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2011 IndyCar Honda GP of Alabama (Rd 2, April 10th)

April 13, 2011

© Creative Commons / Will Pittenger

IZOD IndyCar Honda GP of Alabama (Round 2)
Will Power took his first IndyCar win of the 2011 season and also the points lead following a dominant display at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

The Penske driver led from flag to flag as he laid down his championship marker and although Power held the lead for the duration, Chip Ganassi’s Scot Dixon kept the Australian honest throughout.
Although the event was certainly more exciting than last year’s race, numerous full course cautions dragged the pace of the Grand Prix down to a slow grind.Those in attendance did not have to wait long for the first stoppage. As Power shot away from his well earned pole position, Raphael Matos (AFS) and JR Hildebrand banged wheels pitching the former off the circuit. Feeling the severe understeer, Hildebrand would eventually pit for a new nose on the ninth tour.
IndyCar débutante James Hinchcliffe (Newman-Haas) also spun separately and with little hesitation, the first full course caution was engaged.

Amongst the melee, KV Racing’s Tony Kanaan made a stunning start – the Brazilian veteran qualified a lowly 24th, yet had gained ten spots prior to the fifth turn. Hinchcliffe’s Newman-Haas partner, Oriol Servia, also got off the line well, with a jump to 4th from the third row.
It wasn’t all clean for Ganassi wunderkind Graham Rahal. An off track excursion exiting turn one, left the American fighting for grip and lowly positions – it would be just the start of a troubling day for Rahal.

Rookie Trouble
The yellow was brief and by the fourth circulation of the leafy Alabama circuit, the race was go again, staying green despite a spin from rookie James Jakes. The Dale Coyne runner beached himself softly into the turn one gravel trap, losing a lap as he was restarted.
Regardless, it would still be a shortened day for the Briton – following his restart, the oil pressure lights on his dashboard displayed worrying signals. By the 30th lap, Jakes’ car sat motionless in the pitlane – its pilot frustrated by lost track time.

Whereas Jakes fell off the radar, Conquest’s Sebastian Saavedra was on the move. The Colombian qualified his Honda-powered Dallara last, but had assumed seven spots by the 5th lap. EJ Viso (KV Racing) and Sebastien Bourdais (Dale Coyne Racing) were also on the charge early, having moved to 16th and 17th in the initial stages.
However, Saavedra’s day would not end with such a positive note. As the laps passed, his Conquest machine developed a sick note and the Colombia stuttered to a halt on the back section of the circuit 27 laps in.

Takuma Sato race day also resembled something of a yo-yo in action. The Japanese driver planted his KV Racing machine 11th on the grid and as the race began to age, Sato grew with confidence, eventually joining the top ten on the 26th lap following a move on Rahal.
That confidence was soon to dissipate – eyeing up a potential 9th spot, the KV racer threw his Dallara down the inside of Helio Castroneves (Penske) at the tempting fifth turn. Wheels bashed briefly as understeer grabbed Sato, sending him into a polite spin. After a solid start, Sato emerged from the incident undamaged, albeit down in 15th.
Castroneves was also slightly damaged, but his bruise (torn front wing endplate) came earlier in the event – he too was showing signs of understeer.

Power, meanwhile, kept plugging and pulling away from Briscoe. An effortless start saw the Australian eke out a small lead from his teammate – a lead that was five seconds when the pair pitted on lap 29 (Briscoe) and lap 32 (Power).
For Power, even the pitstops were effortless – Briscoe and his crew were not so swift and as the field sorted itself out, the Penske stronghold had been infiltrated by Dixon. Briscoe – now 3rd – had the attentions of Dario Franchitti (Ganassi) upon his rear.

Indeed, it had been something of an anonymous weekend for the St Petersburg victor. Having started 7th, the Scot made moves beyond Castroneves, Justin Wilson (Dreyer & Reinbold) and Oriol Servia in his Newman-Haas machine; however even Franchitti had no answer for Power’s pace.

As if things were not bad enough for Rahal, the day was getting worse for the American. The Ganassi driver had qualified 10th, but a poor early stint leaving him 15th by the lap 36, when he chanced upon the lapped Hildebrand.
An ill-considered attempt to lap the Panther runner at turn five, saw Rahal slam into Hildebrand’s sidepod, causing the Panther car to spin Rahal for his trouble received slight suspension damage. Following a long stop, Rahal rejoined the race, albeit three laps behind. Realistically, the Ganassi was nowhere near close enough to try such a move – another lesson for Rahal to take into the future.

