Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon won a lacklustre IndyCar race at Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi on Sunday to garner his second win of the season.
The victory leaves the Kiwi third in the championship race and tailing leader Will Power (Penske) by 59 points with two rounds to go; however fellow Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti splits the pair.
Power came home 2nd behind Dixon, with Franchitti taking 8th, leaving the Scott some 11 points shy of Power.
It involved a touch of luck for Franchitti who crossed the line in 9th, but was moved up a spot when the Penske of Helio Castroneves was demoted from 7th to 22nd for overtaking JR Hildebrand under yellow flags.
Up front, it was a near clean sweep for Dixon. The Ganassi pilot led every lap bar one, achieved pole position and the laps most led; however Dixon did not score the fastest lap – that honour went to Dreyer & Reinbold’s Giorgio Pantano.
Although Power kept Dixon honest throughout the race (they were rarely separated by more than three seconds), Power never truly looked like assuming the victory such was Dixon’s ease up front.
A late race caution gave the Penske man an opportunity to nab the lead into the opening corner, but even that door was soon shut by the eventual victor.
Marco Andretti led home the “best-of-the-rest” in his Andretti-Autosport entry. The American had a somewhat subdued race, climbing silently from his fifth row starting position to 3rd by the flag.
Sam Schmidt’s Alex Tagliani came home 4th, ahead of Newman-Haas racer Oriol Servia. Indeed, Tagliani had led Servia for much of the event, only for Servia to dive past the Canadian on lap 57. A decisive final move in the dying moments of the race gave 4th back to Tagliani, demoting Servia to a top five finish.
Both Tagliani and Servia had qualified poorly (the pair occupied the eighth row), but clever stops during the first caution period on lap 22 – thanks to JP de Oliveira who had stopped trackside with a fuel pump failure – brought them into the top twelve.
Solid progression thereafter, while others made mistakes, delivered further positions as the laps ticked off.
Sebastien Bourdais picked up his fourth 6th position of the season, but the experienced Frenchman owes a good deal to lenient stewarding and a pair of KV Racing pilots.
With seven laps remaining, Bourdais punted Ryan Hunter-Reay into the gravel trap (bringing out a late full course caution) in a half-hearted effort to take 8th position.
No penalty was forthcoming from the stewards and as the race restarted on lap 62, Bourdais’ 8th position became 6th thanks to Takuma Sato’s rather over ambitious move on KV teammate EJ Viso.
JR Hildebrand also gained spots from the melee. The Panther Racing pilot made strides in the Rookie of the Year championship following a calm and considered drive.
Indeed, the Californian was running a credible 7th when Castroneves sailed passed him under a local yellow on the final lap, earning the Brazilian a penalty and bringing Hildebrand back to 7th spot after the flag.
It had been a quietly impressive drive by Hildebrand who started a lowly 19th at the green flag, but this point’s score lifts the Panther pilot 14 points clear of James Hinchcliffe in the Rookie standings.
Franchitti may well have been higher up the order had it not been for several uncharacteristic errors.
The Scott had to settle for 9th on the grid in qualifying after a mistake on his fast lap in Q2. Franchitti spent the early laps climbing up the order when an attempt on Penske’s Ryan Briscoe for 4th on lap 26 went badly wrong.
Following Briscoe into the first turn, Franchitti made a wildly optimistic dive, only to clip Briscoe, who innocently took out both Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball (both Ganassi-run drivers) as he spun. The rare mistake garnered Franchitti a penalty, dropping the Scot to 25th, despite already running a low as 23rd.
A steady climb through the field saw Franchitti penetrate the top ten in the final few laps, with a last moment pass on Andretti-Autosport’s Mike Conway garnering another position.
For Conway, 9th place may seem like a solid reward. The Englishman started as far back as 20th, but like many others in the race; slow, steady progress without mistakes rewarded the Andretti-Autosport man with much needed points.
Despite running well for much of the event, Sato eventually had to settle for 10th place. The Japanese racer battled at the edge of the top twelve with de Oliveira in the early laps, until the Brazilian attempted a wildly optimistic move on Sato during the lap 20.
Undeterred by the wheel-banging incident, Sato regained ground, eventually climbing to 7th, before removing his teammate from the action.
Another anonymous drive for Danica Patrick gave the Andretti-Autosport starlet an 11th place finish, half-a-second ahead of the recovering Rahal. What could have been a special result for Rahal turned painful once again after running in the top three in the early portion of the race.
