And so it is down to the wire. The IndyCar Series ran its 16th race of 17 early this morning (very early in my case) in front of a very healthy crowd and good runs for both title contenders – Will Power (Penske) and Dario Franchitti (Ganassi) – means the Championship will run right to the wire once again.
Power entered this race with a 17-point advantage and the possibility to wrap it all up should it go wrong for Franchitti, but by the drop of the chequered flag, the Ganassi driver had gotten just a little bit closer. However this day belonged to one of the other Penske drivers, Helio Castroneves.
The Brazilian had secured his second pole position of the season (the first being Indianapolis) and on race day in Japan, Castroneves ran off into the distance claiming the victory, fastest lap and most laps led – it was quite simply an awe inspiring drive in a race that stuttered with caution periods aplenty. The third Penske of Ryan Briscoe took to the outside of the first row, while the title fighting had the second row all to themselves.
As the green flag flew on what was one of the hottest IndyCar races in recent history, Castroneves shot off into the distance, while Power dipped down to 5th behind Franchitti and Marco Andretti in his Andretti-Autosport machine. Power’s nosedive through the standings was halted in dramatic fashion – as the field swung through the exit of turn 2 on the second lap; all, that is, except Bertrand Baguette. The Conquest Racing driving appeared to lose his rear end midway through the turn and his the turn 2 SAFER barrier very hard, ripping off part of the rear end in the process – the Belgian seemed puzzled, lamenting that “…I don’t know really what happened. I lost it out of (turn) 2 without any reasons…”
Almost immediately, the safety car appeared. With nothing much to lose, Paul Tracy, Alex Tagliani, Simona de Silvestro, Justin Wilson and series returnee Roger Yasukawa took this chance to pit and top up with fuel. Unfortunately for Tagliani, the FAZZT racer was found to be speeding in the pitlane and was duly sent to the back of the pack.
The green flew again on lap 11 and once again Castroneves jumped into a commanding lead. Behind the Brazilian, a wonderful battle was unfolding as both Briscoe and Franchitti charged eachother hard, swapping 2nd place amongst themselves for several laps. Power meanwhile had fallen to 6th behind the Andretti-Autosport car of Tony Kanaan.
The early signs for the four-car Andretti-Autosport team were somewhat positive, with their other drivers – Danica Patrick and Ryan Hunter-Reay – running in the top ten with no problems.
No problems. That was exactly what Castroneves was having. With 30 laps under his belt, the three-time Indy 500 winner had 2.5 second cushion over Briscoe, who had now pulled a small gap over 3rd place Franchitti. No one else was even in the picture. Castroneves’ lead became 3.8 seconds by lap 39 when Franchitti jumped ahead of Briscoe and into 2nd place. Will Power also had a moment; a wiggle caused the Australian to be swallowed by traffic as he fell to the fringes of the top ten.
Seconds later, the next full course yellow came out and Helio’s commanding lead had evaporated. As the field slowed, it became clear that the Dale Coyne machine of Alex Lloyd had hit problems and was considerable slow on the back stretch – his throttle linkage broken. Unable to make it back to the pits, the 2007 Indy Lights Champion found himself being towed back to the pits for repairs. Lloyd would return to the action on lap 62, albeit a 15 laps behind the leaders.
With the pits open, the pack crawled in and although Castroneves led the way out, a change directly behind him saw Briscoe grab 2nd back off of Franchitti.
Racing got under way again on lap 49 and with incredible repetition, Castroneves began to streak away at the front, pulling out 1.5 seconds within a few laps of the stint. Castroneves would continue to streak away until his progress was dented yet again on the 67th tour – another full course caution.
This time it was the KV Racing machine driven by Mario Moraes that brought out the yellows. As his Dallara flew through the second turn, his suspension appeared to give way, pitching the Brazilian very hard into the SAFER barrier. It would be a long caution as Moraes sought medical attention for back pain and needed to be carefully lifted from his car; however reports from the hospital have since declared him in good condition, if a little sore. In the meantime, the pitlane readied itself for activity once again, with most of the field pitting – apart from Raphael Matos (de Ferran/Dragon Racing) and Hideki Mutoh (Newman/Haas Racing), both of whom would circle in 1st and 2nd respectively under caution.
The leading pair got a big break when the green flag waved again on the beginning of lap 77 – Castroneves (now in 3rd following his stop) very nearly lost the rear of his Penske while exiting the final corner. The loss of momentum gave Matos and Mutoh some much needed breathing room, but also allowed Briscoe to surge passed his team mate, but not before Franchitti swallowed both of them to assume 3rd spot – Castroneves now found himself in 5th position and fighting off the attentions of Patrick.
