IRL: Round 17 – Homestead, Miami – 10 October

And so the IndyCar season reaches its climax, with three drivers going in neck-and-neck for the championship, and it all hinging on this one final event at Homestead, Miami. Two of them would go for a sheer speed approach, while the third would go for high strategy. Only 200 laps would prove who had the best pace and approach to take the race and the title.

Dario Franchitti had drawn early blood by taking a strong pole in the searingly hot conditions of Friday, but come race day and it was clearly Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe with much better pace and they dropped Franchitti in the opening laps of the race after overtaking him on lap 10. Gradually Dixon put his foot down and broke Briscoe as well – early signs were pointing to a second consecutive title for Dixon and celebrations down under in New Zealand.

The leaders were all in ahead of the rest of the runners: Briscoe was the first to come in for his pit stop on lap 45, coming in early to take care of some lose handling issues, while Dixon stayed out till lap 48 and Franchitti longer still, not pitting until lap 50. While staying out longer is a nominal advantage, all the pit stops were so fast and flawless that it made little difference to the on-track running order, but Briscoe’s form was now significantly better, with a blistering outlap, and by lap 54 he was all over the back of Dixon for the lead, with Franchitti over 4s adrift of them both.

He took the lead by running side-by-side with Dixon on lap 62, finally getting a slingshot out of turn 4 to take the lead in full the next time around. Dixon attempted to counter attack on lap 65, only to suddenly find that they were coming up fast on slow traffic and he had to pull out of the move in a hurry to stop himself sliding up the track and colliding with Briscoe on the high side, inadvertently giving Briscoe a full second as a result. And with the points so tight, the bonus points for most laps lead were seriously on everyone’s minds at this point, particularly for Briscoe to be able to beat Dixon should they finish 1-2.

Wth no yellows and the leaders setting such a blistering prace, by lap 80 only the three rivals were on the lead lap, with Danica Patrick and her Andretti-Green team mate Tony Kanaan in 4th and 5th a lap off the pace, ahead of Briscoe’s own team mate Helio Castroneves in 6th.

Briscoe and Dixon pitted together on lap 95, Briscoe getting the better stop of the two but Dixon compensating with the better outlap; and with still no yellows on the horizon the question started to loom whether both of them would require a late race splash-and-dash if they kept up that pace? Whereas Franchitti, getting better mileage and coming in on the nose on lap 100, might well be able to beat them by stretching the fuel to the chequered flag, to steal the win even if he was a good 7s behind them at mid distance.

The latest pit stops had enabled Dixon to fine tune the handling of the Ganassi to his liking and on lap 106 he took the lead through the inside line out of turn 4, and the two cars went wheel-to-wheel before Dixon broke away and quickly stretched out a big lead over the Penske car. But then, as the tyres started to wear, the pendulum once again swung back in Briscoe’s favour and he started to visible close the gap to Dixon at an impressive rate and on lap 125 he again reclaimed the lead, easing past Dixon on the high side and pulling out a big lead of his own.

Now we were hitting the critical point of the race: the final pit stop. Dixon had backed off his pace, leaning off the fuel to adopt Franchitti’s cautious fuel-aware strategy, leaving Briscoe ahead; but despite this, the two leaders were together coming into the pits on lap 144, once again neither car making 50 laps but now facing a 54 lap distance to the chequered flag – a 6-8 lap shortfall at the current pace if there was no caution. Franchitti took up the lead until his own stop – clearly the final one for him of the day – right on schedule on lap 150. No fuel problems for Dario, but would the strategy give him the race win – let alone the title?

Ironically the first (and ultimately only) collision of the day didn’t bring out a yellow flag at all – as it happened on pit lane on lap 153. Dan Wheldon was released right into the path of Danica Patrick who was turning into her own pit box right in front. The impact turned her around a hundred and eighty degrees and gave her car suspension damage, and Wheldon had also collected suspension damage and was out of the race, joining Marco Andretti (brake issues) and Jaques Lazier in the garage. That put Kanaan up to 4th ahead of Castroneves and Graham Rahal who was now 6th.

