March 25, 2012 | By Marshall Pruett - SPEED
Castroneves, Chevy Capture St. Pete Victory
Courtesy of Speed.com
After almost six months of waiting to see what would happen with IndyCar’s new chassis and engines at the first race of the season, something old—at least in terms of tenure—proved to have the winning formula during the 100-lap Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg.
Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who was locked out of victory lane for the first time in his IndyCar career last season, took a convincing win for Chevrolet—his third at the track—and scored his 26th career win.
With a drought extending to Motegi in 2010, the popular driver climbed out of the car at Turn 10 on the cool down lap to climb the fence in front of the grandstands, and then ran across the track to climb the fence and pat the street sign bearing Dan Wheldon’s name.
The emotional Brazilian’s emotional gesture seemed fitting on a day where the fallen driver was honored by fans, drivers and the city, and also dedicated his win to Wheldon before mentioning the pressure he felt to prove he still had the pace to win.
“It’s been a little while, but it never gets old. Certainly coming back from last year was a big struggle,” he said. “Being in victory circle is a dream come true.”
His team owner also credited the job done by his veteran driver and the engine manufacturer he steered back into open-wheel racing.
“I think getting him back on top after last season, you couldn’t beat it,” said Roger Penske. “Winning the first trace out [for Chevrolet], what else can I say?”
Scott Dixon took second for Target Chip Ganassi Racing--his third time finishing second to Castroneves at St. Pete--but could not hold onto the Penske driver, who sprinted into the distance in the final 25 laps.
“I’m happy to finish,” said Dixon, who has been taken out at St. Pete by contact or crashes the last few years. “I haven’t finisher here in a while. The race cruised [from] there. We couldn’t seem to keep the tires under us. They were good for five or six laps then fell off. Great job by Helio today, but straight up we weren’t as fast as others. We have a little bit of work all around.”
Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay took third after going into fuel conservation mode to make it to the finish.
“We had a good showing,” he said. “We were hoping to put on a better show for the fans in the end, but it was a fuel race. That’s just part of the game. It’s good to get a podium under our belt. Today is about honoring Dan [Wheldon]; that wound is still fresh.”
For the first time in years, the start of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg went off without a hitch, as did every subsequent restart. No motor failures were reported, minimal contact was made and as a whole, the Dallara DW12 chassis and the engines from Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus performed as expected. High marks to all of the vendors, manufacturers and the series itself for turning out a product that looked far more polished than was expected.
In the engine wars, Chevrolet put its stamp on qualifying and maintained it through the race. Four of the top 5 cars used its powerplant, while Honda took second, sixth, ninth and tenth.
As he did in qualifying, Alex Tagliani was the best of the Lotus teams, placing 15th. Simon Pagenaud finished sixth, the best of the rookies, while Josef Newgarden, who has no previous Indy car experience (unlike Pagenaud), finished an impressive 11th for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Sanity prevailed in Turn 1, the frequent source of multi-car crashes, with Will Power leading teammate Ryan Briscoe by one second after three laps of running around the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street circuit. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay held third.
The biggest early mover was Target Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon who moved from sixth to fourth and chased Hunter-Reay as Power continued to stretch his lead by at least one-tenth per lap.
By Lap 8, Power had motored to a 1.96-second lead over Briscoe and clearly had plans to demoralize the entire field. Lap 10 saw the Aussie’s lead move out to 2.83 seconds as he locked into his familiar groove.
Other than Dixon’s progression, very little movement happened throughout the field through the first 10 laps, but Katherine Legge’s stalled Lotus-powered car on the front straight on Lap 11 saw Power, Dario Franchitti, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato and others dive for pit lane as they anticipated a yellow flag would be thrown, taking full fuel and Firestone Blacks.
With the yellow out on Lap 12, a little more than half the field made pit stops before the race was paused, while the other half stayed out, promoting Ryan Briscoe to the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay, Dixon, James Hinchcliffe and Helio Castroneves to complete the top 5.
Teams predicted the race would require between two and three stops for fuel, with short-fills taken whenever the opportunity was presented, and how the early stoppers would fare as the race played out was unclear.
Green flag racing resumed cleanly on Lap 17 as cars went three-wide through Turn 1. Power dropped a handful of spots trying to make a brave outside pass on James Jakes in the tight Turn 5 complex, ending up 17th. Jakes would bring out the next yellow on Lap 19 when he clouted the Turn 10 tire barrier with the front of his Dale Coyne Racing Dallara DW12-Honda, citing glazed brake discs as the reason for his inability to brake at the end of the long back straight.
By Lap 20, the engine manufacturer battle saw Chevrolet holding P1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10, with Scott Dixon (P2) and Graham Rahal (P6) the only Honda runners in the top 10.
Briscoe, Rahal and Rubens Barrichello pitted at the end of Lap 20, promoting Dixon to the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Hinchcliffe.
Tony Kanaan’s Chevrolet-powered KV Racing car came to a stop in Turn 3 under yellow on Lap 21 with a suspected gearbox failure. Legge’s earlier stall was also attributed to a gearbox issue, but she was able to resume after losing six laps in the process. Simona de Silvestro also slowed during the caution with a suspected fuel system problem.
“From Lap 1 I started to get low voltage alarms,” said Kanaan. “With the electronics today, you can’t pull out of gear. It’s unfortunate, but those problems are expected.”
De Silvestro, like Kanaan, was out of the race before the one-quarter mark.
“I think we lost fuel pressure all of a sudden,” she said. “It’s a shame.”
Dixon led the field away when the green flag waved on Lap 28, with Hunter-Reay pursuing the Kiwi until the American pitted on Lap 33, promoting Castroneves to second. Hinchcliffe pitted for the first time on Lap 35 from fifth, resuming in 20th.
