IRL: Round 13 – Infineon – Aug 22

A record eighth pole in a single season put Will Power at the head of the field as racing got underway at the 2.5 mile Infineon Racetrack better known as Sears Point in Sonoma County, California. His Penske team mate Helio Castroneves lined up in second, potentially a faithful rear gunner to protect Power from his most serious championship rival, Dario Franchitti, starting in third. Everything was set for Will Power to make a triumphant return to the place where, one year ago, a practice accident broke his back, came close to killing him, and seemed to have ended his IndyCar career: instead, the Aussie was determined to make Infineon pay him back by yielding to him and becoming the latest stepping stone on the way to the 2010 title.

The start was conspicuously badly handled by almost all concerned, with the leaders getting an early jump that strung out the field even before they rounded the corner to the green flag. The start should have been waved off as the two-by-two grid broke down, and the midfield lost touch with the front runners causing confusion and momentary panic as they tried to respond: back in 12th, Dan Wheldon joined the crowd using the push to pass and thought he’d cleared Bertrand Baguette running behind him, only to move over and clip the front of the Conquest car. That spun Wheldon to the left and the National Guard car rolled, crunched its nose into the wall, and landed upside down – skidding several meters down the road balanced precariously on its rollbar as the rest of the cars scattered to avoid the accident.

It was a slow speed incident, and with the strength of the chassis there was no harm done to Wheldon who was quickly flipped right side up and extricated by the marshalls, but he was comprehensively out of the race. Baguette wasn’t left particularly happy either, going off-track almost the minute the race went green again on lap 5, a sign that the contact with Wheldon had crunched the car’s steering.

The restart went somewhat more to plan, and Power led the race with Castroneves holding off a first corner attack from Franchitti. EJ Viso made an unexpected early pit stop to adopt a three-stop strategy and make an early change to red wall tyres, and Milka Duno was black flagged at the request of her team due to radio issues, but otherwise the race quickly settled down with no major changes of position until lap 16.

That’s when Alex Tagliani got jumped by Ryan Briscoe for fourth, which resulted in him losing momentum and ceding another position to Scott Dixon just seconds later. Next lap round and Tagliani also proved unable to hold back Justin Wilson, putting him down to 7th and struggling to hold off Ryan Hunter-Reay, the two nearly making contact. Finally Tagliani ran out of road and ploughed into the dust on lap 19, the car’s handling then seriously affected by a cut tyre which meant Tagliani was practically reversing through the field. He was lucky not to make contact with the other cars as they jockeyed for position streaming past him as he limped back to the pits.

While all this was going on further back down, Dario Franchitti finally made a successful move on Castroneves to claim second spot and line him up for an assault on his championship rival for the lead, and there was good news for Dario’s Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon as he got past Ryan Briscoe, who seemed to be struggling with tyre degradation as early as lap 21 and rapidly lost another place to Justin Wilson the following lap.

Those suffering handling issues were the first to pit, such as Castroneves who lost two positions to Scott Dixon and Justin Wilson in rapid succession. Those at the front making the tyres work for them at this point – Power, Franchitti, Dixon and Wilson – had a vital edge, Wilson making it to lap 27 before pitting, pretty much on the nose as far as race strategy went, while Simona de Silvestro was also making the tyres last and pitted the next time around – only to lose that good work struggling on the cold tyres on the first lap out of the pits and getting knocked into a spin by an impatient EJ Viso. Will Power and Dario Franchitti were the last to come in, but Power got the better of it – emerging in the lead again, while Franchitti emerged behind Marco Andretti in second and JR Hildebrand in fourth, both of whom were on a completely different pit strategy. More strikingly, Dario was also behind third-placed Ryan Briscoe, who had made that enforced early pit stop work for him in terms of track position.

Hildebrand was soon in on lap 33, just as the course went yellow for a spin and stall by Milka Duno. It was bad news for Marco, whose hand was forced into making a pit stop that put him to the back of the lead lap as the cars closed up behind the safety car. When the green flag came out again, Power led Briscoe, Franchitti, Dixon and Castroneves ahead of Wilson for the top six at lap 36, but the green only lasted a couple of laps before Marco – in a hurry to make up all that lost ground – lunged down the inside of turn 7, came in too hot and drifted wide through the apex ending up barging heavily into the side of JR Hildebrand. Marco was able to recover and continue, but Hildebrand was beached and stalled and needed roadside assistance to get underway again: he retired to the pits with a broken wishbone. Not that the incident chastened Marco at all, and he was soon seen banging wheels with Mario Moraes seemingly in an effort to barge past the KV car without compunction.

Power checked out at the restart on lap 41, with Franchitti and Dixon frustrated in their attempts to give chase by Ryan Briscoe in second lending spoiling support for his Penske team mate. By lap 50, Power had a colossal 5.3s lead over second place, with the same margin then covering the next places back to Ryan Hunter-Reay in seventh.

As they passed the 25-to-go mark, strategy became critical: who was going to chance an early stop and hope for a full course caution to pop them up to the front? Tony Kanaan took those odds on lap 52, pitting from ninth place and returning to the red wall supersoft tyres for his final stint; surprisingly, Dario Franchitti was in relatively early on lap 55, and even more shockingly he opted to stay on the harder black wall tyres rather than reverting to the red supersofts. Seemingly Ganassi were going for a strategy of safety first, ensuring the tyres would last to the end even if they would be too slow to chase down Power in the lead. Dixon was the last to pit, on lap 57, and he opted for the expected red wall tyres; he slotted back into the race in third place between Dario in second and Ryan Briscoe in fourth, Ganassi having neatly taken care of Briscoe through superior pit stop strategy and performance.