Yellow after yellow after yellow..
Rahal probably would have lost more laps had it not been for a full course caution, although this was brought on by a spinning Alex Tagliani rather than anything Rahal did.
Coming to the end of his 37th lap, the Canadian lost the rear of his Sam Schmidt Motorsport machine, stalling his car just off the racing line. Yellow. Until that point, Tagliani had run a canny race on the edges of the top twelve.

The yellow was brief – only four laps, but then so was the following green flag stint. As the field ran double-file into the opening curve, Franchitti banged wheels with Briscoe, but it was enough to give the Scot the advantage and 3rd place – Briscoe would drop to 5th behind the silent, but solid Servia.
Before the Penske runner had any opportunity to retake his lost places, Viso was tapped into a spin by Simona de Silvestro (HVM) into turn five. Spinning his wheels hard to keep his motor running, Hinchcliffe clipped Viso’s left rear with his left rear, eliminated both on the spot. Yellow (again). De Silvestro in the meantime would pit once again.

Racing returned momentarily on lap 46, only for the yellows to returns once again. In old adage, yellows breed yellows and this certainly seemed to be the case at Barber, as the Andretti-Autosport pair of Danica Patrick and Mike Conway collected eachother exiting the second turn. Whereas Patrick escaped with just dimmed acceleration, Conway was pitched hard into the Armco.
Within a few hundred yards, Sato connected with Wilson’s rear, damaging Sato’s front wing and giving Wilson a puncture.

There would follow a short spell of racing once the green flew on lap 50, although Servia probably wished it had stayed yellow. The Spaniard dropped to 7th in the swift stint, with the Andretti-Autosport pairing of Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay fighting their way passed the Newman-Haas runner.
Andretti would also take Briscoe, but Hunter-Reay’s attempt on the Penske was rather more clumsy. Seeing an impossible gap on the approach to the turn 7/8 chicane, Hunter-Reay launched over the kerbs, spearing Briscoe’s sidepod.
With his suspension damaged in the resulting spin, Briscoe’s day was done. Hunter-Reay escaped damage, but did receive a penalty for his troubles, dropping him to 18th.

Patrick Takes a Gamble
As the counter registered 59 completed tours, the yellows emerged again, encouraging much of the field to pit once more. Unlike those around her, Patrick took just fuel feeling her Firestone’s would last the distance.
It was a brave tactic that gave her 3rd spot behind the Power / Dixon battle, but would backfire as the race wore on and her ageing tyres wore out. Nothing venture, nothing gained – or lost. Until then, it had been a credible performance from the part-time NASCAR Nationwide pilot – after starting 22nd, an understated run brought Patrick into the top-ten.

Green flags flew again come lap 63 – and again the race would be neutralised several corners later. Once again, it was turn five, but this time Wilson locked wheels with Matos – as the dust settled, both Dallara’s were wounded beyond repair.
In the time it took to get from the start / finish to the end of the lap, Patrick had already fallen behind Franchitti, Andretti and Servia leaving the American precariously in 6th.

Come the next restart on the 69th lap, Patrick’s strategy began to falter as her tyres ebbed away. Lacking the necessary traction, the Andretti-Autosport driver dropped down the order, as first Kanaan got by (lap 72) and then Castroneves (lap 75). By the time Dreyer and Reinbold substitute Simon Pagenaud slotted passed Patrick, the strategy had unravelled.
Indeed Pagenaud was having a quiet, but positive day. The former-Champ Car driver had been drafted in to replace the injured Ana Beatriz, impressing first time out. Having started the day in 23rd, the Frenchman had steadily moved up to 8th place by the 75th tour.

As the laps ticked away, Patrick was in big trouble. Soon de Silvestro and Charlie Kimball were also through (both lap 76), with Bourdais dumping Patrick outside the top-ten a lap later. By the time the Andretti-Autosport crew brought her in for new tyres on lap 84, Patrick had already descended to 16th position.
Bourdais for his troubles would blot his own copybook in a wheel-banging move on Sato, that would leave Sato lingering in 15th spot. A late, late splash ‘n’ dash pitstop for the KV Racer would eventually drop him to 16th.

