Archive for the ‘IndyCar’ Category

The action on track on the streets of Toronto during Sunday afternoon was spectacular and fierce enough, but it paled next to the verbal fall-out that followed.

Safe to say that Will Power is not a happy man this morning.

The normally laid-back Australian was incandescent after his hopes of a good race in the Honda Indy Toronto ended with two collisions – one with his main title rival Dario Franchitti that punted him into a spin through turn 3 that all but wrecked his hopes of a win, and the second with Alex Tagliani that put paid to hopes of any sort of finish whatsoever.

It was Dario to whom he directed most of his anger, however.

“I’ve always raced him clean and he always races me dirty,” Power told TV reporters the minute he was out of the car. “He did the same at St. Pete: he drove me into the wall and I didn’t say anything. He did it again today.

“Does anyone ever penalise this guy? He’s as dirty as you like,” he went on. “It was such a dirty move … He’s the guy that mouths off about everyone and whines about everyone, and he’s the guy racing dirty who never gets a penalty from IndyCar. It’s just not right.

“I’m not surprised he didn’t get a penalty, he never gets a penalty,” he vented. “IndyCar won’t penalize them because Chip Ganassi goes up there and gives it to them. It’s just wrong.”

For his part, Chip Ganassi – the car owner of Franchitti’s #10 – denied that he’d known about any penalty, made any protests or taken any action to have one overturned.

Rumour and misinformation about the penalty-that-never-was was the fuel to the fire raging in pit lane. With TV broadcasts and IndyCar’s official Twitter feed both reporting that Franchitti had been handed a stop-go penalty for spinning Power on lap 57, the news that he hadn’t gave the impression that the team had successfully appealed to have it reversed – which would have been all-but unprecedented if it had been the case.

Trouble is, it was based on a misapprehension. There was no penalty and never had been, and the media sources had jumped the gun when they had heard that the stewards (who included driving legend Al Unser Jr and IndyCar official Tony Cotman) were simply reviewing the incident – after which they duly concluded that no penalty was needed for what they deemed a racing incident.

“Between Franchitti and Power, there was never a penalised issue to either driver,” Unser pointed out. “Franchitti was underneath Will, and there was no penalty assessed to him based on what we saw.”

Franchitti had obviously been briefed over the ream radio about the raging controversy as he made his way to victory lane, and was immediately conciliatory: “Obviously, there was contact with Will. If he’s p*ssed off, he’s quite right to be p*ssed off,” he said in typically robust language. “I’ll take more than 50% … But he has to take at least 50% of the blame. He left me a lane and then he came down,” he said, adding: “It was like he opened the door for me to pass and then closed it – too late.

“I braked as late as I could, and he went a little bit deeper but as a result of that he went wide,” he explained. “Will started to crowd me, and unfortunately the wall came out, I couldn’t get further to the right because there was a wall there … I tried to get out of it but I couldn’t.” He added: “I have to say if I was him I’d have been steamed too, but hopefully when he watches the replay he’ll see it was a racing incident.”

It didn’t seem likely. “Hey princess thanks for that nice tap today–appreciate it,” Power posted sarcastically to Franchitti on Twitter in the evening. “I did watch it and could not have raced you any cleaner —- P*SSED!”

Defending his decision to look down the inside of Power into turn 3 in the first place, Franchitti insisted that it’s part and parcel of being a racing driver. “If you’re not going to make any moves at all, you’re going to sit in whatever position you started in. But, yeah, crazy day here in Toronto!”

Despite the diplomacy, the idea that he was a “dirty racer” clearly stung Franchitti. “I believe if you ask anyone in the paddock, they will tell you that is not how I race … I think I’m known in the paddock as not someone who drives dirty, so I’m not really sure what he’s talking about,” he said. “I understand he’s upset, but hopefully when he cools down he’ll reassess that … If he doesn’t, I have no control over what he thinks. I’m going to continue to race the same way I’ve raced since I’ve been in North America.”

For this part, Power shot back: “I don’t know if it will change the way I race him, I’m just disappointed in the guy … If that’s how he wants to win a championship, good on him – he can have it.”

A few laps after his clash with Franchitti, Power was out altogether after being hit through turn 5 while overtaking Alex Tagliani.

“Pretty typical of him, Tagliani’s just a w*nker, he’s always been a w*nker,” said a disgruntled Power once he’d stopped venting at Dario. “We were just trying to get the best result possible before Tag hit me from behind. It’s very tough to have two DNFs in a row. All I can say is we’ll keep working hard and hopefully come back strong at Edmonton.”

“I am sure Will is pretty upset … The contact with Will was also a shame,” said Tagliani in response. “I tried to pass him a couple of times in turn three. He was blocking a bit, and then I made a move on the inside [and] it got tight.”

Tagliani himself ended up out of the race shortly afterwards when contact with Danica Patrick – who was avoiding a spinning James Jakes – sent him into a roll where the car was only prevented from completely overturning by the way it went vertical against the wall and bounced back right-side-up.

“I felt a big knock on the right rear, and we were up in the air,” said the local favourite. “It’s disappointing.”

Danica was already fuming over an early run-in with Takuma Sato who ploughed into the back of her car shortly after she had overtaken him, which wrecked both their afternoons. As she left pit lane, she directed an ironic thumbs-up at Sato who was still getting repairs, and on the radio called him an “idiot … that was a hard hit!”

Tony Kanaan was also fuming after being the victim of the race’s first of eight full course cautions when he was spun in turn 3 by Ryan Briscoe, and he had some unequivocal gestures for the Penske driver when the field circulated past the scene of the accident. “It was so stupid, he had plenty of room, I don’t know what he did,” said Kanaan. “I guess when your team mate is winning a lot and you’re not, you’re feeling the pressure,” referring to Briscoe’s disappointing form compared with that of Will Power in the same hardware.

Then there was Graham Rahal, who looked set to claim an impressive third place late in the race until he was spun out by Ryan Hunter-Reay. “I just got hit,” said Rahal afterwards. “I’m really ticked and I’m trying to control my emotions. That’s not like Hunter-Reay, but I guess some people strap on their helmets and lose their brain.”

“Graham got way out into the marbles there, and then he started coming across, and there was more than enough room for two cars, and I got up in there, I already had my momentum, I was coming to the corner,” said Hunter-Reay in response. “And he just came straight across. He had to know I was there.”

Rahal in turn had been the subject of anger from Hunter-Reay’s team in pit lane when it appeared he together with his Ganassi stable team mates Franchitti and Scott Dixon were “throwing” the double file line-up formation in order to extend the caution period – which was critical to Rahal’s chances of making it full distance on fuel.

“Yeah, it doesn’t make sense,” said team owner Michael Andretti of the aborted restarts that prolonged the cautions. “They’re obviously doing it on purpose so that he gets it on fuel. One time is okay, twice you [should be] in the back … It’s unfair.”

“There was nothing bad going on there,” insisted Franchitti who was trying to line up alongside Rahal for the restart. “He couldn’t run the outside of [turn] 10 in the marbles, so he was taking my lane, and I couldn’t get on the outside of 11, so I couldn’t get alongside him. I tried it once and almost smacked the fence down. We were doing our best, the restarts were tough just because of the marbles on them.”

Chip Ganassi denied any conspiracy and said that he’d had to go over to Rahal’s crew to explain the problem to them, after which the restart proceeded normally.

But relations even seemed strained within the extended Ganassi family, with Dixon not taking too kindly to the upstart Rahal getting in the way of the serious business, calling the young American driver “a pain in the ass” and adding that Rahal “got his just desserts” when Hunter-Reay spun him out.

“I was alongside [Rahal] going down the back straight and then the kink comes and he just comes right across,” said Dixon of an earlier incident that had aggrieved him. “If I didn’t brake, it would have been a massive crash.”

“I am not going to make it easy for people to get by me … I raced them hard, and I raced them clean,” said Rahal of his run at the front with Franchitti and Dixon late in the race. “I’m on Chip Ganassi’s team for a reason, and I want to win races,” he pointed out, adding: “These guys are supposed to be teammates … I find it shocking that they continue to make comments about me.”

And the recriminations just reverberated on and on: there was some Canadian-on-Canadian action between veteran legend Paul Tracy and young rookie James Hinchcliffe who banged wheels midrace in an incident that saw Tracy save a dramatic spin and avert yet another full course caution.

“I am not going to back down if I think it’s my corner,” Hinchcliffe insisted afterwards, showing he was made from the same tough stuff as the hard-headed Tracy. “We all know what Paul is like, but I have to make sure everyone knows I am going to hold my ground. It was a racing incident, but if I were in his position, which I was later in the race, I made it out.”

Later on, Marco Andretti tried an ill-advised lunge down the inside of turn 1 during the penultimate restart and ended up spinning Oriol Servia, which caught up multiple cars including Hinchcliffe and briefly blocked the track entirely: “Marco is an aggressive driver, but he’s always raced me clean,” Servia said. “But today, I think he just had a bad sleep or something.”

Marco did receive a penalty for avoidable contact, as did Tagliani for the hit on Power and Danica Patrick for the accident involving Tagliani and Jakes. Mike Conway was also penalised for steaming into the back of Ryan Briscoe during a midrace restart. “I have to apologize to Ryan for ruining his race; completely a brain fade on my part,” Conway said afterwards.

Which brings us back to the question of why there was no penalty for Dario Franchitti for the accident that gives him – intentionally or not – a vital upper hand in the IndyCar championship battle at a crucial moment, which he now leads by 55pts. Is Power right that IndyCar regards Franchitti as “untouchable” and too big to penalise?

Simmering in the background was a lot of ill feeling left over from Milwaukee, when Dario Franchitti clipped a tyre laid out on the edge of Will Power’s pit box and sent it flying despite a mechanic having a foot on it to keep it in place. With Takuma Sato getting a penalty earlier on for hitting pit lane equipment many pundits had expected Franchitti to get the same, which would have put paid to what proved to be his eventual win.

On the night, IndyCar decided there were mitigating factors and enough “reasonable doubt” to make a penalty inappropriate: Power’s crew had laid out the tyres prematurely and to the very limits of the pit box, seemingly intending to squeeze Franchitti’s entry more than previous pit stops; the Penske team should arguably also have been penalised for the mechanic illegally standing on pit lane equipment in the first place; and at the end of the day no harm was done to either personnel or to Power’s own race. Where these good reasons not to award a penalty – or excuses after the fact?

The Power/Franchitti clash seems to have fallen into the same category of “some blame on both sides” as far as IndyCar is concerned, with Power’s initial move opening a gap sufficient to give Franchitti reason to go for it – and the fact that he then thought better of it and tried to pull out of the overtake would also have been considered.

But it’s likely to leave a lot of people fuming in pit lane, in what’s already been a notably ill-tempered IndyCar season to date. Surprisingly it’s the normally affable Franchitti who has been at the centre of most of it, with his outspoken heated criticism of the way that the blind lottery for the grid of the second Firestone Twin 275k race at Texas Motor Speedway was a “joke”, to angry accusations that Helio Castroneves was up to his “usual blocking crap” at the Milwaukee Mile.

Inevitably the whole idea of double file restarts – which has been a running sore ever since IndyCar insisted on their introduction at the season opener at St Petersburg, Florida – is also in the frame as a prime target.

“The double-file starts were nuts,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was like a free-for all. You had that tight first turn that’s really as slick as glass on a restart, so everybody is sliding through trying not to hit. Then you get through turn two and your rear end steps out. Then you have a long, six-gear straight where everybody gets a draft on each other, then you’ve got to shut it down to first gear [in three.]”

So is this season simply getting very bad tempered and too aggressive? Are the double file restarts to blame? Is the quality of driving in the series just not up to par this season? Or is it just a case that all publicity is good publicity and races like Toronto help IndyCar muscle into the headlines usually dominated by NASCAR (in the US) and F1 (everywhere else)?

“You know, I don’t know why,” admitted Franchitti when asked in post-race interviews at Toronto. “I think maybe one reason – and I’m just spit-balling – is that it’s just so close right now, to get that advantage is so difficult that maybe people are taking bigger risks.”

It would be nice to finish with an optimistic note that at least the next IndyCar outing will be a calmer, saner affair. Unfortunately it’s the second leg of the series’ Canadian mini-series at Edmonton City Center Airport, and the one thing that it’s not particularly known for is calm, peaceful, uneventful racing. In fact, compared to Edmonton, it’s Toronto that can often be relatively quiet …

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The on-track action and post-race fall-out from the Honda Indy Toronto seemed to work wonders for the television ratings, with much-needed strong ratings for the event.

The on-track incidents during the Honda Indy Toronto may have brought scathing comments from drivers and experts about double file restarts, the street course, the officiating and the standard of others’ driving abilities, but it all proved a hit with television viewers all the same.

The US cable channel Versus reported a 0.5 rating for the race, which made it the second-most watched IZOD IndyCar Series race ever shown on the network after the June Firestone Twin 275s that were held in prime time on Saturday night.

In all, Versus says that there has been a 21 per cent increase in ratings so far this season compared with the 2010 season average.

The race was also extremely popular in Canada, where Canadian sports cable channel TSN carried the Versus coverage and reported that the race had received the biggest audience for any IndyCar race on the station with more than 1.2 million unique viewers over the course of the race, peaking at 735,000 during the closing laps of the race.

It was the largest audience recorded for the Honda Indy Toronto since 1997.

Versus have certainly been putting a lot of work into their coverage in recent works, with their signing up of Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon for three races as an expert contributor/commentator being hailed as a particular master stroke.

During the Toronto race, fellow racer Tomas Scheckter tweeted that “I can’t stop thinking how much sense and how good its to have [Dan Wheldon] calling the race. He [is] as good a driver as commentator,” adding that Wheldon’s contributions in the booth were “the most impressive performance of the race” while attaching the hash tag #newmurraywalker.

Wheldon’s contribution certainly seemed to bring something of a British F1-style feel to the American coverage, echoing the expert ‘colour’ approach of the likes of James Hunt and Martin Brundle pioneered on the BBC when they partnered Walker for Grand Prix coverage in the 80s and 90s. Wheldon was also key to the staging of the channel’s first “F1-style gridwalk” prior to the Iowa Speedway race in June.

However, Versus’ attempt to launch a weekly IndyCar TV magazine show faltered after the Indy 500 on cost grounds, and Versus have also been forced to pull live streaming of races for website subscribers.

Versus’ efforts come as TV rights for IndyCar are coming up for renewal, with the series keen to not only get the best financial terms but also to negotiate a deal that gets the best cross-network publicity and promotion for IndyCar as a whole as the series attempts to rebuild its popularity to the levels it enjoyed before the highly damaging ChampCar/IRL split in the 1990s.

The series appointed PR and marketing specialist Randy Bernard as chief executive officer 18 months ago with a brief to raise the profile of the sport, which has led to various high profile initiatives to raise the sport’s appeal including the introduction of twin-header events and the controversial double file restarts.