But Power still had a huge lead, and Ganassi had to decide on the best response: continue with Dario plodding around in second, no threat to the lead; or release Dixon on the faster but shorter-lived soft tyres and hope he had enough to catch and dispatch Power. They opted for the latter, but what they really needed was a full course caution to bunch everyone back together.

They got it on lap 65, when a four way battle between Bertrand Baguette, Takuma Sato, EJ Viso and Raphael Matos ended up squeezing Baguette in the middle, crumpling his front wing and parking him up against the wall. It would leave a six lap shoot out, with Power, Dixon, Franchitti and Briscoe heading up the charge: Dixon threw everything he could into sticking with and piling the pressure on Power as they got back underway, but Power seemed unshakeable and completely in control as the laps counted down.

The race narrowly avoided a rapid return to yellow for a spin and stall by Hideki Mutoh, but there was an unnerving moment when the leaders arrived at the scene to find a safety vehicle parked at the outside of turn 7 and marshalls still on track having just refired Mutoh: it was arguably a risk too far to keep the race moving. There was also contact between Sato and Patrick at the same corner two laps later, but both cars were still moving and no such daring-do was needed there; and then Francisco Dracone spun in the final corner as the leaders entered the final lap, and the marshalls once again pushed their puck by sticking to local waved yellows rather than ruin the race spectacle.

The upshot was that Power stayed in command and crossed the finish line in first place ahead of Dixon, Franchitti a distant but save third having had no problem holding off Power’s team mates Briscoe and Castroneves. Overall though it was an excellent day for the Penske/Ganassi duopoly, with a perfect lock-out of the top five positions and Justin Wilson the best of the rest for Dreyer and Reinbold in sixth.

It’s Power’s fifth win of the season (Sao Paulo, St. Petersburg, Watkins Glen and Toronto being the others) and this third win from pole. And this win is crucial for Power – while he has a big points lead at this point, this is the last road race of the IndyCar season and now it’s ovals all the way – and Ganassi have the edge on those, while Power is yet to win on one. The 2010 title is far from decided just yet.

Race result

Pos  Driver               Team               Gap
 1.  Will Power           Penske             75 laps
 2.  Scott Dixon          Ganassi            + 0.7432s
 3.  Dario Franchitti     Ganassi            + 6.6132s
 4.  Ryan Briscoe         Penske             + 7.8607s
 5.  Helio Castroneves    Penske             + 10.4594s
 6.  Justin Wilson        Dreyer & Reinbold  + 10.9095s
 7.  Tony Kanaan          Andretti           + 11.5246s
 8.  Ryan Hunter-Reay     Andretti           + 11.8938s
 9.  Graham Rahal         Newman/Haas        + 17.5019s
10.  Alex Lloyd           Dale Coyne         + 18.2069s
11.  Mario Moraes         KV                 + 20.2411s
12.  Marco Andretti       Andretti           + 20.6759s
13.  Simona de Silvestro  HVM                + 21.8239s
14.  Alex Tagliani        Fazzt              + 22.4858s
15.  Vitor Meira          Foyt               + 24.2879s
16.  Danica Patrick       Andretti           + 46.1339s
17.  Hideki Mutoh         Newman/Haas        + 1 lap
18.  Takuma Sato          KV                 + 1 lap
19.  EJ Viso              KV                 + 1 lap
20.  Francesco Dracone    Conquest           + 4 laps
21.  Raphael Matos        De Ferran Dragon   + 8 laps
22.  Milka Duno           Dale Coyne         + 8 laps

Retirements:

Bertrand Bagutte Conquest           65 laps
JR Hildebrand    Dreyer & Reinbold  38 laps
Dan Wheldon      Panther            0 laps

Championship standings

Pos Driver               Points
1.  Will Power           514
2.  Dario Franchitti     455
3.  Scott Dixon          419
4.  Ryan Briscoe         384
5.  Helio Castroneves    370
6.  Ryan Hunter-Reay     360
7.  Tony Kanaan          330
8.  Justin Wilson        290
9.  Marco Andretti       284
10. Dan Wheldon          269
11. Danica Patrick       259
12. Alex Tagliani        244
13. Raphael Matos        241
14. Mario Moraes         240
15. Vitor Meira          235
16. Ernesto Viso         215
17. Alex Lloyd           207
18. Simona de Silvestro  196
19. Hideki Mutoh         192
20. Takuma Sato          164
21. Graham Rahal         159
22. Bertrand Baguette    150
23. Mario Romancini      149
24. Milka Duno           136
25. Mike Conway          110
26. Tomas Scheckter      63
27. Paul Tracy           61
28. Sarah Fisher         53
29. John Andretti        35
30. Ana Beatriz          33
31. Jay Howard           32
32. Adam Carroll         26
33. J.R. Hildebrand      26
34. Francesco Dracone    24
35. Ed Carpenter         20
36. Townsend Bell        18
37. Sebastian Saavedra   15
38. Davey Hamilton       14
39. Bruno Junqueira      13
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