IRL: Round 14 – Chicagoland Speedway – Aug 28

The stakes were high as the IndyCar drivers lined up at Chicagoland – Will Power might hold a big lead in the championship, but he’s yet to excel on the ovals that form the remaining four races of the season compared with his main rival Dario Franchitti. So Will needed a good result here to keep his title challenge rolling, and Dario badly needed a win to keep in touch of the Aussie in the points.

The race began as the sun set over Chicago, leaving half the circuit in shade and the other half in sunshine while the night drew in. The changing conditions as the track cooled were the defining characteristic of the race, as Chicagoland Speedway once again lived up to its reputation for providing some of the fastest, closest and hardest racing on the IndyCar calendar.

Ryan Briscoe led the race at the start, with Tony Kanaan making excellent headway from 13th place by running a brave high-line that immediately netted six places. But Will Power was looking far less comfortable and then got loose on lap 5, nearly collecting Ed Carpenter before pulling it together. That caused the drivers behind to check up, and Alex Lloyd ended up running into the rear of Tomas Scheckter, turning the South African into a spin and the two of them ending up collecting Raphael Matos and putting him into the wall as well. Matos then ran into the back of the otherwise reasonably intact Lloyd, giving the Englishman a flat tyre that sent him to the pits.

The race resumed on lap 15 with Marco Andretti – running virtually no downforce – swiftly moving up to second to challenge Briscoe for the lead. Dan Wheldon was also proving back to something like his old form, while Ed Carpenter – running for the first time since the Indianapolis 500 in May – was also running well, the two of them soon hitting the top five as Dario Franchitti fell back.

With all the teams initially hoping to run a three-stop strategy, Marco’s lap 55 pit stop triggered a rush for pit lane. It proved costly for Dan Wheldon, whose rear left tyre changer experienced problems that cost his driver dearly, Wheldon eventually rejoining 1 places down and having to do all that work over again. Helio Castroneves also had a poor stop, parking the car too far away from the pit wall for the refueller to get to work, meaning the team had to switch to a hasty plan B that saw Helio back out on track in a lowly 18th place.

Pit stops had cycled through by the time of the second caution on lap 78, caused by Dreyer and Reinbold’s Ana Beatriz’s getting too high and sliding into the wall. It was an unexciting accident, but it heralded all hell breaking out in pit lane as all the leaders opted to come in and pit under yellow.

Firstly there was the sight of Hideki Mutoh finding that three tyres simply weren’t enough after his left front was inadequately secured to the car, sending him limping back to the pit box in short order. Further back in pit road, Takuma Sato tried to exit his pit box only to run into his own team mate EJ Viso, the collision causing enough damage to both cars to put KV Racing out at a single stroke.

Nor was the excitement over: as the cars prepared to go back to green, the front runners anticipated the restart and sped up, only to be disappointed. As they slowed again it caught out the midfield drivers who were suddenly caught in a typical motorway compression accident: Vitor Meira went into the back of Hideki Mutoh, who in turn ploughed into Alex Tagliani who was already smarting having lost a lap from running out of fuel a few minutes earlier. Now his entire rear left suspension was knocked out of whack and he was out of the race, while Meira was recalled to the pits for a replacement front wing, his second of the evening after losing the first in the fallout from the lap 5 accident.

As the only driver to stay out, Sarah Fisher led the field to green on lap 90. Ryan Briscoe was quickly past her and away, but any thought that Fisher would prove easy prey for the rest of the field were quickly dispelled when she held off the likes of Marco Andretti, Will Power and Ed Carpenter for the next twenty laps, only finally losing the position as she prepared to come in for her scheduled (but now off-synch) pit stop on lap 110.

Power and Andretti quickly gave chase to Briscoe, who had pulled out a 1.5s lead over Fisher, and within minutes they were right back with the leader but lacking a way past as the next round of pit stops loomed. Briscoe himself was first in on lap 136 with the rest of the leaders also pitting in short order. Scott Dixon got an excellent pit stop and emerged ahead of Briscoe, but they were both behind Dan Wheldon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, while Ed Carpenter’s strong run was wrecked by a refuelling problem that saw the car fail to get any gas and need to make an immediate extra stop to take care of the situation.

Now the race entered its final quarter, and battle was well and truly joined with Power, Wheldon and Andretti emerging at the front and running an extended distance in a frankly terrifying three-wide formation for lap after lap. Power’s English pit crew chief Clive Howell plaintively appealed to his driver to be sensible and reminded him that it wasn’t these guys that the team was racing, but Franchitti – for the championship – and he was way back in 10th, seemingly off the pace this evening. There was no need to take risks. But Power wasn’t in any mood to listen and seemed more obsessed with claiming his first oval win rather than the IndyCar championship.

Power hit the lead for the first time on lap 160, and shortly afterwards the third yellow of the evening came out on lap 170 when Alex Lloyd spun coming off turn 4, managed to miss collecting anyone, and ended up on the in-field grass in the nicest and most harmless accident anyone could hope to have at 200mph. And the timing was perfect: almost everyone badly needed this one last pit stop to make it to the end, and now they could do it under yellow.