Currently – under a contract imposed during the series’ darkest split-hit days under former CEO Tony George – broadcasting rights in the US are divided between the major ABC network which carries five races during the season including the main attraction, May’s Indianapolis 500, while Versus carries the remaining 12 races of the season. Each contract brings in between $4 and $6 million to IndyCar, according to sources.

ABC has carried the Indy 500 for 47 consecutive years and will do so again in 2012, and many of the series’ old hands would be aghast if the race were to move from its television “spiritual home” after that. But IndyCar organisers are disappointed with ABC’s sports news coverage of other series races outside the Indy 500, which is almost non-existent as ABC is unwilling to promote events held on Versus that is now owned by its network rival NBC.

IndyCar is currently in the middle of contract negotiations for all races, although ABC’s rights to the Indy 500 have one more year to run. An integrated deal that puts all IndyCar coverage within the NBC family of channels would arguably get more cross-promotion between races, but at the expense of any coverage of the sport on the highly influential daily sports news show SportsCenter which airs on the ABC-owned EPSN cable network that has far greater penetration into homes than Versus. It would also put IndyCar in uncharted territory with regard to NBC’s level and quality of support for its most important races previously in ABC’s “safe hands”.

Once ABC’s contractual period as “preferred bidder” status expires, other potential players in the negotiations could include third US broadcast network CBS and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation that owns Fox Broadcasting and motor racing specialist Speed Channel on cable.

Another factor at work is that Randy Bernard also wants to expand the number of races on the IndyCar calendar and has said he would go to 22 races as soon as possible if he could, but that the main delay is in ensuring that the television coverage would be in place for any increase in the number of events during the year.

The importance of the television ratings to the sport can’t be understated, with estimates that the series lost in the region of $22 million in 2009 and $15 million in 2010 and desperately needs an upturn in fortunes and popularity soon. Last year’s IndyCar Series finale at Homestead-Miami got a miserable 0.3 rating on Versus, and this year’s reformatting of the race as the world championship at Las Vegas with its $5 million challenge prize will this year be shown instead on ABC.

Bernard had nailed his colours and his very job firmly to the mast: “If we do a 0.3 rating on this, I’ll quit,” he said. “Right there on the spot. I’ll literally quit on the spot. If we do a 0.8 rating, I will quit. On the spot.”

Stakes in the casino town are high indeed, not just for Bernard but for the future of IndyCar itself.

Grand Marshal caught speeding to the race

One off-screen glitch in the weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto occurred when actor Dan Aykroyd was pulled over by police for speeding on his way to the event, where he was serving as the race grand marshal.

“You know when you see these races, you want to get into your vehicles and drive home and you do it trying to imitate the driver. That won’t be me this afternoon,” he said, adding that he’d been let off with a warning by the officer after explaining that he was “racing to the race.”

As there was no official ticket, there’s no record as to exactly how fast the Canadian-born comedian, musician and actor was doing when police pulled him over, but Aykroyd said that the officer “pulled me over for 20 over in a 50 … and let me off with a warning.”

“They let him on his way; no ticket was given because he promised not to speed on his way home,” Constable Hugh Smith of the city’s Traffic Services department said. “He didn’t promise never to speed again, he just said he wouldn’t do it on his way home!”

59-year-old Saturday Night Live, Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers star Aykroyd gave the command “Drivers, start your engines” at the start, and presented race winner Dario Franchitti with the trophy following the chequered flag.

A crash-filled street race in Toronto saw angry words flying almost as often as bodywork and debris, as Dario Franchitti claimed a controversial win after he spun Will Power mid-race.

Dario Franchitti won the Hondy Indy Toronto on the streets of downtown Toronto, but it will surely be one of the most controversial wins of his motor racing career, with angry words flying from his title rival IndyCar rival Will Power after the two made mid-race contact.

The start of the race was relatively benign despite the double file start, with Will Power taking up the lead from pole position ahead of Scott Dixon and Mike Conway getting the better of Dario Franchitti for third. It certainly didn’t hint at the chaos and storms that were to follow, and it wasn’t until lap 3 that we saw the first full course caution of the day.

That was sparked when Tony Kanaan took a wide line into turn 3, which Ryan Briscoe took as an invitation to try a move down the inside line. He wasn’t able to hold it close enough to the apex however, and when Kanaan turned into the corner there was contact that spun Kanaan around and sent him into the outside wall rear-first. The suspension damage terminated the #82’s involvement in the race, but Briscoe escaped with merely a precautionary visit to pit lane for a new nose.

Kanaan said he was ‘Very, very disappointed,” adding: “It was so stupid, he had plenty of room, I don’t know what he did … I guess when your team mate is winning a lot and you’re not, you’re feeling the pressure.”

Racing resumed on lap 6, and there was another incident on track two laps later when Takuma Sato – having been overtaken for 20th position by Danica Patrick down the start/finish straight – then misjudged his braking into turn 3 and ploughed straight into the back of the GoDaddy.com #7, punted them both off into the run-off area. Fortunately the run-off allowed track marshals to work under waved local yellows rather than a full course caution, and both Danica and Sato were eventually able to get back underway and limp back to the pits for repairs. Danica was out first and directed an ironic thumbs-up at the KV Racing pit box where the team were still working on Sato, while over the radio she made her feelings known to her own team: “Idiot … that was a hard hit!”

The race settled down after this, with Dario getting past Conway at the restart to retake third place. The next significant development was Oriol Servia coming into the pits early for his first stop of the day on lap 14 in a bid to move to an off-sync strategy from the leaders. This was on the very edge of being able to complete the 85 laps with only one further pit stop for fuel, and Servia was clearly hoping for a timely caution to assist his campaign.

The same tactic was soon picked up by others, with Marco Andretti in next time around, and Ryan Briscoe – already circulating near the back after his clash with Tagliani and with nothing to lose – followed suit next time around, and then Paul Tracy on lap 19 and Ryan Hunter-Reay on lap 22. What had started as a minor sideshow distraction was now starting to become potentially a major problem for the leaders, as a full course caution at this point would see them all dive into the pits – and come out behind these early stoppers who were beginning to add up.

The worry grew when potential front-runners Justin Wilson and Alex Tagliani came in on laps 23 and 24 respectively: if they were gifted the lead by a timely yellow then it would be very difficult to dislodge them again. Finally on lap 27 it was Dario Franchitti who blinked among the leaders and headed into pit lane. It seemed an especially canny move by the Scot given that Power and Dixon were now coming up on the back of James Jakes to lap the Dale Coyne car and were being held up.

And then just as Dario was back up to full speed, the caution that the leaders who had yet to pit feared came out on lap 31: Tagliani was into the tyre wall at turn 3, after Helio Castroneves misjudged his braking into the corner and locked up, running into the side of the #77 that was trying to make the turn. Both cars were recovered and made it back to pit lane for lengthy repairs by their respective teams.

Power had reason not to be happy with his Penske team mate, who not for the first time this season had caused a highly unhelpful caution. Power and Dixon were among those who were obliged to pit at this point, while Dario Franchitti stayed out and assumed the race lead for the first time that afternoon.

As the race resumed on lap 37 with a lot of jostling and minor collisions but no major crashes: Franchitti fended off an assertive Oriol Servia followed by Justin Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay and local boy James Hinchcliffe; Power led those who had just stopped, but was now mired down in 11th place just ahead of Dixon and Conway, with the likes of Briscoe, Vitor Meira, Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti and JR Hildebrand in the way ahead.

The first green lap saw Dixon make contact with Hildebrand as he forced his way past, the rookie just able to keep it off the tyre wall in turn 3; a lap later and Canadians Paul Tracy and James Hinchcliffe found themselves going into turn 5 side-by-side. Tracy is not known as a driver who backs off from any fight, and young rookie Hinchliffe is apparently made of similar stuff so neither driver would give up, the cars banging wheels and Tracy coming out of it the worse with a spin that he was just able to save although damage to the front wing from the initial contact would send him into pit lane but without the need for yellow flags.

Instead the next caution was for James Jakes who had spun and stalled in turn 9. That allowed Graham Rahal to head for the pits for new tyres after apparently sustaining a right rear puncture on the sharp edge of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s front wing; surprisingly Hunter-Reay opted not to pit at the same time despite clear damage to that front wing, preferring instead to hold on to the track position that he had gained from his early pit stop strategy.

And initially it seemed to be the right move, with Hunter-Reay able to follow Justin Wilson through when the Englishman made a lovely move on Oriol Servia for second place, forcing Servia off the racing line so that he then lost pace on the marbles which were seriously building up by this stage. But a few laps later and the wing’s condition had worsened, Hunter-Reay had fallen down to seventh place and finally he conceded defeat and pitted on lap 47. It looked as though the Andretti team had made a horrible mistake with the gambit.

Or – maybe not. The very next lap saw a major multiple-car accident in the increasingly notorious turn 3. It was sparked by Paul Tracy – possibly still with some damage after his earlier contact with Hinchcliffe – locking up and running into Vitor Meira on the straight leading down into the corner; Sebastian Bourdais was immediately behind them on the road and had no where to go but into the side of Tracy as he spun, while Charlie Kimball tired to avoid the accident and ran into the barrier on the other side, leaving only a car’s-width gap in the middle of the track for the rest of the cars to make their way through. Fortunately all cars were able to get back underway, although Tracy needed a lengthy visit to the pits for repairs.

With 36 laps to go till the end, it was a no-brainer that everyone now had to come in for their final pit stops – which potentially fell beautifully for those who had just been into the pits such as Graham Rahal, who assumed the lead, and Hunter-Reay who now found himself in 5th place after that suddenly-fortuitous fluke stop for a wing change at just the right moment. Dario Franchitti resumed in sixth place ahead of Justin Wilson, Will Power and Scott Dixon, Power having had a flying pit stop thanks to having less fuel to take on board after his more recent stop than Franchitti and Wilson.

Franchitti had a poor restart and was passed by Justin Wilson, and that broke Dario’s momentum just enough for Will to pounce and get past him as well. The two were still running together when Mike Conway ran into the back of Ryan Briscoe and shunted them both off into a run-off area.

“I have to apologize to Ryan for ruining his race; completely a brain fade on my part,” confessed Conway. “Going into the turn, I tried to take my time and get to the inside, but it seemed to choke up a bit. There was nowhere to go. It was kind of a slow incident but it broke the left side suspension. End of a tough day for the team.”

Like the earlier Sato/Patrick accident in the same spot, this was dealt with under local waved yellows; but the next caution was out on lap 57 anyway. And the reason for it was a clash between the two main title contenders, Dario Franchitti and Will Power.

From Dario’s point of view, Power seemed to run wide into turn 3 and leave a gap down the inside which was just too tempting to pass up. By the time Franchitti realised that he’d misjudged the opportunity and tried to back out of it, it was too late and Will turned into the apex and made contact with Dario on the inside: the Penske came off worse and was thrown into a spin.

He got the engine going again and rejoined once all the cars had gone past, but it was a bitter blow for Power’s title chances. And given that it had been Dario that had done the deed – seemingly deliberately in Will’s eyes – he was spitting fire. “We were working our way back toward the front and we got past Franchitti. We went into the corner and I gave him room and then he just drove into me.”

Word came down that the incident was being referred to the track stewards for a possible penalty for the championship leader, and for several minutes confusion reigned. The race restarted and Dario started moving his way back up the running order again, and everyone waited for him to come in and serve the stop-go penalty.

Except – there was no penalty. There never had been. When the race stewards (who included Al Unser Jr and IndyCar’s Tony Cotman) reviewed the collision they determined that it was a racing accident and deemed no penalty applied after all. “I understood he was going to get penalized but then there was no call – I just don’t understand that,” said Power in the confused aftermath of the race.

“I’m not surprised he didn’t get a penalty, he never gets a penalty,” Power said in the heat of the moment. “It was such a dirty move … I’m really disappointed in Dario, I always race him clean, he always races dirty. The guy that mouths off and whinges about everyone, he’s the one who’s dirty.”

Unser was unmoved by Power’s fury and accusations of IndyCar favouritism toward Dario, who many deemed should have been penalised at last month’s Milwaukee race after hitting pit lane equipment (a front tyre laid out in Power’s pit box).

“Between Franchitti and Power, there was never a penalised issue to either driver,” Unser pointed out. “Franchitti was underneath Will, and there was no penalty assessed to him based on what we saw.”

Drivers always say that the one thing they want from officials is consistency, and in this case if Franchitti had been penalised for this move then why not Briscoe for the first turn 3 incident that put Kanaan out, or the accident that saw Castroneves hit Tagliani? Having taken no action on those or any of the other collisions so far, it would have been harsh and deeply inconsistent to suddenly serve one to Franchitti for an even more marginal call. But the incident did certainly leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, and tempers were suddenly boiling over up and down pit lane.

For his part, Dario was apologetic the minute he stepped out of the car at the end of the race. “Obviously, there was contact with Will. If he’s p*ssed off, he’s quite right to be p*ssed off,” he said in typically robust language, accepting that when it came to assigning blame “I’ll take more than 50%” but that Power was not exactly blame-free in the accident either, having opened the door initially.

“I braked as late as I could, and he went a little bit deeper but as a result of that he went wide,” he explained. “Will started to crowd me, and unfortunately the wall came out, I couldn’t get further to the right because there was a wall there … I tried to get out of it but I couldn’t.

“I have to say if I was him I’d have been steamed too, but hopefully when he watches the replay he’ll see it was a racing incident.” Adding that he “”didn’t want to win that way”, Franchitti said that “I see it as a racing incident” and pointed out that “IF you’re not going to make any moves at all, you’re going to sit in whatever position you started in. But, yeah, crazy day here in Toronto!”

Worse was to come for Power. Racing resumed on lap 61 but less than five laps later it was back under full course caution again – and Power was once more at the centre of things. He was passing Alex Tagliani through turn 5 when he clipped the front of the #77, which threw Power’s car up into the air at an angle before sending it into the wall and tyre barrier on the outside. This time Power’s #12 Verizon car was too badly damaged to continue in.

“Pretty typical of him, Tagliani’s just a w*nker, he’s always been a w*nker,” said a disgruntled Power once he’d stopped venting at Dario. “We were just trying to get the best result possible before Tag hit me from behind. It’s very tough to have two DNFs in a row. All I can say is we’ll keep working hard and hopefully come back strong at Edmonton.”

“The contact with Will was also a shame,” said Tagliani in response. “I tried to pass him a couple of times in turn three. He was blocking a bit, and then I made a move on the inside [and] it got tight.”

