Returning to the famed Milwaukee Mile, Chip Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti surged to his third victory of the IndyCar season to draw him level on points with Penske’s Will Power.
Following on from the controversial double header at Texas (where both Franchitti and Power claimed race wins), Franchitti dominated much of the action at Milwaukee, but could so easily have lost as well.
The Ganassi veteran drove hard and well for much of the event, but also came into a batch of luck that removed rivals Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves from the action late on. Come the chequered flag, Franchitti’s rear was protected somewhat by teammate Graham Rahal, who busied himself by holding both Oriol Servia and Power at bay.
It was a stuttered beginning for the race. Indeed the field was only passing through turn two when Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti-Autosport) found the wall.
Losing his Honda-powered machine was another blow for Hunter-Reay whose torrid 2011 season continues apace.
Seen laps had passed when the race proper began with Franchitti leading from fellow front-row man Castroneves.
Castroneves was clearly the quickest Penske runner for much of the weekend. Until race day, Milwaukee had proved difficult for teammates Ryan Briscoe and Power.
Briscoe placed his Penske 8th on the grid, although spent much of the early laps running 9th, until a brief spat with Rahal on the lap 51st lap saw Briscoe come close to clipping the wall. The loss of momentum would drop the Australian to the midpack.
Meanwhile Power hung around 16th and 17th places for a time after starting 18th. Progress was slow for the Championship leader, who struggled in traffic in the early stages, choosing not to push too hard when his car did not allow it.
The Penske trio were still having a far better run than HVM’s Simona de Silvestro. The Swiss pilot had struggled since her frightening crash during practice at Indianapolis.
Another hard accident at Milwaukee left both her body and car somewhat battered. By the fifteenth lap, de Silvestro’s day was done.
The Rise and Fall
Alex Tagliani was also struggling in his Sam Schmidt prepared car. The man who scored pole at Indianapolis and Texas, could only manage 19th on the grid at Milwaukee with a car that proved to be a handful.
In racing conditions, the Canadian duly fell to the rear of the field where he remained for much of the day.
On the other hand, Milwaukee was proving to be an ace in the deck for KV Racing. Having qualified 4th (Kanaan), 5th (Takuma Sato) and 6th (EJ Viso), the green and yellow trio continued to run in the top six, even mixing it with Ganassi’s Scott Dixon for much of the event.
Dixon fell away from this battle as the laps ticked off, eventually dropping to 8th as Marco Andretti shoved the Kiwi onto “the grey” on lap 52. Neither Viso nor Sato could not hold the pace as their tyres aged, holding them in 4th and 9th respectively.
Even Franchitti was feeing the pressure of tyre wear. The Scot – struggling on old Firestones – was quickly reeled in by Castroneves and Kanaan, but just as battle was about to commence, the yellows flew.
At the rear of the pack, Ana Beatriz scrubbed the turn four wall on her 66th tour of the one-mile oval. The Brazilian had been running well for much of the event having coveted a top 12 place for the initial fifty laps until her car fell away.
Although only a sweeping glance, the damage had been done – Beatriz continued, but well off her earlier pace.
With the pits (finally) opening on lap 69, the first round of stops commenced, only for chaos to ensue.
Missing his box, Sato undercut Dixon, sending a tyre flying across the driving lanes and causing the Ganassi man to grind to a halt. The KV runner followed it up by ploughing into one of his tyre changers – thankfully no one was injured. Naturally for Sato, a penalty followed, dropping the Japanese driver to 15th.
Dixon suffered an inadvertent penalty as he avoided Sato’s fumbling – the Kiwi fell to 13th in a mess not of his doing. Crucially, both would stay on the lead lap.
Away from the flying wheels, Vitor Meira climbed from AJ Foyt Enterprises machine and hung his helmet up for the day.
The Brazilian had been struggling near the back during the race, having qualified a lowly 22nd. With a car handling worse than a drunken puppy, the entry was pulled to live another day.
Neither Alex Lloyd (Dale Coyne) nor Sebastian Saavedra (Conquest Racing) lasted much further sadly. As the green flag dropped on lap 80, Lloyd lost the rear end through turn one, taking Saavedra with him into the wall.
With both cars crumpled, the caution returned. Having started 14th and climbed to 11th, it was a poor end for Lloyd who had been running consistently well until his smash.
For those up front, it was just another delay, but it did not stop Franchitti pulling away again come the restart on lap 93.