Super Power
Yet amongst all this minor chaos, Will Power ‘powered’ on. After the final yellow, the Australian made small gains out front, but it was more than enough – as solid as Scott Dixon was today, the Ganassi pilot simply had no answer for Power’s might.

At times Dixon applied pressure – realistically though, this race was Power’s and deservedly so. The pair exchanged words after the race, with Dixon accusing his Penske foe of blocking heavily and chopping the Ganassi driver off at the restarts; however chief steward Brian Barnhart saw no reason to investigate the claims.
Dario Franchitti was not quite as persuasive today. Although the Scot did jump from 7th to 3rd during the event, it was not with the usual panache that the three-time IndyCar champion normally exudes.

Marco Andretti and Oriol Servia both did solid jobs to secure top five finishes, but the real mover was Tony Kanaan. Having started down in 24th, the Brazilian tore through the field to claim 6th, leaving him 3rd in the title hunt.
Helio Castroneves took 7th with an uninspired drive. The same could not be said for Simon Pagenaud – the Dreyer & Reinbold substitute made his way through the pack with little fanfare, but did so with pace and consistency.
Simona de Silvestro took 9th to add to her big score at St Petersburg, while Charlie Kimball picked up his first top ten finish in only his second race.
Sebastien Bourdais assumed 11th in his IndyCar series début, while, Vitor Meira gave his entry further good points with a run to 12th place. JR Hildebrand and Ryan Hunter-Reay took 13th and 14th respectively following their days in the wars.

Although certainly not a spectacular race, it was an interesting one, yet much of its appeal was lost in the spate of mid-race cautions.
But…. for this level of racing, there were simply far too many silly mistakes and stupid half-hearted moves for position – again a nod to the fact that double-file restarts are not the problem. The drivers are.
Race Rating: 2 out of 5

Results - 90 laps:

Pos Driver Team Time/Gap
 1.  Will Power           Penske             2h14m42.9523s
 2.  Scott Dixon          Ganassi                + 3.3828s
 3.  Dario Franchitti     Ganassi               + 15.5243s
 4.  Marco Andretti       Andretti              + 28.9601s
 5.  Oriol Servia         Newman/Haas           + 29.8817s
 6.  Tony Kanaan          KV                    + 30.3853s
 7.  Helio Castroneves    Penske                + 30.7807s
 8.  Simon Pagenaud       Dreyer & Reinbold     + 31.2095s
 9.  Simona de Silvestro  HVM                   + 32.5812s
10.  Charlie Kimball      Ganassi               + 35.0038s
11.  Sebastien Bourdais   Dale Coyne            + 35.9883s
12.  Vitor Meira          Foyt                  + 42.6440s
13.  JR Hildebrand        Panther               + 44.2950s
14.  Ryan Hunter-Reay     Andretti            + 1m00.7427s
15.  Alex Tagliani        Sam Schmidt         + 1m10.6879s
16.  Takuma Sato          KV                  + 1m12.1719s
17.  Danica Patrick       Andretti                 + 1 lap
18.  Graham Rahal         Ganassi                 + 2 laps
Retirements:
     Justin Wilson        Dreyer & Reinbold        62 laps
     Raphael Matos        AFS                      62 laps
     Ryan Briscoe         Penske                   57 laps
     Mike Conway          Andretti                 45 laps
     EJ Viso              KV                       40 laps
     James Hinchcliffe    Newman/Haas              40 laps
     James Jakes          Dale Coyne               30 laps
     Sebastian Saavedra   Conquest                 27 laps

2011 IZOD IndyCar Series (Round 2)
 1 Will Power           Penske                  94 points
 2 Dario Franchitti     Ganassi                 87
 3 Tony Kanaan          KV Racing               63
 4 Scott Dixon          Ganassi                 54
 5 Simona de Silvestro  HVM                     54
 6 Oriol Servia         Newman-Haas             52
 7 Marco Andretti       Andretti-Autosport      44
 8 Takuma Sato          KV Racing               44
 9 Alex Tagliani        Sam Schmidt Motorsport  43
10 Vitor Meira          Foyt Enterprises        42
11 Helio Castroneves    Penske                  38
12 Raphael Matos        AFS                     38

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