Of the final 20 laps, 12 of them were run under cautions – which was just as well for some of the drivers like Rahal and Hunter-Reay who had come in for their final pit stops. In fact tempers were now running so high – with much of it directed at Dario and his team – that some were accusing Chip Ganassi of conspiracy by getting his three drivers at the front (Franchitti, Dixon and Rahal) to deliberate failing to line up out of the final corner in order to extend the yellow.

“Yeah, it doesn’t make sense,” said Michael Andretti of the aborted restarts that prolonged the cautions. “They’re obviously doing it on purpose so that [Rahal] gets it on fuel. One time is okay, twice you [should be] in the back … It’s unfair.”

Chip Ganassi denied any such dark arts and said that he’d had to walk over to Rahal’s pit crew and explain to them that the #38’s line was forcing Franchitti onto the dangerous bumps and marbles off the racing line and that they needed to make more allowance to play fair.

“I don’t think Graham was doing anything crazy,” insisted Dario. “There as nothing bad going on there, but he couldn’t run the outside of [turn] 10 in the marbles, so he was taking my lane, and I couldn’t get on the outside of 11, so I couldn’t get alongside him. I tried it once and almost smacked the fence down. We were doing our best, the restarts were tough just because of the marbles on them.”

Next time around was more successful and the race duly went green at last. And then it went yellow seconds later: Danica Patrick tapped the back of James Jakes into turn 3 and spun him; she reacted quickly and manoeuvred around him but in doing so managed to clip the back wheel of Alex Tagliani who was passing the scene of the accident on the outside line. The wheel-on-wheel contact shot Tagliani’s right hand side up into the air, and the car even went over the 90 degree vertical and would have overturned if had not then made contact with the wall and safety fence which propped it up and bounced it back right-side-up onto the track again. Tagliani was out but Jakes was sent on his way and Danica made it back to pit lane as well where she needed a spare front wing from Marco Andretti’s stock of spare parts in order to rejoin the race.

“I felt a big knock on the right rear, and we were up in the air. It’s disappointing,” he said. “First, I got knocked out with Helio and then at the end by Danica.”

“It piles up so bad at the hairpin there, and everybody is just running the inside,” said Patrick of the initial contact with Jakes that set off the accident. “Unfortunately, the line is so much further to the inside with the bumps nowadays that it’s causing pileups.”

There was one more accident still waiting to happen at the next restart on lap 76: Marco Andretti tried cutting down the inside of turn 1 only to run into the back of Oriol Servia, sending the #2 spinning into Justin Wilson who was minding his own business on the outside. Hildebrand, Hinchcliffe and Kimball also arrived at the scene in the immediate aftermath, and the mess blocked the track so completely that the field had to take to the run-off service road to bypass turn 1 when they came through behind the safety car.

In what green flag racing there was, it was a simple matter for Franchitti and Dixon to get past the slower cars that were having to think fuel-first, and Rahal was spun out by late contact in turn 3 during the final restart with Hunter-Reay which put an end to Chip Ganassi’s hopes of a team 1-2-3. For a few laps the remaining Ganassi duo made a race of it, Dixon looking particularly feisty and willing to go aggressive on his team mate in the final six lap green flag stint in order to get the win, but ultimately he backed off – either accepting that it wasn’t going to happen, or perhaps the pit crew had been on the radio with a quiet word that absolutely not not include the phrase “team orders”.

Even so, is there just a hint that the fractious atmosphere of Toronto was seeping into the Ganassi camp? “It’s frustrating because these street races are part luck, you know. Will and I were one and two, then [the caution came out] and the #10 car gets it everytime. I’ll call back on the radio and say, ‘Let me guess who’s leading: the 10 car’,” he said with a slight edge to his light-hearted tone. “Good on him, they make good strategy.”

It had been his plan to make the early pit stop rather than Dario, and he seemed confused if not outright irritated at what had changed once the race got underway. “For us we knew what the window was, we discussed it in the morning, we were going to pit early. But obviously they split the strategy with Dario and he pitted early, and left me out to put some pressure on Will, which that didn’t work.”

Franchitti was in maximum diplomacy mode, and after making peace overtures to Power over their on-track clash he then sent out olive branches to his team mate as well. “You see how good Scott’s been all weekend, Scott’s was dynamite all weekend,” he said, talking up the ongoing battle for the IndyCar championship between the three of them. “Will was very strong, we know that, I don’t take anything for granted. That lead could go down in one week, so we’ll just keep pushing.”

Despite Dario’s caution about the title battle, it’s been a very good few weeks for him in the championship. Today’s mayhem meant a second successive “did not finish” for Power after he crashed at Iowa two weeks ago, and the two races leave him 55pts adrift of Franchitti. Meanwhile, the rows and controversies sparked off by this race will doubtless reverberate down the next few weeks – including the inevitable question about how much the controversial double-file restarts contributed to the mayhem we saw.

It’ll be interesting to see who is still speaking to whom going into the second Canadian race at Edmonton in two weeks time.

Race results

1. #10 Dario Franchitti 85 laps 01:56:32.1501s
2. #9 Scott Dixon 85 laps + 0.7345s
3. #28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 85 laps + 6.0144s
4. #26 Marco Andretti 85 laps + 7.5671s
5. #14 Vitor Meira 85 laps + 9.0117s
6. #19 Sebastien Bourdais 85 laps + 9.3114s
7. #6 Ryan Briscoe 85 laps + 9.8735s
8. #4 JR Hildebrand 85 laps + 14.1750s
9. #59 EJ Viso 85 laps + 14.7843s
10. #78 Simona de Silvestro 85 laps + 15.7603s
11. #24 Ana Beatriz 85 laps + 16.8992s
12. #2 Oriol Servia 85 laps + 19.8736s
13. #38 Graham Rahal 85 laps + 21.3123s
14. #06 James Hinchcliffe 84 laps + 1 laps
15. #22 Justin Wilson 83 laps + 2 laps
16. #8 Paul Tracy 82 laps + 3 laps
17. #3 Helio Castroneves 81 laps + 4 laps
18. #18 James Jakes 81 laps + 4 laps
19. #7 Danica Patrick 79 laps + 6 laps
20. #5 Takuma Sato 79 laps + 6 laps

Retirements

21. #83 Charlie Kimball after 77 laps Contact
22. #27 Mike Conway after 76 laps Contact
23. #77 Alex Tagliani after 71 laps Contact
24. #12 Will Power after 66 laps Contact
25. #34 Sebastian Saavedra after 43 laps Contact
26. #82 Tony Kanaan after 2 laps Contact

It’s been almost five years and 78 races since Marco Andretti last stood in victory lane, but there was no doubt that he earned the glory in a thrilling Iowa Corn Indy 250.

It was dusk at Iowa Speedway when the cars headed out onto the 0.894 mile short oval track for the Iowa Corn Indy 250 and the floodlights were already blazing overhead, nicely highlighting the vapour trails streaming off the rear wings of the IndyCar field in the cooling night air as they got up to speed and approached the green flag for the start of the Saturday night race.

Takuma Sato had pole position but he would have been forgiven for not feeling entirely confident as he put his foot down in the #5, since this was his first time on track in the car since his final practice accident on Friday evening which saw him collide with Alex Tagliani. The KV Racing Technology pit crew had been hard at work reassembling it, but a car is never quite the same after major damage and Sato needed to feel out the changes before he would be fully happy with the new state of affairs.

Sato’s version of “feeling out the changes” was to leap away at the first sight of green and leave Danica Patrick standing, neatly opening up a hole for his KV team mate Tony Kanaan to follow him through. The team tactic was for the two of them to take up a side-by-side configuration that would all but ensure no one would be able to pass them – not exactly the most sporting of tactics, but it’s one long used by the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport teams of this world.

Unfortunately for Sato and Kanaan, one car proved too strong for them to fend off, and before they knew it Dario Franchitti had managed to slalom between them both and take up the top spot on lap 8, and then ease away from them without any problem. That rather wrecked the KV plan, but they would still do what they could to maintain formation which ensured that Danica and the rest of the pursuers were stymied for a time.

The cars flew at speeds of nearly 176mph until the first caution came out on lap 24: unfortunate British rookie James Jakes had found out the unsettling truth behind the notorious Iowa Speedway bumps, and in particular the spot through turn 2 where the track passes over an underground tunnel allowing access to the infield. The uneven surface is enough to catch out even the most experienced driver, and for someone as new to oval racing as Jakes it was a trap waiting for him to fall into. The bump shot his rear end around and sent him up into a heavy contact with the wall, although despite the seeming violence of the impact Jakes was quickly out of the car and walking away with no problems.

“It is only the third oval I have driven on and I know we are going to have these incidents so I just need to move on to Toronto,” admitted Jakes. “It is unfortunate because I think I had a quick car here.”

Although it was still relatively early in the race, everyone opted to come in for fuel and tyres. But it proved a disastrous visit to pit lane for Will Power, who was ushered out of his pit stall right into the path of Charlie Kimball who was just coming in. Power ended up running straight into the side of the #83 as it turned in. Kimball’s car was seriously injured despite the team’s best attempts to take it behind the wall and repair it, while Power’s #12 was also now a wounded animal with damage not only to the soon-replaced front-wing but also to the steering of the car that was more intractable. It did not stop him from rejoining the race albeit down in 23rd position, just behind James Hinchcliffe who had suffered refuelling problems in his own stop.

“It was really disappointing to get hit in pit lane during that first pit stop,” said Kimball. “There wasn’t anything I could do about it, I didn’t even see him.”

Officially the blame lies with the Penske pit crew for the unsafe release; unofficially, Kimball himself also bears some element of the blame, as he was coming down to pit lane unusually far out to the right and its quite probably that Power’s pit team simply didn’t realise that Kimball as in for his regular stop and could be swerving to the left into his pit box in that way. Still, the damage was done to both parties – time to move on.

The clean-up from Jakes’ accident took nine laps and racing resumed on lap 32, with Franchitti once again leaping away into the lead ahead of the KV duo, then followed by Helio Castroneves, Oriol Servia and Ryan Briscoe who all got ahead of Danica Patrick who was not having the best of days at restarts. She was also passed on track for seventh by her team mate Marco Andretti, who was already up ten places from his qualifying position and looking particularly strong in the night conditions.

The green flag was fairly short-lived, with another accident on lap 45 bringing out the second caution of the evening. Ana Beatriz had got loose on the same unsettling Iowa turn 2 bump and gone flying up the track, only this time she picked up some company along the way and smashed hapless Mike Conway into the wall as she went. Both cars were badly damaged and showered debris over the track, with Vitor Meira one of the first to arrive at the accident scene to find himself getting a face full of a sheet of carbon fibre bodywork that damaged his car, ultimately causing the team to retire the #59 with handling problems late in the event.

“We got loose, I hit the bump and the rear snapped on me,” said Beatriz succinctly.

Conway had more to say: “It was obviously a disappointing end. I was just following Ana into turn 1 and 2, and she just got loose in the corner. I had nowhere to go and we kind of touched wheels,” he explained. “That set me off into the wall. It was a pretty hard hit; not much left of the right side of the car … It was a funny day anyway. At the start we had no gears and we drove right to the back. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

It was a lengthy 19-lap delay to clear up the debris and fluids spilt from the two wrecked cars before racing resumed on lap 63 with another great restart from Dario, while Helio Castroneves suddenly surged past the KV duo to claim second spot; Kanaan had problems trying – and finally failing – to keep third place from an assertive Marco Andretti in the Venom #26 car, while further back Ryan Briscoe and JR Hildebrand went side-by-side and touched wheels as they scrapped over sixth place.

With Kanaan admitting over the team radio that he had “no answer” for Dario and no idea where to look for one, it seemed that the prospects for a real battle for the lead lay with Castroneves – ironically, given the off-track spat between Helio and Dario over blocking following the Milwaukee 225 last weekend. But just when it seemed as though we were in for a rematch, we got deja vu instead: just like at Milwaukee, Helio suddenly had a tyre go down and he had to take to the pits for a green flag pit stop on lap 77, which put him a lap down and essentially stopped him playing any further role in the fight for the win.

Worse news was to follow for Team Penske, when the rear end of Will Power’s #12 suddenly snapped round on him over the turn 2 bumps and sent him into a nasty hit against the wall. “That hurt,” he admitted afterwards, and he looked visibly shaken and dazed even half an hour later when he stepped out of the in-field care center.

Although he initially asserted that he was fine and there was no concussion, official word said otherwise and he was deemed to have suffered a minor concussion that means he will need to undergo medical re-evaluation tests before being cleared to race at the next event in Toronto in two weeks time, as will Simona de Silvestro who was ruled out of Iowa after failing the same tests ahead of Friday practice after suffering post-concussion symptoms from a crash at Milwaukee.

“It was definitely a hard hit,” admitted Power, who said that it definitely “rang my bell”. He went on: “The Verizon car was damaged after the incident in the pits and we just had a problem with the steering and it came around on me. It’s a tough result for us tonight. We’ll do our best to get it back next race.”

He also lamented the fact that the problem had originated with a mistake by the team in the pits. “Once again we screwed ourselves in the pits, like we always do,” he said, insisting that the team had to learn from this and cut out these costly missteps.

The caution allowed everyone to pit, and JR Hildebrand had an eventful time when he was caught out by the car of Marco Andretti in front and nearly made contact, avoiding it only with a major swerve that had the pit crews still working on the business side of the pit wall flinching. Hildebrand then caught out again and almost ran into the back of Scott Dixon behind the safety car as everyone was weaving and testing their brakes to heat up their equipment ahead of the restart on lap 106.

Dario once again leapt away in front, but this time Sato was showing signs of vigour for the first time in a while and swept past his KV Racing team mate Tony Kanaan for second place. Marco was then challenging for third place, running just ahead of Dixon who was now in fifth place having started from 23rd, when the track went straight back to yellow again on lap 115.

This time it was another rookie – albeit one who won at Iowa in Indy Lights last year – who had found out the problem with Iowa’s turn 2 in the most brutal way possible when something in the suspension seemed to fail in a shower of sparks sending the #34 into the wall in probably the most violent of the night and certainly prompting the safety crew to take extra care in stabilising him and checking for neck injuries before allowing him to be extricated. Despite looking very shaken and having to sit on the monocoque of the car once he stepped out, Saavedra was checked over by the in-field care centre and released with no problems, not even a minor concussion as Power had sustained – thankful no doubt for Iowa’s introduction of the SAFER barrier all around the perimeter, with no concrete wall left at the facility any more.

“I have no idea what happened,” said Saavedra. “We had some mild understeer which we were working through and out of nowhere the rear just snapped without any indication. It is one of those things that we will check out very closely to see what broke and try to figure it out.”

As the field got ready to go back to green flag racing, it emerged that the KV Racing team harmony wasn’t as solid as it had looked early in the evening, when Kanaan got on the radio to Jimmy Vasser to complain about his team mate Sato chopping him since getting in front. If he did it again, “He’ll learn a lesson he’ll never forget,” warned TK. Vasser said shortly afterwards that things had been smoothed out between them and that Sato hadn’t been aware of the problems he had been causing for Kanaan.