Rookie James Jakes also lost out. After Rahal was taken off, the Englishman battled with Servia for the final podium spot, but lost out heavily when a bad pitstop felled him to the lower reaches of the midfield.
Jakes would eventually claim 13th and while it was his best finish of the season, it could have been so much better for the former-GP2 runner.
Simona de Silvestro and James Hinchcliffe finished 14th and 15th respectively, although both had drastically differing races.
Having qualified last, de Silvestro picked up positions to rise up the leaderboard, while Hinchcliffe – who started 5th – found himself displaced by a poor early pitstop. The Canadian struggled in traffic throughout the race, limiting his progress and capping his final race position.
Mixed races for Pantano (16th) and Tony Kanaan (17th, KV Racing) left them squabbling for minor points.
In what was a forgettable weekend for the Italian, Pantano ran around the lower midfield, having several offs, gaining spots and then losing them shortly afterward.
Kanaan, meanwhile started from 25th, but like Hinchcliffe, struggled somewhat in traffic. An off-kilter pit strategy gave the Brazilian some hope, but as the field levelled itself out toward the race conclusion, Kanaan found himself mired near the rear of the field, wrapping up a poor day for KV Racing.
A penalty for pitlane speeding with fifteen laps to go finished Kanaan’s day off completely.
Hideki Mutoh ran home 18th in a one-off drive for AFS / Sam Schmidt Racing; not far ahead of Dreyer & Reinbold regular Ana Beatriz, whose horror season continues to amble along.
Ryan Briscoe rounded out the top twenty after another miserable day. After his earlier collision with Franchitti, Briscoe fell off track on the penultimate tour as he avoided the Viso / Sato mess.
What few positions the Penske man had gained in the intervening laps had disappeared, leaving Briscoe one of the few at the tail of the pack. Indeed, the punted Viso was the only other driver on the lead lap in 21st place.
Kimball had another poor result, but it could have been so much better had it not been for Franchitti’s interruption of his progress. The American had climbed back to 17th on the final restart, only to drop off circuit and down to 23rd on the last lap.
Hunter-Reay got going again after being collected by Bourdais, but lost a lap in recovery, coming home 24th. Vitor Meira was classified 25th, but had spun into retirement on the penultimate lap.
IndyCar’s final foray to Japan was subdued to say the least and while the road circuit was indeed challenging, overtaking proved to be somewhat harder.
There are two races left in the 2011 IndyCar season, both on 1.5-mile ovals at Kentucky and Las Vegas and while Power may have the points advantage, Franchitti still remains favourite thanks to his oval prowess.
Race Rating: 1 out of 5
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap 1. Scott Dixon Ganassi 1h56m41.0107s 2. Will Power Penske + 3.4375s 3. Marco Andretti Andretti + 4.4782s 4. Alex Tagliani Sam Schmidt + 5.5913s 5. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas + 6.1621s 6. Sebastien Bourdais Dale Coyne + 6.6399s 7. JR Hildebrand Panther + 8.7436s 8. Dario Franchitti Ganassi + 9.0690s 9. Mike Conway Andretti + 9.3816s 10. Takuma Sato KV + 10.1187s 11. Danica Patrick Andretti + 10.6995s 12. Graham Rahal Ganassi + 11.4555s 13. James Jakes Dale Coyne + 11.6119s 14. Simona de Silvestro HVM + 12.0651s 15. James Hinchcliffe Newman/Haas + 12.5498s 16. Giorgio Pantano Dreyer & Reinbold + 14.4549s 17. Tony Kanaan KV + 15.8407s 18. Hideki Mutoh AFS/Sam Schmidt + 16.3024s 19. Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold + 20.5159s 20. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 38.5887s 21. EJ Viso KV + 1m39.0777s 22. Helio Castroneves Penske + 7.6856s* 23. Charlie Kimball Ganassi + 1 lap 24. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti + 1 lap Retirements: Vitor Meira Foyt 61 laps Joao Paulo de Oliveira Conquest 22 laps * Post-Race penalty 2011 IZOD IndyCar Championship (Rd 16) Pos Driver Pts 1 Will Power 542 2 Dario Franchitti 531 3 Scott Dixon 483 4 Oriol Servia 397 5 Tony Kanaan 353 6 Ryan Briscoe 340 7 Marco Andretti 327 8 Ryan Hunter-Reay 317 9 Graham Rahal 302 10 Helio Castroneves 302 11 Alex Tagliani 296 12 Danica Patrick 294