Franchitti himself would lose out shortly afterwards. With the lead in his sights, Ryan Briscoe grabbed 3rd position from the Scot (lap 82), before taking 2nd away from Mutoh (lap 85). The Australian then assumed the lead from Matos on lap 87. In the mess of overtaking, Castroneves also took both Franchitti and Mutoh to move into the top-3 and eventually swooped by Matos for 2nd (lap 96). Not far behind this group, Power, Kanaan and Scott Dixon (Ganassi) were fighting hard over 7th, 8th and 9th positions – with Dixon winning that particular battle. As for Matos and Mutoh, both eventually lost their strategy gamble, as first Matos took to the pits on lap 102, with Mutoh stopping for fuel and tyres a lap later – both would find themselves lapped and out of the running in 18th and 19th positions respectively.
Simona de Silvestro was another driver whose race turned sour just after the mid-point, although one could argue that it had been a difficult weekend non-stop for the HVM driver. Already 11 laps down after five long stops, a constant vibration at her front end proved to be too much and the car was parked for the day.
While the race drew to an early close for the ‘Swiss Miss’, things were only just beginning to hot up at the front. Briscoe at one point held a 1.5 second advantage over Castroneves, yet by lap 106, this was already down to half-a-second as the Brazilian drew ever closer. Inch-by-inch, Castroneves pulled himself towards the rear wing of his team mate, but with a shudder his advance was halted yet again – turn 2 had claimed another victim, this time the veteran Paul Tracy. This incident was minus the damage inflicted upon Baguette and Moraes, as the Canadian simple scoured the outside barrier, but it was enough to destroy his suspension – Tracy was out and so were the yellow flags.
Once again pitstops were on the cards and this time everyone pitted and with supreme efficiency, the crews turned their respective machines around – some better than others though – Castroneves jumped Briscoe to once again claim the lead.
For once, the yellow period was brief and green flag conditions resumed on lap 121. As if written in stone, Helio tore away from the pack, but Franchitti was not so willing to let Briscoe get clear – within one lap, the Scot had swallowed up Briscoe and claimed 2nd spot, but even Franchitti had nothing for Castroneves. By lap 135, the Penske had nearly 3 seconds on his Ganassi rival.
Briscoe, meanwhile found he had a fired-up Danica Patrick on his tail. The Motegi race-winner from 2008 started 12th, but had fought way through the field and was running a solid 4th, just ahead of the continuing Dixon/Kanaan/Power battle for 5th.
With almost predictable timing, the Castroneves’ surge was brought to a standstill once again. The Penske driver had pulled close to 4 seconds out on Franchitti, when Alex Lloyd hit the wall at the exit of turn 2 with a sickening thud – the Dale Coyne driver lost his right front suspension in the middle of the corner, plunging him into the SAFER barrier nearly head on. Remarkably, the 25-year-old climbed out of his Dallara almost immediately with no problems.
This time the safety crew stayed out for quite a long time, as parts of Lloyd’s car had wedged themselves underneath the barrier; while they were being removed, the field pitted for the final time. While Castroneves maintained the lead, Briscoe beat Franchitti out of the pits to claim 2nd spot – or so we thought. Upon inspection, Franchitti had only just inched his way ahead of the Penske at the pit exit line and Briscoe was ordered to give 2nd back to the Ganassi driver. Power meanwhile, jumped to 4th with a stunning stop from his crew.
The green flag flew for the final time on lap 168 as (again) Castroneves took advantage of a clear track to take a commanding lead ahead of Franchitti – today the Scot simply had no answer. With Power running 4th, Briscoe let his team mate through into 3rd position “out of courtesy”, leaving Power to charge after his Championship rival. Danica Patrick was one of the runners that Power had jumped in the stops and Wisconsin native was ever eager to get her top-4 place back, as she engaged Briscoe in a fight to the flag.
Two of Patrick’s Andretti-Autosport team mates were still in a battle with Scott Dixon for lower positions, as the Ganassi man fought Kanaan and Hunter-Reay over 6th spot. The final Andretti-Autosport driver, Marco Andretti, was losing his battle for 10th spot with Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon – both of whom had virtually invisible races.
None these concerned Castroneves one little bit. As the laps ticked down, the gap to Franchitti got larger and larger – 1.7 seconds on lap 177, 2.4 seconds three laps later and then 3.5 seconds by lap 189. Unsurprisingly, Franchitti had other things on his mind – once released by Briscoe, Power tailgated Franchitti for the final 30 laps, looking for a gap, searching for a space or even a mistake. None were to come. Although the gap between the two title protagonists was a paper thin 0.3 of-a-second, Power just did not have enough to slip by. Even when the pair blocked slightly while lapping Milka Duno, Franchitti maintained both his composure and 2nd place.