With the time needed to take on fuel less than the time to change the tyres, there was an outside gamble available to anyone who felt reckless enough to forego new tyres and just take the timed fuel stop: and amazingly, Dario Franchitti opted to do precisely that, faking laying out a tyre change but blasting out of the pit box leaving the rubber where it stood, gaining eight places and taking the lead in the process.

Could it possibly work? As the race got back up to speed, Dario was able to stay up front but it looked a fragile lead, far from convincing and looking like it was just waiting for someone to apply the fresh rubber and leave him for dead. But lap after lap went by, and no one was pulling it off: Dario stayed in the lead. Perhaps watching that mid-race stint by Sarah Fisher holding off the front runners on similarly worn rubber had been the inspiration, but now it was Dario making it work.

Behind him all sorts of heart-stopping action was going on. Wheldon and Power were running side by side battling for second, and Kanaan and Andretti were running agonisingly close in their side-by-side battle for fifth, but then the real jockeying for position started and it was impossible to keep up with who was where: one minute Ryan Briscoe was running three-wide with the leaders, the next he was forced wide by Ryan Hunter-Reay, narrowly kept it off the wall but had to lift off the throttle and fell out of the top ten in seconds.

And then Will Power abruptly slowed and pulled down to the pit lane entrance. Radio chatter had suggested he might be short of fuel, but it had made no sense and seemed like a Penske fake-out – but it wasn’t. An equipment failure with the fuel probe had left Power without enough gas to get to the chequered flag, and the necessary splash and dash was hugely costly to him in championship points.

In victory road, Dario paid tribute to Chip Ganassi who had called the no-tyre strategy, converting what Chip himself admitted was a “number four or five car” into a race winner; and also to Dan Wheldon, “my drafting partner” who was himself having the best drive of the 2010 season for Panther.

It was a great race, real adrenaline seat-of-the-pants breathless action, and an example of the sort of racing that US motor sports can do at its best. And its impact on the IndyCar championship was profound, slashing Will Power’s former 59pt lead in the title race to just 23pts now with three races left to go. A championship that looked all but decided has been blown wide open.

Race result

Pos Driver            Team              Time/Gap
 1. Dario Franchitti  Ganassi           1:47:49.5783s
 2. Dan Wheldon       Panther           + 0.0423s
 3. Marco Andretti    Andretti          + 0.1051s
 4. Ryan Hunter-Reay  Andretti          + 0.1631s
 5. Tony Kanaan       Andretti          + 0.3408s
 6. Helio Castroneves Penske            + 0.4868s
 7. Justin Wilson     Dreyer & Reinbold + 0.5953s
 8. Scott Dixon       Ganassi           + 0.9137s
 9. Vitor Meira       Foyt              + 0.9588s
10. Graham Rahal      Newman/Haas       + 0.9841s
11. Ryan Briscoe      Penske            + 1.0185s
12. Bertrand Baguette Conquest          + 1.0833s
13. Hideki Mutoh      Newman/Haas       + 1.3042s
14. Danica Patrick    Andretti          + 1.5658s
15. Sarah Fisher      Sarah Fisher      + 1 lap
16. Will Power        Penske            + 1 lap
17. Mario Moraes      KV                + 1 lap
18. Davey Hamilton    De Ferran Dragon  + 1 lap
19. Milka Duno        Dale Coyne        + 3 laps

Retirements:

Ed Carpenter         Panther/Vision     179 laps
Jay Howard           Sarah Fisher       162 laps
Alex Lloyd           Dale Coyne         162 laps
Simona de Silvestro  HVM                150 laps
Ana Beatriz          Dreyer & Reinbold   88 laps
Alex Tagliani        FAZZT               85 laps
Takuma Sato          KV                  80 laps
EJ Viso              KV                  80 laps
Tomas Scheckter      Conquest             4 laps
Raphael Matos        De Ferran Dragon     4 laps

IndyCar championship standings

Pos Driver               Pts
1   Will Power           528
2   Dario Franchitti     505
3   Scott Dixon          443
4   Ryan Briscoe         406
5   Helio Castroneves    398
6   Ryan Hunter-Reay     392
7   Tony Kanaan          360
8   Marco Andretti       319
9   Justin Wilson        316
10  Dan Wheldon          309
11  Danica Patrick       275
12  Vitor Meira          257
13  Alex Tagliani        254
14  Mario Moraes         253
15  Raphael Matos        251
16  Ernesto Viso         225
17  Alex Lloyd           219
18  Hideki Mutoh         209
19  Simona de Silvestro  208
20  Graham Rahal         179
21  Takuma Sato          174
22  Bertrand Baguette    168
23  Mario Romancini      149
24  Milka Duno           148
25  Mike Conway          110
26  Tomas Scheckter      73
27  Sarah Fisher         68
28  Paul Tracy           61
29  Ana Beatriz          45
30  Jay Howard           44
31  John Andretti        35
32  Ed Carpenter         32
33  Adam Carroll         26
34  J.R. Hildebrand      26
35  Davey Hamilton       26
36  Francesco Dracone    24
37  Townsend Bell        18
38  Sebastian Saavedra   15
39  Bruno Junqueira      13
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