By lap 160, Franchitti’s fuel strategy had left him 16s adrift of the leader Ryan Briscoe, who had now passed Dixon’s total of laps thus far today to go on to claim those all-important bonus points for most laps led. Things were getting very, very tight for all three with no one in a position to know if they were on track to win the race and title or about to crash and burn at the last. By lap 170 there still no caution, and no sign that either Briscoe or Dixon were slacking off and trying to stretch their fuel – that point of no return had long since been passed. Instead they were trying to catch up to and lap Franchitti to minimise the damage the extra fuel stop would inflict, but if the whole race was run caution-free then it was looking like Franchitti would almost certainly be the champion – but it was one helluva ‘if’. No IRL race in its 14 season history had ever gone caution-free before, and that’s precisely what Dario was banking on now. Some odds!

Time and laps were running out for the trio: and on lap 191 with nine to go, the storm broke: Dixon dipped below the white line to come in for his splash-and-dash, his title hopes effectively blown – you could tell from the body language of the pit crew that they knew their campaign was over.

And two laps later … Briscoe followed suit. Franchitti took the lead, but such had been the gap that Briscoe and Dixon had pulled out over him in that final stint that Dario was still only 6s ahead of Ryan and 7s ahead of Scott once they were both back on track with 6 laps to go. And it wasn’t plain sailing just yet – Dario was told to go “full bore on mix four” which meant “as fast as you can in fuel saving mode”. Would that prove too slow and leave him open to attack? Or would the fuel not stretch?

The white came out and Dario was still ahead; and the yards ticked down. Briscoe and Dixon didn’t have enough speed to catch Franchitti; and the car just had the fuel to cough its way over the finish line, even if it gasped its last seconds later. Dario Franchitti had made it, his 5th victory of the season: he’d celebrated his return from the ill-starred NASCAR efforts in the best possible style, joining Dixon and Sam Hornish Jr as IRL’s only multiple-time champions.

It might have lacked any eye-catching on-track accidents, but this had been a breathless, thrilling shoot-out between three of the best drivers in the world in any motorsport series, and they had all acquitted themselves in fine style. And in beating the others, Dario Franchitti had just made himself the best of the best once again.

And that wraps up the 2009 season for IRL!

Race result

Pos  Driver             Team                 Gap
 1.  Dario Franchitti   Ganassi              200 laps
 2.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               + 4.7888s
 3.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              + 6.0206s
 4.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green       + 1 lap
 5.  Helio Castroneves  Penske               + 1 lap
 6.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       + 2 laps
 7.  Mario Moraes       KV                   + 2 laps
 8.  Alex Lloyd         Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 2 laps
 9.  Tomas Scheckter    Dreyer & Reinbold    + 3 laps
10.  Justin Wilson      Coyne                + 3 laps
11.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  + 3 laps
12.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               + 3 laps
13.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Foyt                 + 4 laps
14.  Raphael Matos      Luczo Dragon         + 4 laps
15.  Mike Conway        Dreyer & Reinbold    + 5 laps
16.  EJ Viso            HVM                  + 6 laps
17.  Milka Duno         Dreyer & Reinbold    + 6 laps
18.  Sarah Fisher       Fisher               + 13 laps
19.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       + 15 laps

Retirements:

     Robert Doornbos    HVM                  166 laps
     Dan Wheldon        Panther              150 laps
     Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       58 laps
     Jaques Lazier      3G                   23 laps

IndyCar Championship

Dario’s win means he finishes just 11pts ahead of his team mate and previous champion Scott Dixon, who edges Ryan Briscoe to 2nd place by just a solitary point.

In other business, Raphael Matos clinched the rookie of the year title as expected, despite only finishing 13th; his rival Robert Doornbos retired in the closing stages with mehcanical problems having run near the tail of the field.

Pos Driver  Points
1   Dario Franchitti    616
2   Scott Dixon         605   -11
3   Ryan Briscoe        604   -12
4   Helio Castroneves   433   -183
5   Danica Patrick      393   -223
6   Tony Kanaan         386   -230
7   Graham Rahal        385   -231
8   Marco Andretti      380   -236
9   Justin Wilson       354   -262
10  Dan Wheldon         354   -262
11  Hideki Mutoh        353   -263
12  Ed Carpenter        321   -295
13  Raphael Matos       312   -304
15  Mario Moraes        304   -312
14  Ryan Hunter-Reay    298   -318
16  Robert Doornbos     283   -333
17  Mike Conway         261   -355
18  Ernesto Viso        248   -368
19  Will Power          215   -401
20  Tomas Scheckter     195   -421
21  Oriol Servia        115   -501
22  Alex Tagliani       114   -502
23  Paul Tracy          113   -503
24  Milka Duno          113   -503
25  Sarah Fisher         89   -527
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