Castroneves, sluggish on the getaway, dropped to 4th, bringing Kanaan and Servia into the fight for the lead. It had been a solid drive thus far for Servia – having started 10th, the Spaniard kept a cool head through the first half of the race, slowly moving up the order as the race progressed.
Meanwhile Franchitti, on aging tyres, began to fall back towards Kanaan.
Sensing a rare opportunity, the KV man dived down the inside of the Ganassi machine on lap 116, with Kanaan assuming the lead. Servia, unable to commit to the same move, stalked Franchitti, keeping the Scot well in his sights.
Accidents and Strategies
Whereas Kanaan led impressively, JR Hildebrand’s rookie IndyCar season hit another wall – literally, on lap 124 bringing out the third full course caution. Hildebrand has endured a tough début year in the series so far, memorably crashing to the runner-up spot at Indianapolis.
A poor run of results either side of the 500 mile race has left many asking questions of the former Indy Lights Champion – another smash at Milwaukee may only see those questions get louder.
The field poured in for the second set of stops, only for there to be more problems. Servia plummeted down the order (to 12th, thanks to a stuck left front), while a fantastic stop saw Briscoe claim five spots (to 5th).
Luck crossed Franchitti’s way. The Ganassi clipped a stranded tyre in Power’s pitbox, but escaped a penalty due to a “lack of spacial courtesy” afforded by the Penske crew.
Regardless, Kanaan maintained his lead.
With stops and strategies unfolding throughout the field, Power quietly climbed into the top ten. Having spent much of the race sitting just inside the top fifteen, the Australian slowly picked off several midfielders, assuming 10th following his second stop.
Dixon too was progressing – slowly. The Ganassi improved to 11th following his trip to the pits.
Rahal was also beginning to make his presence felt. Following his brief incident with Briscoe earlier in the race, the American racer climbed to 6th after starting down in 12th; however the Ganassi man was not the only driver enjoying a solid run.
Having qualified in 16th, Newman-Haas rookie James Hinchcliffe silently climbed up the order, entering the top twelve by lap 60, 10th spot by lap 77 and up to 8th by the 100th tour of the track.
Indeed Hinchcliffe had made that 7th as the Hildebrand-inspired caution came after a battle with Danica Patrick.
The Andretti-Autosport driver also had a tough qualifying session, setting the 15th best time. A slow rise up the order took Patrick to 8th spot following the second round of pitstops, just ahead of teammate Marco Andretti.
Running Before Stopping… Again
Resuming on lap 135, Franchitti made short work of Kanaan, forcefully retaking the lead as they entered turn one.
Unlike previously stints on fresh tyres, the reigning IndyCar champion could not pull away, with Kanaan assuming the lead once again on the 153rd tour. Franchitti was not helped by Sarah Fisher racing’s Ed Carpenter. The American has struggled since the Indy 500 – his race in Milwaukee was confined to the rear for the duration.
Castroneves continued in a comfortable 3rd, with Viso still lingering in 4th – briefly. Sadly, the Venezuelan lost the rear of his KV Racing machine on lap 165, pitching him into the wall and bringing out another caution.
Once again the field was neutralised, while Viso and team boss Jimmy Vasser, contemplated lost points. The caution would mean that only one further stop was required, a series that commenced on three laps later.
This occasion would see less calamity in the pits, but more expertise – especially for two sides of the Penske crew as quick stops for Castroneves and Power would see them leap to the lead and 7th respectively. However, Briscoe found the exercise less fruitful – a stuck airhose dropping the Australian to 10th.
Below the leading trio, Hinchcliffe emerged in 4th just ahead of Rahal (5th) and Patrick (6th), with Sato assuming 12th place.
To Sato’s rear sat the field’s tallest driver, Justin Wilson. The Briton had been running solidly around the top ten/twelve all through the event – a good run considering his lack of affinity on ovals.
Punctures, Walls, Talent and Deserved Luck
Castroneves led easily from the pack come the green on lap 174. Indeed, his lead grew considerably when Franchitti – balked by the lapped and struggling teammate Charlie Kimball – lost out to Kanaan, dropping to 3rd.
Sensing his fist victory since Iowa last year, Kanaan closed to Castroneves aided by the Penske losing pressure from his left rear tyre.
For nearly twenty laps, Castroneves held the KV racer at bay while taking care of his issues, but rather than taking advantage of the Penske’s woes, Kanaan planted his green-and-yellow KV Lotus into the wall… hard. Caution.
With now less than thirty laps of “The Mile” remaining, Kanaan’s broken Dallara crawled back toward the racing line. It seemed so inconceivable that the “steady driver” at KV lost it, especially when a win was on the cards.
