It was another action-packed round at Motegi, Japan, where the IndyCar championship ventured off the North American continent for only the second time in 2010. Helio Castroneves took an excellent win, while championship contenders Dario Franchitti and Will Power completed the podium with the Scot narrowing the gap the championship leader to just 12 points with one round to go. It is truly either driver’s championship to win or lose, as our IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon writes…
The grid did not look good for Dario Franchitti. Three Penskes ahead, including championship rival Will Power, three Andretti cars behind, and teammate Scott Dixon starting eleventh. With the grandstands filled to capacity and the crowd on the hill almost the whole way around the track, Helio Castroneves led the field away at the green flag. Power started poorly, losing positions to Franchitti and Marco Andretti in the first lap.
The first caution period came on lap 2, with Bertrand Baguette meeting with disaster on the outside of Turn 2, making heavy contact and sliding into the infield and into retirement.
The restart came on Lap 11.
Immediately on the resumption of racing, Franchitti attacked Ryan Briscoe, taking second place, but Briscoe was having none of it, passing again into Turn 3 on the same lap before waging a fierce battle, swapping positions with great regularity with the two-time Indy 500 champion, before finally making the pass stick and holding second position. Castroneves took advantage of this battle up ahead, managing to open up a 1.3 second lead.
On lap 42, Alex Lloyd driving for Dale Coyne Racing, slowed dramatically on the back straight and moved down underneath the white line in separating the racetrack from the infield. It appeared to be nothing more than a misfire or perhaps a driveshaft failure, but it was enough for a caution period to be declared and for all pit crews to set up for the first pit stops of the day. Lloyd’s crew managed to fix the fault and get back into the race, although many laps down.
Once the field bunched up, Castroneves led Dario Franchitti and the rest of the field in for service. Ryan Briscoe managed to jump ahead of Franchitti, retaking second place. Castroneves held the lead, while Will Power languished down in ninth.
The green flag came back out on Lap 49.
On Lap 68, Mario Moraes suffered a big accident on the outside of Turn 2. After failing to meet the apex of the corner, Moraes was unable to regather it and spun into the wall. The accident was very similar to that of Baguette from earlier in the race. Although Moraes was moving around in the car, he appeared to be in less than 100% shape. He was eventually extricated from the car and taken to the medical centre.
Although not too many laps has passed from the previous round of pit stops, most cars pitted again, with a few backmarkers, notably Raphael Matos, gambled by staying out and inheriting the lead, hoping for another caution period soon enough to force more pit stops. Will Power and Graham Rahal made the most of their pit stops, gaining 3 and 5 positions respectively.
At the restart, coming on Lap 76, Castroneves got a big wiggle approaching the start/finish line, losing momentum and allowing Briscoe and Franchitti to move past. Briscoe managed to get past Matos to take the lead and quickly opened up a 2.2-second lead over Castroneves. Matos’s fuel gamble did not pay off and he soon had to make a pit stop, albeit under green flag conditions, costing him a lap.
Paul Tracy, running near the rear of the field, briefly appeared to go to sleep and brushed the Turn 4 wall. Although there was no visible damage, another caution period was called for the safety team to check for debris left on the track. The field yet again headed for pit lane, headed by Briscoe.
Castroneves got the jump on his Australian team-mate coming out of the pits, with Danica Patrick the big mover, jumping to fourth place. Obviously not needing to pit again, Raphael Matos and Hideki Mutoh stayed out, but were waved around the pace car to join the rear of the field.
The restart came on Lap 123, with Danica fighting to move further up the order. At the Lap 140 mark, Helio Castroneves was leading with a 3.5-second lead over Dario Franchitti. The race had settled down a bit by this point, although the racing was intense.
On Lap 148, Alex Lloyd had a big accident exiting Turn 2. The rear wing had been ripped off the car and flames were visible from the rear. It was remarkably similar to Simona de Silvestro’s fiery accident from the Texas night race earlier this year. Replays showed the car lost control running over a bump and speared into the wall with heavy impact. Lloyd extricated himself from the car and the safety crew efficiently extinguished the fire. On pit lane, all teams were set up for further pit stops.
The field entered and exited the pit lane with no changes to the running order among the leaders, Castroneves maintaining the lead.
Due to the fiery nature of Lloyd’s accident, the clean-up was taking longer than normal and the green flag for the resumption of the race did not come until Lap 168.
Will Power had been slowly climbing through the field, advancing through quick pit- stops and consistent lap times and now found himself in third place, having snuck up the inside of Ryan Briscoe into Turn 1 on Lap 171. Power was now running one position behind Dario Franchitti.
With no further incidents delaying the finish, Castroneves held on to take the win – his second in Japan. For the third time this year, Helio climbed the fence, saluting the Japanese fans and adding his likeness to the race trophy to go with his 2006 victory.
With one race to go, the championship goes down to Homestead in two weeks time with Will Power carrying a 12-point lead over Dario Franchitti.
[Original images via AUTOSPORT]