At the restart on lap 128, Dario once again maintained the lead – but this time didn’t do so with the same ease, and didn’t pull away to a safe distance. Behind him, a still annoyed Kanaan tried to get around Sato but found himself unable to get past and had to get off the throttle, which cost him vital momentum and saw him drop behind Marco Andretti and have to fend off JR Hildebrand in thrilling wheel-to-wheel combat over the next few laps.

Marco meanwhile had been stalking Takuma Sato for second, looking to be lining up a move on the outside only to swoop down to the inside line when Sato left the door open and pass him that way instead in a very sharp, intelligent move. Marco then immediately used his momentum to catch up with the race leader, and on lap 15 he went side-by-side with Dario and finally passed him, only for Dario to then line-up right on Marco’s tail and retake the lead in a decisive move four laps later in a perfect example of tough-but-fair oval racing at its best (and rather better than the ongoing ill-tempered spat between the KV team mates behind them.)

With under 50 laps to go before the end, it was time for pit stops – and with no yellows in the offing, cars were starting to pit under green. Sato came in on lap 181, and four laps later Dario dived for pit lane with Marco right on his tail (so close, in fact, that there was nearly contact at the entrance.)

While they were on pit road, the caution finally came out as if on cue to help them: and it was Sato who had caused it, spinning in the predictable turn 2 while on tyres that had not yet fully heated up and weren’t yet at optimum operating temperature. Sato himself was uninjured and was quickly out of the wrecked #5, but he wasn’t happy with how the race which had promised so much had ended with so little reward.

“I lost at the bump in turn 2. The tyres weren’t up to temperature,” he confirmed. “I’m very disappointed to finish the race this way. I feel very sorry for the team and the fans. It’s unfortunate because up until then it was looking good.”

Marco and Dario were able to finish off their already-underway pit stops, and Marco emerged from pit lane in front of Dario to take the lead for the second time that night. Franchitti had led 172 laps to this point: he couldn’t know it, but he would not get another turn in the lead for the rest of the race. Instead, when the race restarted, he not only didn’t have the raw speed in traffic that he had enjoyed earlier, but the #10 had a tendency to get loose and fly up alarmingly high near the wall, forcing him to back off the throttle and lose critical momentum. As the final stint wore on, Franchitti would sink back to fifth place by the chequered flag despite all that early domination, passed in the closing laps first by his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon and then by Panther’s JR Hildebrand.

“We had a bit of problem on that last pit stop and Marco got ahead,” said Franchitti. “All night we had been getting more and more oversteer, and once we got in traffic I was toast. We struggled at the end,” he confirmed.

With Dario and Takuma out of the picture, it was over to Tony Kanaan to carry the fight to Marco, and sure enough despite a good restart from Andretti on lap 198, Kanaan set up a pass and moved into the lead for the first time all night on lap 203. But Marco was if anything stronger in traffic than he was on the lead, and he stalked TK for four laps and then pulled off another sublime dive to the inside line to take the lead again on lap 208. This was looking like a tight battle that was going all the way to the finish.

Kanaan was back on the attack two laps later and finally pulled off a neat pass when Marco gave him half an opening rather than risk wrecking either or both of them, which allowed Kanaan to take control of the race from lap 212 for the next 20 laps.

With 19 laps of the race remaining, Marco felt he’d waited and observed long enough and dived to the inside line to run side-by-side with the #82 before just managing to pull in front again; TK regrouped and made another surge for the lead, but this time Marco was resolute there was no way past. As the laps remaining ticked to single figures, Kanaan used one of his remaining push-to-pass boosts to get alongside the Venom car again on the outside this time, at which point the decisive moment arrived: whoever came out of this battle in front was going to win the race.

And Marco played him: allowing him to get alongside, lulling him into a sense that the possibility was there, and then suddenly he moved down the track and applied a boost of his own, the extra power and the tighter line decisively breaking Kanaan’s run for the lead.

In the end it didn’t come down to a final lap shootout: the result was decided, and Marco claimed his first win in almost five years – his only previous IndyCar Series victory being at Sonoma in 2006, 78 races ago. Naturally, he was delighted: “It was good fun! The Venom boys were on it tonight,” he said of the race. “We were down a little bit on the bigger ovals but we know when it comes down to handling we’d be alright. These guys did a great job with pits. They got me the lead back [at the final round of pit stops.]”

He said that he had enjoyed the fierce late battle with Kanaan: “Knowing TK, I knew he would do exactly what I did to him. He’d make his car very wide,” Marco said. “I didn’t want to wait until two to go because he was just going to chop me and I would have been done. I knew I had to get it done earlier and actually make my car wide.”

Kanaan for his part gave Marco a thumbs up and congratulated him in victory lane, although he wasn’t entirely happy with that last move of his former team mate’s. “It was pretty clean until he chopped me off,” he said. “He did a great job. It was a great battle, a great race. We didn’t quite have the car. I think towards the end we got a little stronger. I’m happy for the team.”

Scott Dixon came in third place and said that “It feels like a win coming from 23rd to third,” while JR Hildebrand finished in fourth place having survived some of the hairiest moments of anyone of the night.

“That was my first time up front, rubbin’ with those boys,” he said. “There were a couple of spots that were a little dicey. It may be I’ll have to go up to some guys and say, ‘sorry about that.’ This is a tough place to race!” But certainly fourth place is a good way to get over the early exit at Milwaukee to get his season back on track after the highs and lows of May at Indianapolis.

As for the IndyCar championship, Dario Franchitti might have hoped for better than just fifth place to maximise the advantage over Will Power following the #12’s accident, but Iowa still means that the Scot now has a 20pt lead over the Aussie in the points having come into the weekend tied. It’s not a bad state of affairs, although Dario will be equally aware that the next race is back on a street/road circuit – which Power has dominated on so far in 2011 – and that the fight for the championship is only just beginning to get serious.

That race – the Honda Indy Toronto on the streets of that city – will be on Sunday, July 10 in two week’s time.

Race results

1. #26 Marco Andretti 250 laps 0.0000s Running
2. #82 Tony Kanaan 250 laps 0.7932s Running
3. #9 Scott Dixon 250 laps 1.1067s Running
4. #4 JR Hildebrand 250 laps 1.4856s Running
5. #10 Dario Franchitti 250 laps 1.8926s Running
6. #6 Ryan Briscoe 250 laps 2.3628s Running
7. #3 Helio Castroneves 250 laps 2.6732s Running
8. #28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 250 laps 4.1625s Running
9. #06 James Hinchcliffe 250 laps 5.6272s Running
10. #7 Danica Patrick 250 laps 6.0327s Running
11. #67 Ed Carpenter 250 laps 7.6745s Running
12. #22 Justin Wilson 250 laps 14.1527s Running
13. #19 Alex Lloyd 250 laps 16.8865s Running
14. #2 Oriol Servia 249 laps + 1 laps Running
15. #38 Graham Rahal 249 laps + 1 laps Running
16. #77 Alex Tagliani 249 laps + 1 laps Running
17. #59 EJ Viso 239 laps + 11 laps Handling
18. #14 Vitor Meira 227 laps + 23 laps Handling
19. #5 Takuma Sato 182 laps + 68 laps Contact
20. #34 Sebastian Saavedra 114 laps + 136 laps Contact
21. #12 Will Power 89 laps + 161 laps Contact
22. #83 Charlie Kimball 62 laps + 188 laps Mechanical
23. #24 Ana Beatriz 44 laps + 206 laps Contact
24. #27 Mike Conway 44 laps + 206 laps Contact
25. #18 James Jakes 22 laps + 228 laps Contact
26. #78 Simona de Silvestro DNS

At times Dario Franchitti looked like he was about to cruise away to victory on the Milwaukee Mile, but as the race wore on Dario found it harder and harder to stay in front.

It’s been two years since IndyCar last visited the Milwaukee Mile, and the drivers were certainly happy to be back: unfortunately the same couldn’t be said of the crowd. With the stadium’s capacity a relatively modest 40,000, it still looked as though the race was barely attracting a third of that number to the mid-June Milwaukee 225.

Which is a shame, as the return to one of the classic IndyCar-style circuits meant a return to some examples of the best side-by-side, wheel-to-wheel battles of old, together with more than a few crashes, incidents and controversy along the way.

The first incident occurred even before the green flag had finished flying for the start of the race, when Ryan Hunter-Reay appeared to have to lift going into turn 2 behind the two KV Racing Technology cars of Takuma Sato and EJ Viso. That lift made the car go light and he lost the rear end, sending him into the wall – with Ryan Briscoe doing superbly to avoid being collected as well. It was an sad early end to Hunter-Reay’s afternoon in his first outing in the GoDaddy.com livery shared with Andretti Autosport team mate Danica Patrick and normally on the #27 of Mike Conway.

“It’s extremely unfortunate,” said Hunter-Reay. “The car just broke loose on the way in and I just couldn’t save it. I feel bad for the guys, we had a good car here this weekend.”

Once the restart took place on lap 7, the race managed to run smoothly for the next 60 laps, with Dario Franchitti managing to pull out a huge lead of some 5s over Helio Castroneves in second, followed by Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon and EJ Viso. But as the green flag stint wore on, Franchitti’s pace notably started to fall off and gradually the chasing pack started to close right up on him.

There were early retirements for two cars, the first of which was Simona de Silvestro. She had crashed during Saturday qualifying and been concerned about back pain as well as needing stitches to a cut on her leg against the steering wheel in the impact, but she impressed everyone by being ready to race on Sunday afternoon. Sadly the same wasn’t true for the rebuilt #78 which had chronic handling problems, and the HVM team made a quick call to park the car for the day after all.

AJ Foyt made a typically non-nonsense call to park the #14 after 69 laps, declaring the car not in a fit state to compete and that he didn’t want it out there just to have an expensive crash. The Sam Schmidt Motorsports team could have made the same call about Alex Tagliani’s #77 which after a few full-speed laps at the start of the race abruptly lost all pretence of pace and was passed repeatedly by everyone. Tag continued to stay out – and managed to keep out of trouble as well – but finished a horrific 29 laps off the lead in 19th position.

On lap 66, just as it looked as though Franchitti was in danger of losing the lead, the second caution came out for a rather innocuous slow-speed incident involving Ana Beatriz who got up too high onto the marbles and went for a slide against the wall. Despite no serious damage being done the yellow flags came out anyway, just in time to provide the field with a convenient round of pit stops.

“I was trying to keep my lap because Dario Franchitti was behind me and as soon as I went a little bit higher I got in the dirty part of the track and brushed the wall,” explained Beatriz. “It hurt the suspension a little bit and we lost two laps because of that. It was really frustrating that we couldn’t put it all together. I felt that some people were really blocking hard today which really screwed us up.”

Despite pitting under yellows, the ensuing round of stops proved very messy and costly for a number of drivers. Dixon and Sato came down pit lane side-by-side with Sato on the inside despite having his pit box further along than Dixon, who was unaware of this. Dixon turned in to his own pit box – and Sato ran into him, pushing the Ganassi into Ryan Briscoe’s pit box and also damaging the nose of Dixon’s #9. Sato then proceeded to his own pit box but – presumably rather shaken by events – misjudged his own entry and knocked over his left rear tyre changer in the process. It all meant that Dixon dropped to 13th place after the pit stops, Briscoe to 16th and Sato off the lead lap altogether after receiving a drive-thru penalty for hitting a member of his pit crew.

“During the pit stop it was very crowded and I got tangled up getting into the pit box,” said Sato later. “So I got a drive through penalty which put me at the back of the field and down a lap, but over the next two caution yellows we managed to get our lap back.”

“It was one of those days,” rued Dixon. “We never had the balance of the #9 Target car right all day. It was worse off of 3 and 4 then we had the incident with the #5 car in the pits.”

Racing resumed on lap 79, but was back under caution again less than two laps later: as the cars were still jockeying for position two-wide, Alex Lloyd got passed around the outside by Ed Carpenter and it appeared that the aerodynamics pulled the rear end of the #19 around going into turn 2 and Lloyd headed for the wall. The hapless Sebastian Saavedra happened to get in the way and got trapped between the #19 and the wall, putting both cars out at a stroke.

“All I know is that I got lose and I caught it once but I couldn’t catch it the second time,” said Lloyd. “Unfortunately, we ended up in the wall and took Sebastian with us.”

“This is very sad,” said Conquest’s Saavedra. “We had a really great race car. We are looking at everything that the weekend brought and unfortunately we ended up involved in something that I couldn’t get out of. I saw Alex get lose in turn 1 and I had nowhere to go or nothing to do to avoid it. It is very disappointing as we were strong this weekend.”

It was a lengthy clean-up – with the track organisers having to spend quite a bit of time sweeping up the build-up of marbles form the tyres – before racing resumed on lap 91. Once again Dario Franchitti got a terrific rocketship restart with the rest of the field headed by Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Castroneves and Viso struggling to stay with him; Viso had his own hands full running side-by-side with Graham Rahal before finally losing the battle to retain the fifth position.

Once again, Franchitti’s early blistering pace subsided, this time further hampered by having to drive through lapped traffic, and Tony Kanaan quickly caught up with the #10 before passing him on lap 116 for the lead. Observers wondered whether this was some sort of strategic move by Dario – a fuel call, perhaps, or getting held up by someone? – but instead it seemed to be pure pace. Kanaan was simply faster than Franchitti at this stage of the race.

The next caution was out on lap 123, caused when JR Hildebrand got up too high while being passed on the inside by the leader, strayed onto the marbles and crashed into the wall at turn 4 – uncomfortably reminiscent of the traumatic end to the Indianapolis 500 for the young Californian.

“I was struggling with the car a little bit, for sure. At that point, I’m kind of trying to stay out of my own way out there,” Hildebrand admitted. “We’re just trying to survive through the race. With the leaders going by, a lot of the guys can stay on the bottom and some of the guys just sort of can’t. It’s not their fault. I just got through with TK and I got shoved up in the marbles. Once I got up there, I couldn’t get it back.”

The caution gave everyone a chance to pit under yellow, although a front left tyre gun problem cost Oriol Servia lot of positions and pushed him back to 12th place. Kanaan and Franchitti still eld at the restart, and for the first time Will Power was showing signs of life and moving into the outskirts of the top ten, where he would engage in a brief but thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle for position with Scott Dixon who was still languishing in the midfield after his earlier pit stop incident with Sato.

History repeated itself at the restart, with Dario’s pace back to his best at least temporarily and he reclaimed the lead on lap 135; he retained it for nearly twenty laps before his tyres faded on him again and Kanaan took back the position on lap 154. On this evidence, the eventual winner was going to be decided by how close to the end the final caution or tyre change of the afternoon turned out to be.

