After four uncharacteristic performances so far in 2012, Dario Franchitti kicked off his season in the most emphatic way possible by winning today’s 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Starting sixteenth, Franchitti found himself last of the lead-lap runners after a pit lane incident which saw him tipped into a spin by KV Racing’s EJ Viso as he approached his pit stall.
Showing his colours as the wily veteran he is, Franchitti bided his time, gradually moving through the field, maximising his fuel mileage and not putting a wheel wrong to find himself swapping the lead with team-mate Scott Dixon in the last half of the race.
Wherever Danny Sullivan – the 1985 Indy 500 champion – was watching this race from, he must have had a wry grin on his face when Dario near-replicated his famous spin-and-win effort from 27 years ago.
The race was a record setter. Breaking a mark held for over 50 years, the 200 laps saw 35 official lead changes across 10 of the 33 drivers participating, with an incredible 17 cars on the lead lap at the end.
A number of drivers tried their hand to dethrone Franchitti over the latter stages of the race. From Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson and Ryan Briscoe, none came closer than Takuma Sato.
Never has a Japanese driver claimed the greatest prize in American open-wheel competition, but today had never been closer. Massively quick all day long, Sato’s car was on rails for much of the event such was his speed and skill and handling the challenges coming his way.
Any racing driver will tell you, when an opportunity presents itself, it is in your nature to go for it. And go for it, Sato did, at the beginning of the 200th and last lap, he saw his chance for the lead and went for it.
Moving to the inside of Turn 1, Dario defended his position completely by the rules, but Sato was not to be denied, squeezing up the inside, but it was too far. Crossing the slick white line, Sato found his car unbalanced, and with a tiny nudge from the eventual winner, came to grief in the Turn 1 crash barriers. Sato was magnanimous in defeat, acknowledging fair, albeit tight racing by Dario into the telling corner.
So after Chevrolet’s dominance of the month of May to this point, it was Honda who left with the spoils, Dixon coming home second with GM rounding out the podium with Tony Kanaan in third.
Oriol Servia showed all he needed was to get rid of the Lotus engine to regain his mojo, finishing a credible fourth, while pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe came home fifth after a mid-race scare in which a mechanical gremlin threatened to derail his progress entirely before a computer reset saw him regain his speed and head back towards the front.
Months of negative headlines continued for Lotus. Much has been written about their shortcomings with their engine effort this season, but nonetheless, it was still surprising to see chief steward Beaux Barfield black-flag both cars on safety grounds for how slow they actually were. Both Jean Alesi and Simona De Silvesto were in pit lane and out of their cars before Lap 15 for being nothing more than high-speed chicanes. The embarrassing saga that is the Lotus engine continues.
As with every Indy 500, there were crashes. The biggest came on Lap 79 when Mike Conway, who later admitted his team sent him back out with a faulty front wing, lost the back end of his ABC Supply car and headed for a big impact. Following close behind, Will Power had nowhere to go and collected Conway’s car, launching the Brit along the top of the wall. Both drivers emerged unhurt, but it was a disappointing end for both drivers.
So after Sato’s accident on the final lap, it was under yellow-flag conditions once again that Franchitti won his third Indy 500, joining the ranks of Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Helio Castroneves among others in the three-peat club.
Fresh from a self-imposed cold buttermilk bath in victory lane, Dario dedicated the victory to two people. The first dedication went to Michael Wanser, the six-year-old son of long-time Ganassi team manager Barry Wanser, who tragically lost a brave battle with an acute form of leukaemia late last year. The second, to Dan Wheldon, who was undoubtedly watching from above, and a hug to Dan’s widow Susie said it all.
2012 IndyCars Indianapolis 500 – Final Classification (200 laps):