Dixon and Castroneves, who had yet to stop during the first two yellows, pitted nose to tail at the end of Lap 36, with the Ganassi crew leading the Brazilian out by multiple car lengths.
Sato took his turn at the point, with Mike Conway, Franchitti, Briscoe and Justin Wilson filling the top 5.
The Honda-powered Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver held a 2.4-second lead over fellow Honda runners Conway and Franchitti through Lap 40. Just outside the top 5, rookies Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud held sixth and seventh, followed by Power in eighth, Lotus-powered Alex Tagliani in ninth and Chevrolet’s JR Hildebrand in 10th.
Oriol Servia’s stop went wrong, with the Spaniard losing a lap before returning to the action.
Ed Carpenter was then turned by Helio Castroneves in Turn 14 at the end of Lap 45 after the driver/owner seemed to anger the Brazilian as the Penske driver tried to get past numerous times throughout the lap.
With Carpenter stalled on entry of pit lane, the third yellow flag was issued, with Sato, Franchitti, Briscoe, Pagenaud and Power amongst the drivers to stop for fuel and tires, splitting the safety truck and Carpenter as they motored into pit lane. Sato’s pit stop took quite some time, allowing Franchitti to leap ahead of that group in the pits.
Once the green flag flew on Lap 49, Dixon led Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Andretti and Hinchcliffe.
Bourdais ran seventh on the restart and passed E.J. Viso for sixth on Lap 50, the best position for a Lotus-powered team at the halfway point of the race.
The race settled into a rhythm through Lap 60, with a gap of 1.1 seconds blanketing Dixon, Hunter-Reay and Castroneves.
Viso, on Blacks while most drivers around him were on the faster Reds, took the spot back from the Frenchman and set off after Andretti in fifth. The occasionally hapless Venezuelan made a clean pass down the inside of Andretti into Turn 1 on Lap 63 and continued to execute a flawless weekend as he began to pursue Hinchcliffe.
By Lap 65, Dixon’s lead was down to .38 seconds as the two Chevrolet runners began to apply more pressure. Marco Andretti pitted at the end of the lap, taking Reds, and both Pagenaud and Newgarden got past Franchitti as he prepared to pit on Lap 67.
Dixon surrendered to lead to Castroneves when he pitted at the end of Lap 68, and Legge, who had just made a stop, encountered another stall in her No. 6 car at pit exit. Castroneves pitted one lap later and Bourdais gave up his top 10 spot when he paid a call to the pits on Lap 70.
Sato got another turn leading the race before making a stop on Lap 72, shuffling the running order once again. Hildebrand had his first taste of the lead, but would soon be in for fuel. Behind Hildebrand, Castroneves passed Dixon around the outside of Turn 1 and soon took the point from the Panther Racing driver, and Bourdais’ impressive day was derailed on Lap 73 when he went off course at Turn 8.
With Castroneves, Dixon and Hunter-Reay good on fuel for the run to the finish and Reds at their disposal, the final 25 laps of the race would be a battle of outright speed. Sato’s solid run ended on Lap 75 when he pitted with shifting issues, and Conway was in the next lap with gearbox problems of his own.
The three-time Indy 500 flexed muscles he showed during pre-season testing, stretching his lead with ease out to five seconds by Lap 80.
At Lap 85, Castroneves continued to remind the field that he meant business, extending the gap to Dixon out to 7.3 seconds. Behind them, Hunter-Reay held third, Hinchcliffe was 2.5 seconds back in fourth and Viso was more than five seconds behind the Canadian.
The best battle on the waning laps went to sixth-place Pagenaud, who started 16th after serving his 10-spot grid penalty, and Briscoe, with the Aussie executing a brilliant pass that lasted through the outside of Turn 1 and the inside of Turn 2 before the Frenchman ceded the position.
Will Power was next up, pressuring Pagenaud relentlessly, but could not get by.
With 10 laps to go, Castroneves dialed it back slightly to maintain a 6.8-second lead over Dixon, who was powerless to mount a challenge. Hunter-Reay looked solid in third, but spent the final stint saving as much fuel as possible, limiting his opportunities to chase down the Target driver. The same was true for Hinchcliffe, who seemed resigned to take fourth on his debut with Andretti Autosport.
Viso’s dream run to a top 5 ended when he made a splash-and-go on Lap 94, promoting Briscoe to fifth and Pagenaud to sixth. Power, who fell so far back during a botched pass attempt and struggled to regain the spots, moved to seventh and JR Hildebrand, who was in eighth, pulled off on Lap 96 on the inside of Turn 1, his day over.
Car Driver Gap
1 Helio Castroneves
2 Scott Dixon 5.5292
3 Ryan Hunter-Reay 7.5824
4 James Hinchcliffe 10.6526
5 Ryan Briscoe 11.7854
6 Simon Pagenaud 31.2623
7 Will Power 34.6582
8 EJ Viso 35.5943
9 Charlie Kimball 43.1425
10 Justin Wilson 44.3141
11 Josef Newgarden 44.8275
12 Graham Rahal 45.1080
13 Dario Franchitti 45.8468
14 Marco Andretti 1 LAPS
15 Alex Tagliani 1 LAPS
16 Oriol Servia 1 LAPS
17 Rubens Barrichello 2 LAPS
18 Ed Carpenter 2 LAPS
19 JR Hildebrand 4 LAPS Off Course
20 Mike Conway 25 LAPS Mechanical
21 Sebastien Bourdais 27 LAPS Off Course
22 Takuma Sato 27 LAPS Electrical
23 Katherine Legge 41 LAPS Off Course
24 Simona de Silvestro 78 LAPS Mechanical
25 Tony Kanaan 79 LAPS Electrical
26 James Jakes 81 LAPS Contact