Under blistering Californian sun, Mike Conway scored the first victory of his IndyCar career on the famous streets of Long Beach.
The Andretti-Autosport pilot made a late race burst through the top six to assume the lead in what was a largely processional event – a race that could so easily have belonged to Penske’s Ryan Briscoe.
Power Leading the Way
Neither Conway nor Briscoe led the early running though – that honour belonged to polesitter, Will Power. The Australian got away very well at the green flag, leading from Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti-Autosport), Conway, Oriol Servia (Newman-Haas) and Justin Wilson (Dreyer & Reinbold) in the early going; however the trailing group kept Power honest for several laps.
For a time, Briscoe did not even feature – having qualified in 12th, the Sydney native found himself mired in the pack for lap after lap and was unable to get by Newman-Haas rookie, James Hinchcliffe in 11th.
There were minor gains at the rear of the field with Dale Coyne’s Sebastien Bourdais climbing two spots to 19th by the fifth tour, yet beyond that, the status quo played out and the field became strung out.
Panther’s JR Hildebrand also moved up two places as moved from last to 25th, although the American received some little help from Ana Beatriz, who embarrassingly spun on the warm-up lap.
Another driver to spin was Wilson – although this spin was not of his doing. The Briton was running 5th until the 24th lap, when he was tipped around by Helio Castroneves at the final hairpin.
Anticipating a full course caution, Briscoe, Conway, Alex Tagliani (Sam Schmidt Motorsport) and Tony Kanaan (KV Racing) darted for the pits, cycling the trio to the rear of the pack – it would change the course of the race, with the race staying active as Wilson got going again.
For Tagliani and Kanaan – who had spent the race circling around the tail end of the top ten – this was needed to break the mould of the race.
Feeling the Chrome Horn
Whereas a mishap would see both Conway and Kanaan need to stop again shortly afterward, Briscoe emerged cleanly from the pits. Initially, it appeared to be a disastrous decision; however it turned to gold almost immediately, thanks to another spin in the final turn.
This time it was Simona de Silvestro rear-ended by an overzealous Paul Tracy – with the HVM runner stalled, the full course yellow flew. For his part, Tracy would earn a drive through penalty – a punishment exacerbated as he broke the speed limit in the pitlane, this time garnering a stop/go.
As the race neutralised, the rest of the field poured into the pits for tyres and fuel, bringing Briscoe to the fore behind Alex Tagliani, while Conway and Kanaan lingered in 23rd and 25th respectively.
The joy was somewhat short-lived for Tagliani – while the Canadian peddled his Honda-powered Dallara around the Long Beach circuit on hard Firestone rubber, those directly behind would be on softs.
Come the green flag, Tagliani would be a sitting duck; however the Sam Schmidt pilot would have to wait a little longer than usual for the race to get going again. Normally, it would not require six laps to recover a spun car – on this occasion the caution was slightly more complicated.
An Unusual Crash
While the pack received new rubber and ethanol, Andretti-Autosport’s Marco Andretti squeezed and then collided with Bourdais as they closed in on the pitlane exit. An unbelievable accident to see in this day and age – and oddly reminiscent of an accident that Michael Andretti (Marco’s father) had with Emerson Fittipaldi at Long Beach twenty years previously.
Once the race restarted on lap 32, Tagliani was easy meat for those behind. Although the tyres would last a little longer, the lack of grip his Firestone’s offered would see the Canadian fall backward.
As soon as Briscoe had forced his way into the lead on the green flag lap, the doors were open for others to follow suit. As Tagliani struggled, Hunter-Reay became racey, taking both Power and Tagliani in short succession to line up in 2nd, chasing down Briscoe, although by the end of the 34th tour, Power regained 3rd as Tagliani slipped further down the leaderboard.
Behind the Sam Schmidt pilot sat Castroneves. It had been a difficult season for the veteran Brazilian, now gaining an unwelcome reputation for punting competitors out of the way – Long Beach was no better for the Penske driver.
Although he had already escaped a penalty for hitting Wilson, the Brazilian was not having s stellar day, as his top five spot masked something of a blank drive. Unlike those ahead, Castroneves had no answer for Tagliani – once again the order appeared to be set.
Behind the Penske, there was also a static order – indeed title favourite Dario Franchitti “enjoyed” a prime view of Castroneves’ rear while 6th spot. As the Scot passed through, he was followed by Servia (7th), Scott Dixon (8th, Ganassi), Hinchcliffe (9th), Vitor Meira (10th, Foyt Enterprises) and EJ Viso (11th, KV Racing).