Caution number five came out on lap 165 when EJ Viso threw away all that early strong running by spinning the #59 into the wall at turn 4 after banging wheels with Ed Carpenter.

“I was passing the lap car and I got high and went into the marbles and it sent me into the wall,” said Viso. “I feel bad for the mechanics and my crew because they put this car together for me … I really think I had a good car, maybe not as fast as the leaders but we had a car to finish in the top five.”

With sixty laps left to run, everyone was now well inside the window to make it to the end with one final pit stop, and so everyone duly took the opportunity to come in. Penske’s pit crew did an astonishing job to return Helio Castroneves to the track in the lead ahead of Franchitti and Kanaan.

Dario was hoping to get one of his turbo-boosted starts and reclaim the lead at this critical juncture, but he was frustrated when Charlie Kimball emerged from his wave-around through the pit lane right in front of the leaders, combined with some serious blocking from the #3 that Franchitti took serious objection to: “It was Helio’s usual blocking crap,” he said afterwards, admitting that he was “still so spittin’ mad from what Helio did on that restart.”

Dario had to pull back and it gave Kanaan the opportunity to ease past him and demote the #10 to third place. Suddenly, the win that had been a mere formality for Dario was looking out of reach after all. But instead, just when it looked like we were set for a close three-way battle for the race win, we were about to lose two of the players from contention.

First came reports from the Penske pits that telemetry was showing that the #3 had a tyre going down: minutes later and no data was needed, the left rear was visibly flat even while Castroneves remained seemingly unaware of the problems and still circulated at speeds of up to 160mph on it. It demonstrated just how relatively unimportant the left-rear is on an anti-clockwise oval that he was able to carry on as long as he was, but the risk of a dangerous blow-out was growing by the second.

And the n the crash came – but it wasn’t Castroneves. It was, astonishingly, Tony Kanaan who went into the wall at turn 4.

“It’s a shame. It’s my fault. But, hey, it was a fun race,” said Kanaan. “We raced each other hard the whole race. Unfortunately, I’m human. I make mistakes sometimes as well. I’d rather make a mistake trying hard then actually not trying at all.”

With Kanaan out and Castroneves now forced to pit for replacement tyres and down to 11th place, Dario’s competition melted away and sadly we were denied the exciting, white-knuckle shoot-out for the race win once Dario got off to another safe flying restart.

Perhaps the most intelligent race of the entire afternoon had been that of Will Power, who had been starting from 17th position after a “big moment” in his Saturday qualifying run. Power had laid low for the first half of the race and made little progress, but gradually worked his way up in the latter stages of the race to suddenly pop up into seventh place after the final round of pit stops. He was able to make up three more positions over the remaining 60 laps.

Power’s most dangerous moment came in the final restart on lap 205, when Graham Rahal took over second spot and cut off Will Power in the process, forcing Power to check up and as a result nearly getting Danica Patrick rear-ending him. Fortunately everyone managed to avoid contact and the race ran the final 20 laps to the end, with Power in fourth just ahead of Patrick at the end.

A fifth place finish for Patrick was good news, being her best result in the 2011 season to date – although naturally, she still wasn’t thrilled. “Unfortunately, there were so many yellows that came out about halfway through a stint in the last half of the race or so. More green flag running would have been good for me, but we still got a top five.”

Graham Rahal had managed to hold on to second place and was thrilled. “A great job for the Service Central team today, to come from 12th and move up like that,” he said. “We passed a lot of cars. I thought passing was going to be tough today and it was, but we were able to do it … We’re knocking on the door [of a win,] it’s our second second-place finish of the year and third podium. We’re getting closer. It’s going to come one of these days!”

And Oriol Servia claimed third place despite that mid-race problem in pit lane that had cost him nine positions at a crucial moment. “It’s awesome. We’ve been close to the podium so many times and things just don’t come easy,” he said. “I was in a podium position and then we had a bad stop and went back to 12th and had to go through the field again. The car was just amazing. The restarts were a lot of fun and I’m just so happy to give a podium to the team.”

Will Power’s fourth place was a useful piece of damage limitation that meant that despite Franchitti’s race win, Power was still able to tie the lead of the IndyCar championship on points going into next weekend’s race at Iowa.

“I guess we’re equal on points so you just have to keep fighting away,” said Power. “Keep having good days like this and make no mistakes and we’ll be good. I was just fighting like a dog to get those positions.”

Dario, however, was just basking in a hard-won race win and leaving the championship for another day. “Great day. To win here at Milwaukee is always special. It’s such hard work and a such a hard race. It’s a delight for the Target Team and we got the Downy colours in Victory Lane!”

Race results

1. #10 Dario Franchitti 225 laps 1:56:43.5877s
2. #38 Graham Rahal 225 laps + 1.4271s
3. #2 Oriol Servia 225 laps + 2.7703s
4. #12 Will Power 225 laps + 3.8756s
5. #7 Danica Patrick 225 laps + 4.2289s
6. #06 James Hinchcliffe 225 laps + 5.2021s
7. #9 Scott Dixon 225 laps + 5.7803s
8. #5 Takuma Sato 225 laps + 6.1011s
9. #3 Helio Castroneves 225 laps + 6.3643s
10. #22 Justin Wilson 225 laps + 6.8905s
11. #6 Ryan Briscoe 225 laps + 8.2475s
12. #27 Mike Conway 225 laps + 8.9469s
13. #26 Marco Andretti 225 laps + 9.8659s
14. #83 Charlie Kimball 224 laps + 1 laps
15. #18 James Jakes 223 laps + 2 laps
16. #67 Ed Carpenter 223 laps + 2 laps
17. #24 Ana Beatriz 222 laps + 3 laps
18. #77 Alex Tagliani 196 laps + 29 laps
19. #82 Tony Kanaan 194 laps + 31 laps Contact
20. #59 EJ Viso 163 laps + 62 laps Contact
21. #4 JR Hildebrand 120 laps + 105 laps Contact
22. #19 Alex Lloyd 79 laps + 146 laps Contact
23. #34 Sebastian Saavedra 78 laps + 147 laps Contact
24. #14 Vitor Meira 69 laps + 156 laps Mechanical
25. #78 Simona de Silvestro 11 laps + 214 laps Handling
26. #28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 0 laps + 225 laps 0s Contact

An amazing final 25 laps of the Indy 500 saw the favourites falter and one unlikely name after another look set to win. One heartbreaking crash later, it was a Brit on victory lane.

If you’d asked the bookies, Scott Dixon was pretty much a lock for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 victory; or if not him then his Ganassi team mate Dario Franchitti.

They looked quietly confident throughout the whole of practice week, and would surely have locked out the top two spots on the grid if not for a puzzling fumble with insufficient fuel on their final pole shootout runs, so it seemed that it was a just matter of time before the true natural order was restored come the race start.

Just as expected, Dixon got a flying start and easily passed polesitter Alex Tagliani at the start of the race, but once again Tag showed that he and the Sam Schmidt Motorsport team were not to be underestimated. He wasn’t going anywhere, and on lap 8 he stole the lead straight back from the race favourite and stayed there.

A couple of drivers toward the back were not so happy. Paul Tracy was into the pits early: “We had some type of issue going on with tyre vibration. We picked up a really bad vibration in the first stint, and then I started sliding and brushed the wall. We decided to fix the WIX car, get it back out there going … We wanted to run it all day, pick up as many spots as we could and not end up in 33rd.” The Dreyer & Reinbold team did indeed get Tracy back out and he ran to the end, albeit the last of the runners and 25 laps down.

Simona de Silvestro was another backmarker to have early handling problems leading her to brush the wall and damage her suspension: “I made contact with the wall in turn 1, and it bent the upright and the rear suspension. It didn’t feel real good, and we realized that the upright was bent.” There would be no fairy tale reward for her courageous comeback from the huge crash she suffered during practice week that left her qualifying despite badly burned hands. She would finally call it a day on lap 44.

Before that, Takuma Sato became the first retiree of the 2011 race when he got up too high on the race track and skated into the wall in turn 5. “I couldn’t see that the car was inside of me, and by the time I got into turn 1, it was full speed and the car was there and I had to lift,” he explained. “I wasn’t supposed to be hanging on that way, and it is very disappointing. I really wanted to finish the race.”

During the pit stops that ensued, Will Power got a nasty shock when he pulled away from his pit box only to have his left rear tyre suddenly fall off: the tyre changer had been frantically signalling a problem, but his warnings had been missed. Power would have to go round a full lap and come in again for a new set of tyres, and that put him off the lead lap – a set-back from which he was never to recover. “That was it for the day. We just had to try and fight our way back,” he said after finishing 14th.

And then it was time for the first double file restart the Indianapolis 500 had ever seen: and they almost got away with it, if only EJ Viso hadn’t tried to go three wide into turn 1. “I was running with Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe, and I believe that James Hinchcliffe missed a gear and he lost his momentum out of turn 4,” he explained. “Graham Rahal went on the inside, and I went on the outside. Then when we were approaching turn 1, I got hit on my rear left tire and it spun me.”

It was Hinchcliffe who had made contact with him: “[EJ] got into us, we got hit and had to come in and save the car from going into the wall on that one,” he said. Viso spun off into the wall with a nasty crunch, enforcing a rapid return to a second caution.

Dixon had got ahead of Tagliani before that second caution, and at the restart Tag returned the favour and went ahead again for a lap. But the Sam Schmidt Motorsports car then dropped back to second as the meat in a Ganassi sandwich: Dixon in the lead, Dario Franchitti running in third ahead of Oriol Servia. Tagliani lost his rhythm and fell back, and Servia’s speed was no match for the Ganassis and he too lost positions during this stint. It seemed to be coming together very nicely indeed for Chip Ganassi, with one of his junior team drivers Graham Rahal also figuring strongly and one of the biggest gainers of the early part of the race.

Green flag pit stops had just started to cycle through on lap 62 when Jay Howard emerged from pit lane – only to suddenly have his right rear tyre fly off, in a more dramatic version of Will Power’s earlier mishap. The loss spun him into impact with the inside wall, robbing him of the chance to get the car back to the pits for new tyres. He was out of the race.

It turned into a remarkably good stroke of fortune for Dario Franchitti, who had entered pit lane just before it was closed for the caution and therefore able to take his stop as normal – a break which saw him take over the lead of the race from Scott Dixon. Danica Patrick, on the other hand, was stuck out on the race track with her #7 running on fumes. She had to resort to a “splash and dash” mercy run and then make a second proper stop when the pits finally properly opened for business, but it wasn’t helping her campaign.

It was also not a helpful stop for Tony Kanaan, who had been running strongly up in the top six during this stage of the race. But when he came into pit lane he had the misfortune of trying to pull into his pit just as Pippa Mann pulled out of hers, and she blocked his access. In F1 terms it was “unsafe release” and the responsibility of the team to give her better direction, but that was no consolation to Kanaan.

At the restart on lap 70, the top six order was Franchitti, Dixon, Dan Wheldon, Alex Tagliani, Townsend Bell and JR Hildebrand. The latest attempt at a double file restart was messy (and occasionally three-wide) but without incident, although Dixon cruised past Franchitti for the lead and Tagliani took third from Wheldon. The top five quickly pulled out a gap of some 3s over the rest.

Further back, Ryan Hunter-Reay had been running in 15th in his transplanted AJ Foyt Racing entry, but on lap 79 he got to high up and gave the wall a light tap that broke his rhythm and dropped him to the back of the lead lap in 24th.

As the race made it to the midway point it was time for another cycle of green flag pit stops – and once again, they were incomplete when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out. This time it was James Hinchcliffe who went into the wall in turn 1 on lap 101: “Sorry, boys,” he said over the radio, sounding truly gutted for his pit crew.

“At that point, we were driving on borrowed time after what happened with Viso,” he admitted. “We were just about to pit; the tires were just starting to go off. Bertrand [Baguette] got a good run on me, and I was really just trying to let him go. I backed off early and was giving him the corner but unfortunately got a little bit in the grey [marbles]. With how worn the tires were, at that stage of the stint I was just a passenger.”

Once again the yellow had come out just after Dario had made it into the pits for his scheduled stop; once again, Danica was caught out and had to bring in her #7 for a mercy splash-and-dash and come back for a proper stop when pit lane was properly open.

The pit stops had left Dario in the lead ahead of Oriol, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter, with Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon in fifth and sixth at the restart on lap 107, which was even messier than before but IndyCar was clearly in no mood to waste everyone’s time and patience on waving off restart attempts if it could be helped. Helio Castroneves was also in the lead pack, but as lapped traffic – until he promptly got past Dario to unlap himself and put himself temporarily back on the lead lap after all.

Was this a sign that Penske were suddenly starting to show some form at long last? As it happened – no, it was more a sign that Dario was suddenly far less comfortable during this part of the race, the set-up just no longer to his liking as the afternoon warmed up and broke into the 90s Fahrenheit. Servia sensed the weakness and passed Dario for the lead on lap 114, promptly going on to put Helio a lap down again after all.

Dario seemed to adapt and on lap 132 he was strong enough again to retake the lead, but pit stops were looming and he was mightily pleased to get in and have a whole raft of adjustments dialled in to to the car for the final third of the race. This time for once, the pit stops cycled through without a caution interrupting proceedings.

Instead, one came on lap 148 – and sadly it was for the exit from the race of the well-liked polesitter Alex Tagliani, who slid the Sam Schmidt Motorsports #77 onto the marbles and into the wall at turn 4 while dealing with JR Hildebrand. Tag had been dropping down the running order since the midpoint of the race and had already looked a spent force as far as the race win went.

“We had a really good, balanced car early on. It was nice to drive it,” he said. “Then all of the sudden, it became very loose. I couldn’t really get it back on track … In one of our pit stops, we thought we fixed it, but we didn’t. It’s a shame, because early on the car was so good I thought we had a shot at it all race long. But we kind of lost the car at some point; very curious.”

With only 50 laps to go now, fuel strategies were starting to come into focus. Most of the cars stayed out of pit lane, but Marco Andretti and Townsend Bell opted to come in, dropping them to 10th and 11th respectively; that left the leading top six lined up in the order Franchitti, Dixon, Servia, Wheldon, Kanaan and Hildebrand, with Danica Patrick running in seventh.

Dario didn’t even bother pretending to abide by a double file restart when things got underway again, and just shot off into the lead as fast as he could. But it proved to be a short-lived green flag, with another caution coming on lap 158 when Townsend Bell – who had been unusually inconsiderate of other cars on the track during the day and lucky to escape without any collisions so far – finally rode to the end of his luck.

He pinched down on the #6 of Penske’s Ryan Briscoe into turn 1, and Briscoe had no where to go except into the #99. Bell was sent up into the wall and Briscoe followed, the Schmidt Racing car making an unwilling crumple zone for Briscoe’s own impact.