His tyre pressure now completely gone, Castroneves dived to the pits for one final tyre stop – joined by Andretti, who was also in tyre difficulties. The pair rejoined the slowed queue in 11th (Castroneves) and 13th (Andretti).
For Franchitti with his two challengers removed from the running, this came together just right. The melee allowed Rahal to move to 2nd and Power 3rd. Servia, meanwhile, recovered from his early problems to move back into 4th.
Patrick, Hinchcliffe, Sato, Dixon, Briscoe and Andretti-Autosport’s Mike Conway filled out the top ten for the final dash to the flag.
Full Score for Franchitti
And it was a dash. Dario Franchitti – protected from the rear by Graham Rahal – flew from the green on lap 205, while Power succumbed to Servia’s pressure to drop to 4th.
The laps pass quickly in Milwaukee, and the Franchitti led final twenty tours streamed by in only a few minutes, although the look of relief on the Ganassi crew as the Scot took the chequered flag was quite telling.
It brings Franchitti level on points with Will Power – who could only manage 4th behind Oriol Servia. After the irritation and farce of Texas, the Championship is back on.
Of course it was a bonus to see Rahal take the runner-up spot. After a difficult start to the year, the young American has begun to find his feet with the Ganassi squad, as he rises to fifth in the title hunt, only nineteen points shy of Scott Dixon.
Servia’s 3rd place finish keeps him third in the Championship, albeit seventy-three points behind Power. The first half of the year has been an inspired run for the veteran.
Danica Patrick’s 5th was good reward for an excellent run, bringing her back into the top ten in the standings.
James Hinchcliffe made it two Newman-Haas machine’s in the top six. The Canadian is quickly closing in on JR Hildebrand in the Rookie of the Year standings.
A late race move by Scott Dixon on Takuma Sato settled the battle for 7th in favour of the Ganassi man; however the Kiwi may be very disappointed to be so far behind the leaders in the Championship.
Yet another solid result for Sato shows that he can run very well as long as he keeps it clean.
Helio Castroneves climbed to 9th in the final tours, ahead of Justin Wilson (10th), while Ryan Briscoe (11th), Mike Conway (12th) and Marco Andretti (13th) lingered behind – the last runners on the lead lap.
Charlie Kimball’s rookie troubles continued with a tough 14th place finish. The American only had James Jakes (15th, Dale Coyne), Ed Carpenter (16th) and a wounded Ana Beatriz (17th) behind him.
Another short oval follows on Saturday, with the series visiting Iowa Motor Speedway. Tony Kanaan took an emphatic victory there last year – he’ll be looking to make up for his Milwaukee error amidst the Franchitti / Power title fight.
Results - 225 laps: Pos Driver Team Time/Gap 1. Dario Franchitti Ganassi 1h56m43.5877s 2. Graham Rahal Ganassi + 1.4271s 3. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas + 2.7703s 4. Will Power Penske + 3.8756s 5. Danica Patrick Andretti + 4.2289s 6. James Hinchcliffe Newman/Haas + 5.2021s 7. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 5.7803s 8. Takuma Sato KV + 6.1011s 9. Helio Castroneves Penske + 6.3643s 10. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold + 6.8905s 11. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 8.2475s 12. Mike Conway Andretti + 8.9469s 13. Marco Andretti Andretti + 9.8659s 14. Charlie Kimball Ganassi + 1 lap 15. James Jakes Dale Coyne + 2 laps 16. Ed Carpenter Sarah Fisher + 2 laps 17. Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold + 3 laps Retirements: Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt 196 laps Tony Kanaan KV 194 laps EJ Viso KV 163 laps JR Hildebrand Panther 120 laps Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne 79 laps Sebastian Saavedra Conquest 78 laps Vitor Meira Foyt 69 laps Simona de Silvestro HVM 11 laps Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti 0 laps 2011 IZOD IndyCar Championship (Rd 7) 1 Will Power Penske 271 2 Dario Franchitti Ganassi 271 3 Oriol Servia Newman-Haas 198 4 Scott Dixon Ganassi 195 5 Graham Rahal Ganassi 176 6 Tony Kanaan KV Racing 171 7 Ryan Briscoe Penske 165 8 Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt 147 9 Takuma Sato KV Racing 142 10 Danica Patrick Andretti-Autosport 141 11 JR Hildebrand Panther Racing 137 12 Marco Andretti Andretti-Autosport 134