IndyCar Series rookie Carlos Huertas has claimed a surprise – and subsequently controversial – maiden victory in a wild and wet opening race of the Houston double-header.

The Dale Coyne Racing driver was handed the win courtesy of a succession of Safety Car interruptions late in the race that played havoc with a number of teams’ fuel strategies. The race finished under caution, with Huertas leading an all-Colombian podium ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Muñoz.

The final podium spot should perhaps have gone to Tony Kanaan, but the Brazilian found himself turfed into the fence at the final restart by an overeager Graham Rahal, who completely misjudged when to accelerate for the green flag and ran straight into the back of the veteran. Rahal was rightly served a 30-second post-race time penalty, which dropped him to eleventh. A similar penalty was issued to Kanaan’s teammate Ryan Briscoe, who also biffed Sebastián Saavedra into the fence in the closing minutes of the timed race.

The race was interrupted by a number of rain showers, with the first proving enough to delay the start of the race and ultimately see officials declare the result just short of two hours into proceedings.

The opening phase of the race was very much about Takuma Sato. The Japanese veteran found the slippery conditions to his liking, barging ahead of two cars at the start before pulling off a series of brave overtaking moves to get into the lead. His pass on Simon Pagenaud was particularly special, forcing his way up the inside of the leader with lunge down the inside at Turn 5.

Sato found his position coming under threat by the Andretti Chevrolet of James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian steadily chipped away at Sato’s lead, with his cause being helped by teammate Marco Andretti, who held up the Japanese driver for lap after lap in an apparent attempt to avoid going a lap down. His tactics allowed ‘Hinch’ to close right up, but the stewards didn’t take kindly to his antics, issuing him with a pit lane penalty and a probation for the remainder of the season.

Despite several large patches of standing water that showed few signs of dissipating, conditions had improved enough to warrant a switch to dry-weather tyres, with a number of runners lower down the order – such as Charlie Kimball and series leader Will Power – gambling on an early switch, having nothing to lose.

Sato and Hinchcliffe pitted together when the conditions were a little more opportune, but the Canadian’s crew turned his car around that little bit quicker for him to get the jump on the AJ Foyt racer.

The restart saw more troubles for Sato, who promptly found himself squeezed into the Turn 5 pit wall by Mikhail Aleshin as the Russian foolishly tried to unlap himself. Both were out on the spot, with a furious Sato nursing an injured right wrist for his troubles.

There were further safety car interruptions for a single-car accident involving Luca Filippi, followed by a multi-car tangle between Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball, which also caught out Pagenaud. Dixon had slid into the wall and pin-balled back onto the circuit into Pagenaud’s path, breaking the Frenchman’s right front suspension. Not to be outdone, an out-of-control Dixon kept sliding across the track and clobbered poor Kimball, who was trying to avoid the incident altogether.

The succession of yellow flags and pit stops saw Hinchcliffe shuffled down the order amid all of the chaos and alternate strategies. Justin Wilson looked like he would claim a remarkable win, only for his strategy to come undone as his tank ran progressively empty in the final laps. He was forced into the pits for a splash-and-dash, handing the lead to an incredulous Huertas.

While few begrudged the youngster his first victory – a result all the more surprising considering he has hardly been impressive in any junior category in which he’s raced – their cheers turned to jeers a few hours later: his #18 racer was found to have a non-compliant rear wing and fuel tank.

It’s not the first time that Dale Coyne has done this – Wilson won in Texas in 2012 with incorrect bodywork fitted to his car – and rather than disqualify Huertas from the standings, IndyCar Series officials gave the pathetic penalty of a $15,000, claiming that the infractions had no impact on the final result. In a race dominated by wet-weather handling, tyre and fuel strategy, few could believe their justification.

The IndyCar Series might have delivered its seventh different race-winner in an incredibly close season, but its officials certainly know how to take the gloss off that kind of a headline with such a terrible PR mess.

2014 IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Houston – Race 1 Result (80 laps*):

Driver Team / Entry Result
1. Carlos Huertas Dale Coyne Racing Honda Honda 1:51:25.5649
2. Juan Pablo Montoya Team Penske Chevrolet Chevrolet + 0.0975
3. Carlos Muñoz Andretti Autosport Honda Honda + 2.3433
4. Sébastien Bourdais KV Racing Technology Honda Honda + 3.0878
5. James Hinchcliffe ca Andretti Autosport Honda Honda + 4.7101
6. Jack Hawksworth Bryan Herta Autosport Honda Honda + 5.5127
7. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti Autosport Honda Honda + 6.2853
8. Marco Andretti Andretti Autosport Honda Honda + 7.1638
9. Hélio Castroneves Team Penske Chevrolet Chevrolet + 8.2181
10. Justin Wilson Dale Coyne Racing Honda Honda + 9.4366
11. Graham Rahal^ Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda Honda + 30.8792
12. Ryan Briscoe^ Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Chevrolet + 33.2884
13. Tony Kanaan Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Chevrolet + 35.0789
14. Will Power Team Penske Chevrolet Chevrolet – 1 lap
15. Sebastián Saavedra KV Racing Technology / AFS Racing Honda Honda – 1 lap
16. Simon Pagenaud Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda Honda – 6 laps
Not Classified
DNF. Mike Conway Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet Chevrolet 55 laps
DNF. Charlie Kimball Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Chevrolet 54 laps
DNF. Scott Dixon Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Chevrolet 46 laps
DNF. Josef Newgarden Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda Honda 41 laps
DNF. Luca Filippi it Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda Honda 36 laps
DNF. Takuma Sato A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda Honda 32 laps
DNF. Mikhail Aleshin Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda Honda 31 laps

* Race run to timed limit with 80 of its 90 scheduled laps completed

^ Denotes 30-second time penalty applied post-race for causing an avoidable collision

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Matt Lennon