“I’ve got to see the replay, but it seems like somebody hit me in my left rear, I think it was Ryan,” said Bell. “I saved it in turn 1 and whammo, it got me again and pinned me in the wall.”

Briscoe denied it was his fault, but was forgiving toward Bell at the same time: “I saw Townsend brush the wall in turn 4. Everyone was going down the inside. I was just following through on the inside into turn 1,” he explained. “I just think he didn’t know I was there, and he just came down and pinched me. As soon as we made contact, the wheels interlocked. And that was it.”

Pit stops followed, but with 40 laps still to go it was too far to make it on a single final tank of gas – everyone would have to pit again. Except that on the very last lap of the caution period, two cars decided to dive into the pits and get a late extra top-up of fuel in a bid to make it all the way to the flag after all, now it was just 36 laps away.

Stunningly, one of those cars was the race leader – Dario Franchitti. Surely he wouldn’t be throwing his strong lead away and dropping to 12th on a Hail Mary risky stunt? And yet the only driver who decided to follow his lead was the 23-year-old rookie from California, JR Hildebrand. This was either a brilliant, race-winning move for Dario (and potentially an assured second place for Hildebrand in his first Indy 500, too) – or it was throwing away his chance of a third Indy 500 there and then. Only time, and another 26 laps, would tell.

After a race that had looked so stable and as if it was floating serenely toward the inevitable Ganassi win with the only outstanding question being which one of Scott or Dario would come out top, suddenly the whole race was thrown into escalating chaos. Whoever you thought would win, suddenly all bets were off.

Servia led at the restart, but then he was passed by Graham Rahal who led for six laps – and on such a historic day as the centennial Indy 500, how great was it to have a name with such resonance to the sport as Rahal back on top of the leaderboard, however briefly. Then Dixon came back and took the top spot for another seven laps.

On everyone’s mind was the inescapable fact that all of these cars needed that extra splash of fuel to make it to the end of the race, and on lap 177 Dan Wheldon fired the starting gun on those desperate make-or-break visits to pit road; Rahal and Servia came in the next lap and Dixon was in the lap after that, which handed the race lead to none other than Danica Patrick for only the second time in her Indy 500 career.

She kept the lead for ten laps, but she was now suffering with increasingly severe vibration problems that were making the car near impossible to drive. “Bad enough to come in?” enquired her pit crew: Danica was silent, wishing that she could stay out and hope for a miracle caution, but ultimately having to take to pit road 11 laps shy of the finish.

And into the breach came Bertrand Baguette, the Belgian racer that no one had even thought was in with the slightest chance. Could it possibly be the biggest upset of the decade – could Bertrand really pull this off? He certainly wasn’t afraid of running flat-out, and the idea of fuel conservation didn’t seem to have entered his mind. He didn’t have the secret of ever-lasting gas tanks, did he?

He came tantalisingly close, and built up a huge lead of 10s over Dario Franchitti in second place. Baguette was running at 218mph compared with 208mph for Dario, but none of that mattered if the #30 couldn’t make it to the finish line. It seemed that Ganassi’s cunning last-second splash-and-dash at the end of the last caution had done the trick and that the Scot was about to get his third Indy 500 title.

Except Franchitti’s lap speed was falling … and falling … And now it was no longer just fuel conservation, but worst-case scenario: the lack of any further late-race cautions meant that he wasn’t going to make it full race distance either, except by crawling round so slowly that everyone else would get to stream past him. His Indy dream had well and truly disappeared before his very eyes.

If Franchitti couldn’t make it, then clearly JR Hildebrand – the only other driver to pit for a top-up at the same time as Dario on lap 164 – wouldn’t make it either. It didn’t matter that he took the lead with three to go when Bertrand finally had to concede defeat and head to pit road, because obviously he too was about to run dry.

Except the rookie kept on coming. And coming. And still coming. He took the white flag and started his final 2.5 mile circulation, and surely even if he ran dry now he was still far enough ahead of the late stoppers led by Dan Wheldon? It seemed impossible to believe that he now wouldn’t make the finish line in first place and claim a famous, historic win in the centennial event – a true rookie win=.

He kept on coming, and the crowd kept on cheering the prospect of an All-American victory on the ultra-patriotic Memorial Day weekend. Up ahead the only fly in Hildebrand’s ointment was the slow traffic of Charlie Kimball, but Hildebrand kept up high to make sure he gave his fellow rookie enough room, not wanting to startle him and cause any crashes the last time through turns 3 and 4.

He went high … and he kept on going higher. Once on the marbles he was gone and into the wall on the exit of turn four, just yards now from the famed yard of bricks marking the start/finish line. It was agonising: the impact against the wall had wrecked the car, there was no way of steering and no power, yet still the car ground its way over the remaining distance, clawing its way forward like some dying animal determined to get its offspring to safety.

It made it; the #4 slid all the way down the track and finally came to a halt on the entrance to turn 1. The only problem was that the process had been agonisingly slow, and before the wreckage could manage to get itself over the finish line there had been a blur of orange and white go past.

Unbelievably, Dan Wheldon had taken the chequered flag first, and would head to pit lane to drink the traditional glass of milk and don the winner’s laurel.

“In the corner of my eye, I saw him hit the fence,” said Wheldon. “I just carried on by. As Bryan [Herta, car owner] says, you have to make it to the bricks with a car that can go forward with all four wheels. At that point, I knew it was mine.”

It was a horrible moment for Hildebrand, who had been holding his destiny in his own hands when he made the error that cost him the most famous of race victories possible. No one could quite believe it, and for a time rumours flew that Panther would appeal the race result on the grounds that Wheldon had overtaken Hildebrand under caution – a strict racing protocol no-no. Two hours later, an official review of the video and photographic evidence proved that the caution had not in fact been out when Wheldon passed Hildebrand’s crushed car; and IndyCar officials made clear that even if this had not been the case they would still rule that the Panther was too “wounded” to be legitimately protected by the yellow flags.

Wheldon’s victory was confirmed: the British driver who had been left without a regular season drive in IndyCar in 2011 had come almost out of nowhere to claim his second Indy 500 title, after two consecutive years of finishing second (all of them in different teams) and also with a third and a fourth to his name in ten starts overall in this famous race – quite a record.

Dan Wheldon couldn’t quite believe it, and the tears streamed down as he climbed out of the car. Team owner Bryan Herta couldn’t believe it either: while Wheldon’s track record here is undeniable, no one expected him to be seriously in with a chance to win the race with a start-up team, even one run by a motor racing great like Herta.

“We came here to win,” said his car owner Bryan Herta, who was a driver here in 2005 when Wheldon won his first Indy 500. “We always said we came here to win … But we actually won!”

And as celebrations overran victory lane, spare a thought for the young man standing in disbelief next to a wrecked car, running his fingers through his hair, wondering exactly how he’d managed to not get a couple of dozen yards down the road in time.

“I made a judgement call catching up on the #83 [Kimball] and I thought I don’t really want to slow down behind him,” said Hildebrand. “I’ve been able to make this move on the outside before and so I went to the high side and because it was at the end of the stint I got up in the marbles and that was it.”

“We came here with a rookie driver and everybody says we’re going to have trouble and everything, but I can tell you that he did a great job,” said Hildebrand’s Panther team owner John Barnes. “He drove to a fuel number I didn’t think was going to be attainable. We’re so proud of him and the people at Panther and the crew.”

Amazingly, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan came across the line in third and fourth, while Scott Dixon was restored to fifth after initially being shown in sixth place, as he was inadvertently passed under that final caution by Oriol Servia who was duly returned to sixth place.

“Between Dario and myself, we had this one pretty well covered,” lamented Dixon, scarcely believing that all that quiet Ganassi domination had unravelled in the last 25 laps. “It just didn’t go our way. I definitely leave here thinking that I should have won my second 500.”

But this moment right now was about the winner – Dan Wheldon. “You can think I’m giving you the media cheesy line, but it’s not like that,” he said “The people that form this team, the relationships that we’ve all kind of bonded very quickly, has been extremely good. With a Cinderella story we took on the might of Roger Penske’s organisation and Chip Ganassi [but] I don’t think I saw a Penske in front of me all of the race.

“It’s a fantastic day. I just love Indianapolis. I really do. I love Indiana. It’s been so good to me, so good to my career. But to these guys for giving me an opportunity, it’s tough to beat these big teams. This is a Cinderella story.”

Let’s hope that “happy ever after” includes a full time deal for Wheldon. And while we’re at it, let’s use one of our three wishes for a bright and winning future for the richly deserving JR Hildebrand, too, as between them these two drivers gave us one hell of a climax to the centennial Indy 500.

Race results

1. #98 Dan Wheldon William Rast – Curb/Big Machine 2:56:11.7267s (200 laps)
2. #4 JR Hildebrand (R) National Guard Panther Racing + 2.1086s
3. #38 Graham Rahal Service Central + 5.5949s
4. #82 Tony Kanaan GEICO – KV Racing Technology – Lotus + 7.4870s
5. #9 Scott Dixon Target Chip Ganassi Racing + 9.5434s
6. #2 Oriol Servia CDW/Telemundo + 8.8757s *
7. #30 Bertrand Baguette The RACB/Aspria RLL Special + 23.9631s
8. #07 Tomas Scheckter Team REDLINE Xtreme – Circle K + 24.3299s
9. #26 Marco Andretti Team Venom + 25.4711s
10. #7 Danica Patrick Team GoDaddy + 26.4483s
11. #67 Ed Carpenter Dollar General/Sarah Fisher Racing + 27.0375s
12. #10 Dario Franchitti Target Chip Ganassi Racing + 56.4167s
13. #83 Charlie Kimball (R) Levemir and Novolog FlexPen + 1 lap
14. #12 Will Power Verizon Team Penske + 1 lap
15. #14 Vitor Meira ABC Supply Co./A.J. Foyt Racing + 1 lap
16. #22 Justin Wilson Z-Line Designs/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing + 1 lap
17. #3 Helio Castroneves Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team Penske + 1 lap
18. #44 Buddy Rice Fuzzy’s Vodka/Panther Racing + 2 laps
19. #19 Alex Lloyd Boy Scouts of America + 2 laps
20. #36 Pippa Mann (R) Conquest Racing + 2 laps
21. #24 Ana Beatriz Team Ipiranga/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing + 3 laps
22. #43 John Andretti Team Window World + 3 laps
23. #41 Ryan Hunter-Reay ABC Supply/DHL/Sun Drop + 3 laps
24. #11 Davey Hamilton HP/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing + 7 laps
25. #23 Paul Tracy WIX Filters/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing + 25 laps
26. #99 Townsend Bell Herbalife Schmidt Pelfrey Racing Lap 157 Contact
27. #6 Ryan Briscoe IZOD Team Penske Lap 157 Contact
28. #77 Alex Tagliani Bowers & Wilkins/Sam Schmidt Lap 147 Contact
29. #06 James Hinchcliffe (R) Sprott Newman Haas Racing Lap 99 Contact
30. #88 Jay Howard (R) Service Central Schmidt RLL Racing Lap 60 Contact
31. #78 Simona de Silvestro Nuclear Clean Air Energy Lap 44 Handling
32. #59 EJ Viso PDVSA – KV Racing Technology – Lotus Lap 27 Contact
33. #5 Takuma Sato Monavie-KV Racing Technology – Lotus Lap 20 Contact

* = Oriol Servia demoted to sixth after being found to have passed Scott Dixon after the final yellow came out.

A dramatic climax to a week of practice and qualifying at Indianapolis saw Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Pippa Mann and Paul Tracy get on the grid for the 2011 Indy 500.

Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Pippa Mann and Paul Tracy were among those to survive a nail-biting rain-interrupted Bump Day climax to Indianapolis 500 qualifying, but others – including Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway – were left thoroughly gutted to miss out on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

At one point it seemed as though rain might stop Danica Patrick from even making at attempt to get on the grid, as an earlier delay passing technical inspection meant that she had only just finally got to the head of the line when the rain started and the yellow flags came out. If the track didn’t dry out in time, the grid would be finalised without its biggest and most bankable star name.

“It kind of seemed like everything was just not going the way it needed to go. I just kept going up against things, whether it was not explaining the loss in speed yesterday or going through the tech line and not passing and having to go back through, losing my spot, which was second,” she said.

“And then to get in line again after the rain had cleared and have it come with only me left to go, it just kind of seemed like maybe it’s just not supposed to happen this year. That’s just the roller coaster you ride here. It makes you value the good days even more and it makes you want to try like hell to never have these days ever again.”

When she did finally get her run in, it was the second fastest of the day – and she was safely on the 33-car grid next Sunday. But right until the moment she saw the time come up, she had no idea what to expect from the car.

“I had no idea. I can tell a little bit when the lights come up when I accelerate and how many lights I can see on the steering wheel and going down the back straight and coming around and then around 3 and 4 and got to the front straight, and it felt good. Got around the short chute, had the lights on, out of 2 it felt good. Getting lights down the back straight, and I thought, ‘Okay, it seems like it’s okay right now.’ Then you come back to start-finish line and it showed 225, and I was happy.”

The ecstasy of the moment understandably went straight to her head: “I feel like I need a drink. That’s really how I feel,” she said. “You learn to never take it for granted. That’s definitely one thing.

“The relief that comes with it, because the highs are what we go for here. So the lows are really low, which means that the highs are really high here. And until you’ve experienced them, you’ve never really experienced Indy for all it can be for you. And I’ve been there. I feel lucky for that.”

While she was feeling the highs, two of her team mates were experiencing the lows. British driver Mike Conway was by his own admission absolutely devastated by failing to make the grid for the Indy 500, the race that nearly ended his career in that horrifying last-lap crash in 2010.

“It’s a tough break – both me and Ryan, not in the show. I’m pretty gutted,” he said. “Danica spent some time with me, putting me back together, after I got back to the garage. I’m obviously happy for Danica, Marco and John to be in, but gutted for me and Ryan. I never wanted to experience this feeling. You see it happen every year, and you hope it’s not you. It’s not nice.”

At least Conway’s exit was, to be brutally honest, clearly a possibility right from the disappointing Opening Day. How much worse, then, for Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had looked to be safe right up until the dramatic final moments of Bump Day that first saw Alex Lloyd pull out a spectacular lap to save his own chances and bump Marco Andretti off the grid, and then Marco going out even as the gun shot signalling the end of qualifying echoed around the Speedway – and managing to bump Hunter-Reay off the grid, with Ryan left with no chance to respond.

“I can’t even process this right now. It’s just devastating,” he said. “This is terrible. It was my teammate that bumped me out of the field. I’ve been on that side of it before … This is a hard one to take. I don’t know how it’s going to be on Race Day. We just missed it. We couldn’t find the speed. I don’t know what to tell you. This is the worst. I don’t think it’s really hit just yet. I can’t process it.”