When they did eventually cross the line and take the chequered flag, Franchitti had done enough to stay ahead of Power, but neither were even close to Helio Castroneves.
Afterwards, an admittedly jubilant Helio Castroneves celebrated his 25th IndyCar win, but this late-year run must bring into question his early season form. As the title contenders fought gallantly amongst themselves in the final stages, Castroneves simply tore off into the distance claiming his third win of the year by 4.5 seconds – on this day, nothing was going to touch him.
Ryan Briscoe secured a Penske/Ganassi 1-2-3-4 result, but Danica Patrick brought her Andretti-Autosport home in 5th place ahead of the final “Big-Two” car, driven by Scott Dixon. This was Patrick’s 32nd consecutive race finish and is enough to maintain her 11th spot in the Championship standings.
Dixon’s battle with Tony Kanaan went to line, with the veteran Kanaan claiming 7th, but a late race dash by Graham Rahal brought him a very good 8th place. Hunter-Reay fell to 9th in the final few laps, finishing only 0.2 of-a-second ahead of Wheldon at the line – the final Andretti-Autosport car with Marco Andretti was 11th at the flag. Takuma Sato ran to a solid, if unspectacular 12th in his first race in Japan since his outing at Suzuka in 2007, as he just followed Andretti across the line.
Alex Tagliani recovered from his early penalty to lead a gaggle of cars across the line – the Canadian took 13th spot in front of Mutoh (14th), EJ Viso (15th), Justin Wilson (16th) and Vitor Meira (17th), all of whom were separated by mere tenths-of-a second. After leading during the race, Raphael Matos faded late-on, claiming 18th position across the line.
There were only two other finishers as Milka Duno ran a quiet, but credible race to be classified 19th (3 laps down) and series returnee Roger Yasukawa was the last to take the flag in 20th spot, albeit five laps adrift.
With only one race to run, Franchitti is now only 12 points behind Will Power in the Championship battle with 53 points available, something that should make for yet another exciting decider. However, with Power claiming his first oval podium of his career, surely he is the one heading to Homestead brimming with confidence – Franchitti was able to claim the oval trophy at Motegi, but that seemed to be at the back of his mind.
His recent string of results means that Castroneves has now jumped to 3rd in the points battle ahead of Scott Dixon, while both Ryan Briscoe (5th) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (6th) trail the Kiwi by a virtually unattainable distance.
This was not an amazing race by any stretch of the imagination but there was enough going to keep one more than occupied. Next up is Miami on October 2nd – where the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series will be decided.
Race Rating: 2.5 out of 5
IZOD IndyCar Motegi 300 (Round 16)
1. Helio Castroneves Team Penske 2h04m04.4780s
2. Dario Franchitti Ganassi Racing + 4.5746s
3. Will Power Team Penske + 5.0743s
4. Ryan Briscoe Team Penske + 6.4825s
5. Danica Patrick Andretti-Autosport + 7.6057s
6. Scott Dixon Ganassi Racing + 8.3641s
7. Tony Kanaan Andretti-Autosport + 9.4093s
8. Graham Rahal Newman/Haas + 11.7163s
9. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti-Autosport + 12.2125s
10. Dan Wheldon Panther Racing + 12.4720s
11. Marco Andretti Andretti-Autosport + 15.5007s
12. Takuma Sato KV Racing + 16.0693s
13. Alex Tagliani FAZZT Racing + 17.6774s
14. Hideki Mutoh Newman/Haas + 18.2811s
15. EJ Viso KV Racing + 18.7349s
16. Justin Wilson Dreyer and Reinbold + 19.4293s
17. Vitor Meira AJ Foyt Enterprises + 20.1047s
18. Raphael Matos De Ferran/Dragon Racing + 21.2346s
19. Milka Duno Dale Coyne + 3 laps
20. Roger Yasukawa Conquest Racing + 5 laps
R. Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne + 69 laps (contact)
R. Paul Tracy Dreyer and Reinbold + 86 laps (contact)
R. Simona de Silvestro HVM + 115 laps (mechanical)
R. Mario Moraes KV Racing + 134 laps (contact)
R. Bertrand Baguette Conquest Racing + 199 laps (contact)
IZOD IndyCar Series (Round 16)
1. Will Power Team Penske 587 points
2. Dario Franchitti Ganassi Racing 575
3. Helio Castroneves Team Penske 501
4. Scott Dixon Ganassi Racing 497
5. Ryan Briscoe Team Penske 450
6. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti-Autosport 426
7. Tony Kanaan Andretti-Autosport 418
8. Dan Wheldon Panther Racing 366