13.  Ed Carpenter       Vision                  +   2 laps
14.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green          +   2 laps
15.  EJ Viso            HVM                     +   2 laps
16.  Robert Doornbos    HVM                     +   2 laps
17.  Kosuke Matsuura    Conquest                +   5 laps
18.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske                  +  15 laps
19.  Stanton Barrett    3G                      +  18 laps
20.  Roger Yasukawa     Dreyer & Reinbold       +  28 laps

Retirements:

     Ryan Hunter-Reay   Foyt                  157 laps
     Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold     103 laps
     Tomas Scheckter    Dreyer & Reinbold     83 laps

IndyCar championship standings

Briscoe’s costly fumble means he drops from 1st to 3rd in the standings, while Dixon’s points for leading the most laps in Japan put him just on front of his team mate Franchitti.

But with only 8pts covering all three of them (and everyone else well and truly out of the tunning), the points make very little difference in reality. It’s the closest points standing into the final race that IRL has seen since 2003.

So it’s anyone’s title, as we head to the season finale at Homestead, Miami on 10th October.

Pos Driver           Points
1   Scott Dixon         570
2   Dario Franchitti    565
3   Ryan Briscoe        562
4   Hélio Castroneves   403
5   Danica Patrick      381
6   Marco Andretti      368
7   Graham Rahal        366
8   Tony Kanaan         354
9   Dan Wheldon         342
10  Justin Wilson       334
11  Hideki Mutoh        325
12  Ed Carpenter        303
13  Raphael Matos       296
14  Ryan Hunter-Reay    281
15  Mário Moraes        278
16  Robert Doornbos     271
17  Mike Conway         246
18  Ernesto Viso        234
19  Will Power          215
20  Tomas Scheckter     173
21  Oriol Servià        115
22  Alex Tagliani       114
23  Paul Tracy          113
24  Milka Duno          100
25  Sarah Fisher         77
26  Jaques Lazier        65
27  Richard Antinucci    63
28  Vitor Meira          62
29  Stanton Barrett      62
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  Kosuke Matsuura      13
37  John Andretti        12
38  Franck Montagny      12
38  Roger Yasukawa       12
40  Davey Hamilton       10
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