Marco Andretti was the driver who bumped his own team mate out, and he was walking a fine line between the joy and relief of making the Indy 500, and the knowledge of what it had done to his team mate.

“It was a roller coaster day,” he said. “I think the pair of them [Mike and Ryan] are two of the best in the business. Ryan has had terrible luck this year. Fortunately, Mike got a win, but Ryan has been in a position to win a lot of races this year and came short for whatever reason.”

The moment when he got bumped with six minutes to do must have been a heart-stopping moment, but Marco said that in fact he was glad it had happened. “You know what? I was in the mindset whatever is going to happen is going to happen … I knew we were going to be in this position. So I think we were just kind of prepared for it, and we showed up when we had to.

“To be honest, I was happier that we got bumped, you know, because that justifies us going out again. You hate to withdraw your time and then you have to lift, or you crash the thing and you’re out of it. So many things could have gone wrong,” he explained. “When I woke up today, I was ready. I was just ready for it, and I was expecting to be – luckily we were in line at the right place at the right time. But I was expecting it to come down to the wire because I knew we didn’t have the speed. We came up with it at the end there, but we were really risking it.”

Alex Lloyd had also run the gamut of emotions in those closing minutes, and could scarcely believe that it had come together at the last minute when all had appeared lost.

“It’s been probably one of the most stressful weekends I think I’ve had in my career. I remember it last year, we had to qualify on Bump Day last year. I remember that being pretty stressful, and I didn’t want anything to do with it this year,” he said. “I think the chances of us making the show seemed pretty low … I had to lift so badly in 3, I thought there’s no way we can do this now. I saw the time for the first lap and thought you know what? Maybe, maybe.

“At that point I’m holding it flat, or I’m in the wall. There’s not going to be a lift. The only lift that I am going to be doing is when I’m backward flying into the SAFER Barrier. So it was all or nothing, and that’s what Indy’s about.

“[Then] the oil temperature went sky high and on the third lap the engine was vibrating so much, by the fourth lap I couldn’t see where I was going,” he continued. “I was absolutely convinced the thing was going to blow up. I thought there’s no way this thing will last. I’ve never felt this way; I was looking in the mirror to see if I could see smoke. But it held on, and we made it happen.”

He said the sense of emotion and achievement today exceeded even those he had felt at the end of last year’s Indy 500: “When we saw the crew guys’ face when I pulled up and you see not just what it means for myself but what it means for the whole team, for the crew guys, for their families, all the effort they put in all year long, for Dale over there, it felt better than finishing fourth place.”

By contrast with Lloyd, fellow Brit Pippa Mann had a rather stress-free day of it, one run being enough to secure her a position on the grid. She was delighted with how it had turned out: “Well, we finally cured the speed problem we had. We’ve cured our handling issues. We made so many changes overnight … I went out there with no idea of what I was going to have going into that run [and decided] ‘OK, this will work.’ I wish I had that knowledge going in, and we could’ve been a bit braver.”

During the second rain delay, Pippa was busy hoping and praying that the wet weather would stay around and lock the grid up before anyone could bump her out: “[I had] all my fingers and all my toes crossed. I know it’s bad sportsmanship, but I really [wanted the rain to continue] so that I didn’t have to do that again. I’m sorry, everyone else. I know it’s cruel, but does anyone know a good rain dance? I just looked at the sky and thought, ‘Come on, give me a break; you haven’t done it all week.'”

Charlie Kimball also made the grid without any dramas, and made history of his own in a different way: “When I got out of the car I thought, ‘I’ve qualified for the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500.’ Now it’s a dream come true. And to do that as the first licensed driver with diabetes to qualify for the Indy 500 is special; not just for me but for the whole diabetes community out there. I hope I get a chance next Sunday to stop and soak it all in, because it’s going to be probably one of the greatest days of my life so far.”

Ryan Briscoe also overcame the problems bedding in his space car, which was replacing the race car written off in a Saturday morning practice crash. “For some reason this T-car hasn’t been pulling the speeds we’ve been expecting with what we were seeing with the primary car. Unfortunately, with my crash yesterday, we can’t get that back together. We’re racing with the T-car.

“So I’m just looking forward to the race. We’re going to have a great race car. I’m starting in the back, but we’ll be able to get to the front. I’ve got a Roger Penske calling my race, and we want to bring one home for IZOD.”

Of the other drivers not to make it, James Jakes was the only rookie running not to get through on Bump Day. He was philosophical and looking at this year as a learning experience. “My thanks to the guys on the Dale Coyne crew, and Alex (Lloyd, teammate) did a great job at the end. The event is awesome, and this is a great show. Hopefully I can be a part of it next year.”

The more experienced Raphael Matos also missed the grid and was trying to deal with the emotions. “Oh, man. I would just say that qualifying in Indianapolis is the most stressful day. Bump Day is definitely the most stressful day. I don’t ever want to experience this again,” he said. “I’m very frustrated. Obviously, the whole team is bummed out. All we can do now is keep our heads up and regroup ourselves and go to the next one. Unfortunately, racing is like that sometimes.”

With all his years of years of experience, Paul Tracy is certainly more familiar than most with the highs and lows of motorsport, and of the heightened emotions of Indianapolis in particular. Last year he was hit with the lows after a team strategy call to withdraw a qualified time led to him missing out on the race; this year, with Dreyer & Reinbold, he set the fastest time of Bump Day.

“The waiting is stressful. Over last night and this morning, I got a fever blister on my lip. That’s how stressful it is. I don’t get them unless I’m really stressed out. That’s what Indianapolis will do to you. It’ll drive you crazy. It’ll give you the best highs and the biggest lows.

“I mean, with ’02, last year, and qualifying a lap and a half in the rain, I definitely have a flair for bringing the dramatics.”

In which case, Indianapolis is the perfect setting for Tracy, and he’ll take to the stage with the other 32 drivers who made it through nine days of gruelling, weather-afflicted practice and qualifying to take the green flag at noon local time on Sunday, May 29.

A rain-interrupted Bump Day turned into an uncomfortable family affair, as Andretti Autosport team mates were pitched against each other for Indy 500 survival.

Bump Day is known for providing tension and drama, but rarely has it delivered either to quite the degree it did this year. At one point it looked as though the series’ biggest name – Danica Patrick – wasn’t going to make it into the field; and then later, Andretti Autosport team mates were pitched against each other, with drivers making qualifying runs knowing that if they succeeded then it would cost their team mate their Indy 500 place.

It started on schedule at noon, with the field already thinned by two drivers after the announcement that Dragon Racing had withdrawn, after their second car had been wrecked in morning practice leaving them with no viable hardware to run. There was also confirmation that Sarah Fisher had no intention of putting anyone in the #57 car that they had entered, which was another potential rival for an Indy 500 grid slot removed.

That was good news to the 14 drivers still left hunting one of the remaining nine grid positions not filled on Saturday, Pole Day. But it still meant that five drivers were going to be packing up and leaving Indianapolis early when qualifying finished at the sound of a gunshot at 6pm local time.

First to go out was Dreyer & Reinbold’s Ana Beatriz followed by Ganassi junior team driver Graham Rahal, who duly completed their qualifying attempts and claimed the first two remaining nine positions on the grid.

But before the next car in the line – AFS’ Raphael Matos – could head out, a violent thunderstorm swept in and unloaded a huge quantity of water onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the crowds, teams and drivers all dived for cover and the power momentarily failed in the media centre. The storm was brief, but it left the track flooded and it took a long time for the IMS staff to get things cleaned up and ready for more qualifying runs; all the while, anxious eyes turned skywards as more showers kept bubbling up and passing close by the Speedway, anyone of which could set back the clear-up efforts.

Two hours later, the track was dry enough for qualifying efforts to resume, and for 45 minutes the cars were able to run qualification attempts: Matos first then Ryan Briscoe (still struggling in the backup car he’d been forced into after wrecking his main car on Saturday morning), Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann, Charlie Kimball, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway. Once those nine had set times, the grid was effectively filled with 33 cars – everything that followed was to be a bumping attempt.

More significantly, all the times set on Sunday were slower than the times set the previous day, thanks to the changing conditions and the thorough wash that the track had received wiping it clean of the rubber that he been laid down that had been aiding grip up until then. It meant that no one from 24th place up was in any danger of being bumped – Simona de Silvestro, who had qualified in 24th, could breath easy. The battle would be a purely Bump Day affair.

First up was the Dale Coyne Racing rookie James Jakes, who has been consistently one of the slowest people throughout the week of practice and qualifying. He didn’t disappoint, and his time failed to dislodge the driver on the bubble who was Raphael Matos. Next up was Conquest’s Sebastian Saavedra, another driver who had been set back by the loss of so much practice time because of the weather in the past week, and consequently never threatened to make it onto the grid.

Marco Andretti was next up, and he was the first driver fast enough to ‘bump’ his way onto the grid this year: his average speed of 223.688mph was enough to displace Matos – who would now have to run again – and put Andretti’s team mate Mike Conway on the bubble. Sure enough, Conway was bumped by the next runner who was Dreyer & Reinbold’s Paul Tracy who managed a 224.939mph – the fastest lap of the afternoon.

That was the end of the run through the original qualification order draw – but there had been a notable omission among the runners in the shape of Danica Patrick, who had been pulled from her original slot because of problems with the car passing technical inspection, which meant the team had needed to take it back to work on it and re-insert it at the end of the line.

It shouldn’t have been a drama, but it turned out to be one when the rain started to fall literally seconds before Danica was due to head out on track. At first it was quite light and Danica waited patiently in her car, but the rain continued and got heavier and finally the cars were taken back into Gasoline Alley. For an hour and a half, everyone waited and held their breath: what now?

If the rain persisted, then because the grid had been filled with 33 cars and everyone in the original running order had had their chance to run (it was hardly the organisers fault if the team had pulled Danica out for technical reasons, after all) then if the rain continued through to 6pm, that would be it: the grid would be locked. There would be no rollover to the Monday, no second chances for Danica. IndyCar’s biggest star and most bankable name would be out of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Surely this couldn’t be allowed to happen? Everyone filled in the idle time during the rain break with fevered speculation about what could be done, with the favoured solution being that someone who had qualified (and everyone looked pointedly in John Andretti’s direction at this point) would have to fall on their sword, step out of their car and hand it over to Danica. Ladies first?

Fortunately the rain did stop, and the track staff worked like mad to get the Speedway ready for more qualification attempts. At 4.45pm local time, Danica’s #7 finally rolled out and started its first qualification run of Bump Day.

And it was a good one – 224.861mph was the second-best speed of the day, beaten only by Paul Tracy’s run completed just before the rain had started to come down. Suddenly, from being on the brink of disaster, Danica Patrick was not only in but looking reasonably secure in the circumstances. And sure enough, she did not need to make another run for the remainder of the afternoon.

Danica’s success had bumped Dale Coyne Racing’s Alex Lloyd off the grid, and now he would have to run again; Marco Andretti was now on the bubble and at risk of being next out if anyone improved. The drivers outside the grid were Alex Lloyd, Mike Conway, Raphael Matos, James Jakes and Sebastian Saavedra. Realistically there was surely no way that Jakes or Saavedra were going to find a sudden boost in form, so it was down to Lloyd, Conway and Matos to see whether any of them could force their way onto the grid. They only had two more attempts each to try.

Matos tried, failed; Conway tried, was waved off. Saavedra tried, and amazingly the first lap (of four) was quick enough to bump Marco; but his third was well off the pace after he nearly brushed the wall in turn 2, and that was enough to lower his overall average lap speed so that this attempt too was waved off. Then Lloyd tried, but his attempt was also too slow and was waved off.

The track opened for a brief practice period while the teams still seeking to bump their way on readied their final attempts; when the qualification resumed it was Conway on track for his third and last attempt at getting onto the grid. It seemed like everyone in the Speedway was rooting or him to make it, an emotional favourite with the crowd who remembered the horrific last lap accident that ended his 2010 Indy 500 (and his entire season) so brutally. Surely the winner of last month’s Long Beach race couldn’t fail to get on the grid?

Turned out he could. And did. Mike Conway would be leaving Indianapolis early after all.

The track briefly re-opened for practice allowing Will Power, Bruno Junqueira and Dan Wheldon to turn a few extra laps, until with 20 minutes to go the remaining cars were ready to play their final hands.

James Jakes went first; he was well off. Then Saavedra, but this time he wasn’t even close – his bid for an Indy entry was done. And then Matos tried and failed, off by a full one mile per hour from bumping Marco Andretti. Down in Marco’s garage, pulses and heart rates were starting to get back under control.

And then Alex Lloyd went out, and his first lap was a 223.732 – faster than both Marco and Ryan Hunter-Reay who was next-slowest. Surely Lloyd wasn’t going to pull this off a mere five minutes before the final gun sounded? Yet his second lap was faster – 223.818; and the third faster still at 223.917. Now surely he couldn’t fail?

He didn’t. The final lap was enough to punch in an overall four-lap average of 223.957s, and Lloyd was on the grid and Marco had been bumped with only four minutes remaining before the close of qualification. He would have to charge out onto the track and try a rebuttal response, but the irony was that if he succeeded, it would be at the cost of bumping his own Andretti Autosport team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay from the Indianapolis 500.

He had to wait for James Jakes’ final effort, which was as successful as all his other runs. It meant that Marco took to the track with one minute to go, and the gun sounded while he was putting in his laps – put, as the famous Mastermind saying has it, he had started and so he could finish. It really was the last chance saloon.

Four minutes later and Marco Andretti could breath again: he’d done it, bumping his way back onto the grid with an average of 224.628mph. Ryan Hunter-Reay had no right of reply – he was out.

Michael Andretti was left looking at a team torn asunder by the day’s events: half his regular drivers (Danica and Marco) were in, while half (Ryan and Mike Conway) were out. John Andretti had made it in on Pole Day, but AFS’s Raphael Matos was out. “Probably my worst day as an owner,” said Michael at the press conference later. “Had a few worse as a driver.”

It had been a thrilling, nail-biting end to the week of rain-hampered practice, well worth the wait – and with some genuine surprises at the end.

Of the eight rookies who had come into the month of May, all but three of them had made it onto the grid completely on merit. Circumstances with Dragon Racing claimed the campaigns of Scott Speed and Ho-Pin Tung, leaving James Jakes the only rookie to fail to qualify given a genuine run.

Amazingly, all five drivers who fell on Bump Day are IndyCar series regulars, and not the ‘one-off’ drivers like Pippa Mann, Jay Howard, Bruno Junqueira, Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell, all of whom acquitted themselves extremely well.

And among the fallers are two IndyCar race winners – Mike Conway who won in Long Beach last month, and Ryan Hunter-Reay who won the same race the previous year. Both of them will now not appear on Race Day, and will be missed – but they had their chance an simply weren’t up to the job on the day, a particular shame for Mike Conway.