Moving on Through
Conway, meanwhile, had no bones about moving up the order. From the near the back, the Manchester pilot had already reached 20th by lap 33, before taking 19th a few laps later and was knocking on the door of the top fifteen as the 50 lap mark approached. In a further ten laps, Conway had broken into the top twelve.
With the second round of pitstops just beyond that point, fortunes were bound to change for a few.
With the second round of stops closing in, Briscoe pulled out a four-second gap over Hunter-Reay, with Power lagging a further second behind and come lap 57, Briscoe was the first to bite the bullet. It gave Hunter-Reay a temporary lead before he stopped two laps later, while Power pitted on the 60th tour.
As Briscoe circulated, Hunter-Reay closed the gap, only for Power to jump the Andretti-Autosport pilot – in the blink of an eyelid; Penske had retaken the first two positions.
KV Racing’s co-owner, Jimmy Vasser, must at this stage be wishing for a similar result; alas Viso was not going to provide it for him – sadly, yet another broken Dallara was their Long Beach reward. The Venezuelan had attempted a move around the outside of Andretti-Autosport’s Danica Patrick; however as Viso squeezed Patrick, the pair bumped wheels sending the KV car hard into the barrier.
Surprisingly, the race stayed green, but not for long as the race was neutralised once again – on this occasion, a smash at the far end of the circuit halted proceedings as Wilson’s Dreyer & Reinbold machine snapped away, slamming a tyre barrier.
It would be the end of a difficult day for the Englishman, whose tough start to 2011 continues apace. Wilson would eventually rejoin following repairs, albeit several laps adrift.
The emergence of the green on lap 67 was swift, only for it to be withdrawn just as quickly. It was, if anything, a lap of sheer calamity around Long Beach.
Starting with Castroneves, the Brazilian battled with Servia into the first turn for 4th spot, only to slide into the rear of team mate Power. Maintaining his guile, Servia spun to miss the pirouetting Penske’s, only to be clipped by Dixon as he rejoined – Servia escaped unharmed, but Dixon dragged his hobbling Ganassi to the pits for repairs.
While one Ganassi limped, another was also in the wars – chasing down KV Racing’s Takuma Sato was Graham Rahal. The American had been running on the periphery of the top twelve throughout the day after starting 16th; however on this restart, Rahal was not a clean, sliding into the rear of Sato’s Lotus-sponsored machine.
Rahal, carrying a wounded front wing and punctured tyre pitted swiftly – Sato, on the other hand, slid helplessly into the turn four barrier, his rear tyre slashed…
Ironically, just as Sato settled into the barrier, the Japanese pilot would be collected in a completely separate crash only moments later. Upon the exit of turn three, Conquest’s Sebastian Saavedra connected with another Ganassi runner, Charlie Kimball.
Luckily for Saavedra, his Dallara slid into the run off area – he would lose positions, but nothing else; Kimball, however, hit the rear of Sato, as his engine gave its final breath.
As the dust settled, yellow flags were waving across the course and once again, a status quo was in action. For their troubles Power dropped to 15th, Saavedra to 16th, Rahal to 17th, yet all stayed on the lead lap, unlike Sato who lost four laps stuck in the tyres.
Controversially, Castroneves fell to 14th place, but was adjudged to have lost enough positions to not warrant a penalty.
Green conditions returned on lap 70 with Briscoe ahead of Hunter-Reay, Franchitti, Tagliani, Hinchcliffe and Conway across the line and while the leading trio held station, Conway was already making his moves.
In fact, by turn 1 he had moved to 6th – a poor restart from Tagliani saw Hinchcliffe take the Sam Schmidt racer, while Conway squeezed between both of them!!
That would become 3rd with a move on Franchitti a few turns later and 2nd as Hunter-Reay’s gearbox gave up on the back stretch, taking the American out of the race. It was a deeply frustrating moment for the Long Beach winner from last year – a solid race would deliver little in 2011.
Conway, however, would not be stopped as he danced his Dallara around the tight and twisty circuit – the lead would not be kept from him for long and come the 71st tour, Conway seize the initiative and an open door to push passed Briscoe.
From here on in, no one would have an answer. For the remaining fourteen laps, Mike Conway pulled out a six second gap, only relaxing when he had done just enough.
During what was a sterling performance that saw the Englishman hold a solid top-three position, dipping to the rear in the early stages, before pulling himself back up through the order with precision and guile, nothing was going to stop Conway on this day.
An incredible feat when one remembers his frightening accident at Indianapolis last year and the long recovery from his injuries.
Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti secured 2nd and 3rd places respectively, although the pairing cut it fine – despite being some way behind Conway at the flag, the pair finished only 0.4 of-a-second apart. Briscoe can take some consolidation in garnering the bonus for most laps led, but when the victory falls away like that in the late stages, disappointment can still mount.
Franchitti had a quiet day by his standards. While never completely out of the picture, the three-time IndyCar Champion looking like threatening for the lead, which is something of a rarity. The podium finish was still enough to lift Franchitti to the top of the points standings.
James Hinchcliffe pulled off one of the surprise results of the day. In only his second IndyCar event, the Canadian took 4th spot after showing excellent pace previously at Barber.
Alex Tagliani made it two Canadians in the top-five as he brought his Sam Schmidt machine home ahead of Oriol Servia (Newman-Haas). The Spaniard recovered slowly to 6th after losing half dozen positions as he avoided the Castroneves/Power affair, leaving Servia a good fourth in the points.
Danica Patrick enjoyed a stellar day in her Andretti-Autosport machine. Her steady, no-frills approach to street racing serving her well, as she took 7th, despite starting on the tenth row.
In a late race fight to the flag, Patrick kept a one second advantage over former team mate Tony Kanaan. The Brazilian struggled to recover from his early race stops that left him mired at the rear of the field with little to play with.
Vitor Meira gave AJ Foyt Enterprises another solid result in 9th. Meira pipped the recovering Power to the flag by less than half-a-second, while Raphael Matos and Helio Castroneves assumed 11th and 12th respectively one second back.
Graham Rahal made little headway following his final pitstop for a new front wing. The American took 13th in front of Sebastian Saavedra (14th) and James Jakes (15th). It was a sad result for both Saavedra and Jakes – the Colombian lost a lot of spots following his clash with Charlie Kimball, while a late race spin robbed Jakes of a top-twelve.
Paul Tracy and JR Hildebrand finished 16th and 17th and the last cars on the lead lap, while Scott Dixon came home one lap adrift, ahead of the twice lapped Ana Beatriz. Simona de Silvestro and Takuma Sato also took flag, several laps down.
Race Rating: 2 out of 5
2011 IZOD IndyCar Series (Round 3) Pos Driver Team Time/Gap 1. Mike Conway Andretti 1h53m11.1000s (85 laps) 2. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 6.3203s 3. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 6.7163s 4. James Hinchcliffe Newman/Haas + 9.1705s 5. Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt + 16.0177s 6. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas + 16.8966s 7. Danica Patrick Andretti + 17.5016s 8. Tony Kanaan KV + 18.9655s 9. Vitor Meira Foyt + 19.4723s 10. Will Power Penske + 19.8909s 11. Raphael Matos AFS + 20.4660s 12. Helio Castroneves Penske + 20.7784s 13. Graham Rahal Ganassi + 21.3464s 14. Sebastian Saavedra Conquest + 23.1137s 15. James Jakes Dale Coyne + 24.5926s 16. Paul Tracy Dragon + 1m03.7578s 17. JR Hildebrand Panther + 1m10.9001s 18. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 1 lap 19. Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold + 2 laps 20. Simona de Silvestro HVM + 3 laps 21. Takuma Sato KV + 4 laps Retirements: Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold 78 laps Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti 72 laps Charlie Kimball Ganassi 66 laps EJ Viso KV 59 laps Marco Andretti Andretti 37 laps Sebastien Bourdais Dale Coyne 27 laps 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series (Round 3) Pos Driver Team Points 1 Dario Franchitti Ganassi 122 2 Will Power Penske 115 3 Tony Kanaan KV Racing 87 4 Oriol Servia Newman-Haas 80 5 Mike Conway Andretti-Autosport 74 6 Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt 73 7 Scott Dixon Ganassi 66 8 Ryan Briscoe Penske 66 9 Simona de Silvestro HVM 66 10 Vitor Meira Foyt Enterprises 64 11 Raphael Matos AFS Racing 57 12 Danica Patrick Andretti-Autosport 57