But with Penske and Ganassi also not doing as well as expected toward the front of the grid, and Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ Alex Tagliani on pole, it’s all promising to be a cracking centennial Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

How the starting grid for the 2011 centennial anniversary Indianapolis 500 will line up at noon on Sunday, May 29.

Alex Tagliani claimed pole position in a shortened top fine pole shootout late on Saturday afternoon for the 2011 Indianapolis 500, which saw the two Ganassi cars run short on fuel which meant Scott Dixon narrowly missed taking the pole and Dario Franchitti

A rain-interrupted Sunday qualifying session washed the track clean and help ensure that none of the top 24 qualifiers from Pole Day were troubled by the events of Bump Day, which meant that Simona de Silvestro was not required to take to the track again with her hands still painful from the burns injuries sustained on Thursday.

Bump Day was nearly rained off before Danica Patrick could make an attempt at getting into the race, but the weather cleared and she went on to set one of the fastest times of the day just behind Paul Tracy. In doing so she put her Andretti Autosports team mate Marco Andretti on the bubble, and when Alex Lloyd delivered the coup de grace an hour later Marco was forced to go out as the final gun sounded, resulting in him bumping another of the Andretti team mates – Ryan Hunter-Reay – off the grid in order to reclaim his own spot.

Row 1
1. Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt Motorsports
2. Scott Dixon Ganassi
3. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas

Row 2
4. Townsend Bell Sam Schmidt Motorsports
5. Will Power Team Penske
6. Dan Wheldon Bryan Herta Autosport

Row 3
7. Buddy Rice Panther
8. Ed Carpenter Sarah Fisher
9. Dario Franchitti Ganassi

Row 4
10. Takuma Sato KV Racing Technology
11. Vitor Meira AJ Foyt Enterprises
12. JR Hildebrand Panther

Row 5
13. James Hinchcliffe Newman/Haas
14. Bertrand Baguette Rahal Letterman Lanigan
15. Davey Hamilton Dreyer & Reinbold

Row 6
16. Helio Castroneves Team Penske
17. John Andretti Petty/Andretti
18. EJ Viso KV Racing Technology

Row 7
19. Bruno Junqueira AJ Foyt Enterprises
20. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold
21. Jay Howard Rahal/Sam Schmidt Motorsports

Row 8
22. Tomas Scheckter KV Racing Technology/SH
23. Tony Kanaan KV Racing Technology
24. Simona de Silvestro HVM

Row 9
25. Paul Tracy Dreyer & Reinbold
26. Danica Patrick Andretti Autosport
27. Ryan Briscoe Team Penske

Row 10
28. Marco Andretti Andretti Autosport
29. Charlie Kimball Ganassi
30. Graham Rahal Ganassi

Row 11
31. Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne Racing
32. Pippa Mann Conquest Racing
33. Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold

Did not qualify

Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti
Raphael MatosAFS
Mike ConwayAndretti
James JakesDale Coyne
Sebastian Saavedra Conquest
Ho-Pin TungSchmidt/Dragon
Scott SpeedDragon

Everyone assumed that the Indy 500 pole would go to Penske or Ganassi. But Alex Tagliani had different ideas and delivered the prize to Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

Alex Tagliani had been fast all week (whenever weather permitted the practice sessions to go ahead), but still no one saw him coming. Everyone just assumed the Sam Schmidt Motorsports would be brushed to one side once the big guns of Team Penske and Ganassi got serious.

In the end, Pole Day saw Penske and Ganassi get serious – only for them to fumble the ball, leaving Tagliani a very worthy if surprising pole winner for the centennial Indianapolis 500.

“I think I’ll be pinching myself until I go to bed,” said Tagliani, understandably. “I wanted this one so bad!

“It’s been an amazing team effort. We have a great group of people, and the additions with the other cars. I had good input from Townsend and Dan and it’s been nice to work as a big group this week.”

It was Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ first Indianapolis 500 pole, in his 10th year as a team owner and just months after he decided to move into IndyCar full time by buying out the FAZZT team of which Tagliani was a co-owner. “This is a reward for Sam as well,” said Tagliani. “He got involved and helped to continue it. He’s an amazing team leader and this is a great result for him. I hope there’s more to come.”

The polewinners’ celebrations to one side, it was a moment of cold, hard reflection for the big guns who had failed to fire.

Ganassi’s blunder had been the most public and the most embarrassing, when during the pole shootout they failed to give either of their two drivers – Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti – sufficient gas to get around the four laps of the Speedway that comprise a single qualification attempt. In Dixon’s case the dame was limited, with Dixon losing pace on the final lap but still maintaining a high enough overall average to take second place on the grid alongside Tagliani.

It was far worse for Franchitti, who ran out of fuel much earlier in his qualifying attempt and consequently never set a time during the pole shootout, which means he will start from ninth place having previously been sitting in third place behind Tagliani and Dixon when showers caused the curtailment of the main qualifying activity for the top 24 positions.

Small wonder, then, that Dario was seen stalking back to his trailer with his helmet on, not wanting to speak to anyone. Finally word emerged via Twitter: “Well, that sucked!! Ran out of fuel ending the 3rd lap….. Didn’t trim enough for a pole run but p3 was on… Again!!!” He did however add his congratulations to Tagliani and Sam Schmidt, as well as consoling with Dixon.

The usual format for the pole shootout had been amended by IndyCar officials on the fly after a showed cut short the main qualifying session by 23 minutes and threatened to cause the top nine pole shootout to be abandoned altogether. The track was dried with just enough time to fit it in – but limiting the drivers to just one qualification attempt each. It was this all-or-nothing late change that did for Dario.

Alongside Tagliani and Dixon on the front row next Sunday instead will be Oriol Servia for Newman/Haas Racing, showing that the team that many had believed was in terminal decline is back with a vengeance.

“The car was great. It felt better than I expected. I am just very, very happy with the car,” said Servia. “We really thought we had a shot at a decent time, but you never know – you see some guys who were expected to be super-fast who were not. So it can happen to you. The winds changes; it gets warmer. I am just really happy.”

It’s the first time since 2005 that cars from three different teams are on the front row – the first time since 2004 that a Penske Racing car didn’t qualify on the front row – and shows just how wide open the race is going to be next week. Certainly far from the Penske/Ganassi grudge match everyone had assumed.

Penske’s failure to fly was less dramatic that Ganassi’s, but still extremely surprising. Will Power is their highest-placed representative and the only one of their three drivers to make it through to the pole shootout (Helio Castroneves is back in 16th, his lowest qualifying position in 11 starts) but Power could nonetheless only manage the middle of the second row in fifth place, sandwiched between Townsend Bell and Dan Wheldon – names that no one expected to feature so highly in the running order.

Despite being a former Indy 500 winner, and finishing second in the race in the last two years, many had expected Wheldon’s return to the race in the Bryan Herta Autosport entry to struggle to even qualify, but in fact they put the big names to shame.

“To be honest, the speed is a testimony to this team,” said Dixon. “It’s not me; the guys have done a fantastic job. I know what I want from the race car, and we’re making it work. Being in a race car is what I love to do. My time off made me realize how much I love motor racing. I’m having a blast. We will be a force to be reckoned with.”

Buddy Rice and Ed Carpenter were the other drivers to get through to the top nine shootout. Carpenter was ecstatic by his success, but careful not to get carried away: “It’s great to be fact right now, but we have to keep our head in the game for the race. The competition is just so tough right now, but I think we have some confidence,” he said. “I really didn’t feel rusty at all out there. I really appreciated the fans cheering when I finished the run. At this place, that means a lot to me.”

Carpenter’s success means that the Sarah Fisher Racing team can now seriously consider running a second car in Bump Day; potential drivers said to be on stand-by for the chance include Buddy and Jacque Lazier. The team’s previous best performance in Indy 500 qualifying was 21st in 2009 with Fisher herself at the wheel.

KV-Racing Technology were also celebrating after the not-inconsiderable achievement of getting all three of their main team drivers into the top 24 positions: Takuma Sato in 10th, EJ Viso in 18th and Tony Kanaan in a rather more vulnerable 23rd – and even their collaboration with SH Racing was successful when Tomas Scheckter qualified in 22nd.

“It’s a great feeling for me to be standing here today already qualified,” enthused Sato. “Last year, we had a moment on qualifying day. This is a terrific day for us. I appreciated the effort the team as given. They have done a terrific job.”

“Those were some comfortable laps. We had a pretty stable car. I feel like we can trim the car a little bit more and find some more speed,” said Viso. “We believe we achieved what we expected. It’s been a great atmosphere with this team.”

Despite finishing in the all-important top 24, Kanaan was rather more subdued, mindful perhaps of last year’s bruising Bump Day trials and hence more aware than most that it’s not over until the chequered flag falls on Sunday evening.

“It’s not quite what we wanted. It’s been weird. We haven’t been able to find the speed, so if we’re locked into the top 24 today, I think that’s a good result for us,” he said. “And after last year, nothing surprises me about this place anymore. For me, it doesn’t matter where we start. On the first lap last year, I was 33rd. With 10 laps to go, I was second. It doesn’t really matter.”

Simona de Silvestro managed to finish in the top 24 as well, just behind Kanaan and effectively “on the bubble” going into Bump Day. Her success is all the more remarkable considering she was driving with the burn injuries to her hands sustained in a serious crash in the Thursday practice session.

“My body’s shaking. I was pretty nervous out there. We didn’t do many laps,” she said. “A day ago, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back in the car. I was really freaked out about it [especially when I was waiting to qualify] and they’re showing your crash on the screen. It’s like, ‘Really? Thanks!’

“But I think I made the right decision to get back in, and the doctors have taken really good care of me.”

It was not such a good day for other teams, with Andretti Autosport the most astonishing disaster zone on pit lane when it came to qualifying attempts. Only John Andretti – in collaboration with Richard Petty Motorsports – made the top 24, and it will be a battle for any of their four regular drivers to get in on Bump Day on current form – even Danica Patrick.

Meanwhile, Ho-Pin Tung is definitely out of the running following a heavy crash in the Dragon Racing car during his first qualifying attempt. Tung was sent to hospital for treatment, and after a CAT scan was diagnosed with a mild concussion – which automatically rules him out of high speed race cars for the next few days. It’s unknown what the team will do regarding the #8 car, which in any case was surely too badly damaged to be repaired in time for Sunday.

The team’s other driver, Scott Speed, did not take part in Pole Day after disappointing times on Fast Friday led the team to believe that more would be gained with an extra day to work on settings. There have also been rumours of rows between the driver and team, and there’s still a question whether Speed which actually take to the track on Sunday at all.

Qualifying for the Indy 500 continues tomorrow from noon until 6pm, which will first see drivers who have not yet made the grid first make qualifying attempts to fill up positions 25-33. After that, the ‘bumping’ begins, with the slowest driver on the grid deemed to be “on the bubble” and at risk of being bumped off the grid altogether by anyone not yet in the race who can set a faster time.

It certainly makes for an interesting, eventful and nailbiting day.

But Alex Tagliani will be floating above all of that. He doesn’t have to worry about anyone bumping him this year. He’ll be too busy pinching himself for the next few days instead.

Pole Day qualifying times

Pole position shoot out – top nine

1. #77 Alex Tagliani 227.472mph
2. #9 Scott Dixon 227.340mph
3. #2 Oriol Servia 227.168mph
4. #99 Townsend Bell 226.887mph
5. #12 Will Power 226.773mph
6. #98 Dan Wheldon 226.490mph
7. #44 Buddy Rice 225.786mph
8. #67 Ed Carpenter 225.121mph
9. 10 Dario Franchitti 226.379mph

Pole Day positions 10-24

(Positions set, but can sill be ‘bumped’ off the grid altogether on Sunday by faster cars)

10. #5 Takuma Sato 225.736mph
11. #14 Vitor Meira 225.590mph
12. #4 JR Hildebrand 225.579mph
13. #06 James Hinchcliffe 225.572mph
14. #30 Bertrand Baguette 225.285mph
15. #11 Davey Hamilton 225.250mph
16. #3 Helio Castroneves 225.216mph
17. #43 John Andretti 224.981mph
18. #59 EJ Viso 224.732mph
19. #41 Bruno Junqueira 224.691mph
20. #22 Justin Wilson 224.511mph
21. #88 Jay Howard 224.483mph
22. #07 Tomas Scheckter 224.433mph
23. #82 Tony Kanaan 224.417mph
24. #78T Simona de Silvestro 224.392mph

Not yet qualified

Paul TracyDreyer & Reinbold
Charlie KimballGanassi
Ana BeatrizDreyer & Reinbold
Ryan BriscoePenske
Marco AndrettiAndretti
Danica PatrickAndretti
Graham RahalGanassi
Alex LloydDale Coyne
Pippa MannConquest
Ryan Hunter-ReayAndretti
Raphael MatosAFS
Mike ConwayAndretti
James JakesDale Coyne
Sebastian SaavedraConquest
Ho-Pin TungSchmidt/Dragon

Bumped speeds

(Speeds originally in the top 24 but displaced by other improved runners)

#23 Paul Tracy 224.353mph
#83 Charlie Kimball 224.262mph
#24 Ana Beatriz 224.258mph
#78T Simona de Silvestro 224.237mph
#41 Bruno Junqueira 224.236mph
#07 Tomas Scheckter 224.117mph
#7 Danica Patrick 223.837mph
#38 Graham Rahal 223.822mph
#6T Ryan Briscoe 223.435mph
#43 John Andretti 223.393mph
#26 Marco Andretti 223.389mph
#36 Pippa Mann 223.070mph
#28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 222.951mph
#17 Raphael Matos 222.786mph
#27 Mike Conway 222.247mph
#18 James Jakes 221.846mph
#34 Sebastian Saavedra 221.526mph

Failed attempts

(Speeds that did not make it into the top 24)

#6T Ryan Briscoe 224.134mph
#26 Marco Andretti 224.074mph
#7 Danica Patrick 223.831mph
#26 Marco Andretti 223.691mph
#78T Simona de Silvestro 223.681mph
#6T Ryan Briscoe 223.644mph

Waved off/No Attempt

(Runs aborted before completion)

#19 Alex Lloyd 223.759mph
#19 Alex Lloyd 223.564mph
#43 John Andretti 223.014mph
#18 James Jakes 220.638mph
#36 Pippa Mann 220.000mph
#38 Graham Rahal No time
#83 Charlie Kimball No time
#77 Alex Tagliani 226.954mph
#9 Scott Dixon 226.701mph
#98 Dan Wheldon 226.300mph
#99 Townsend Bell 226.277mph
#67 Ed Carpenter 226.171mph
#12 Will Power 226.089mph
#2 Oriol Servia 225.775mph
#44 Buddy Rice 225.746mph
#10 Dario Franchitti 227.043mph
#8 Ho-Pin Tung 224.340mph

Field Average: 225.595 mph





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