08 August 1999 Belle Isle, Detroit, MI by Tom Haapanen/motorsport.com Consistency pays - and it won both the battle and the lead in the war for Dario Franchitti. The Scot relied on a safe pit strategy and solid driving to endure through a ...
08 August 1999 Belle Isle, Detroit, MI by Tom Haapanen/motorsport.com
Consistency pays - and it won both the battle and the lead in the war for Dario Franchitti. The Scot relied on a safe pit strategy and solid driving to endure through a somewhat tedious and yellow flag-filled race at the Belle Isle street circuit in Detroit. It all paid off with a victory over Paul Tracy and Greg Moore, and now a lead in the drivers' championship.
The start of the race appeared to be an omen in itself. While the front of the pack went through behind polesitter Juan Montoya - but with Franchitti passing Gil de Ferran for 3rd - Max Papis spun his Rahal Reynard-Ford into the tire wall, bringing out the first in what seemed to be an interminable series of full-course yellows this afternoon.
Once the course went green again, Franchitti continued his charge, making several moves trying to find a way past his KOOL Green Reynard-Honda teammate Tracy for 2nd place. He made it through on the next lap, but lost the spot back on the next corner. Finally on lap 12 Franchitti passed Tracy cleanly in turn 3. "We have some history together," said the Scot after the race, rather understating the previous incidents between the two. "I wanted to make sure that I got a clean pass."
However, by this time, it certainly appeared to be Montoya's day. He had already pulled out over a seven-second lead over Franchitti, and continued to add to it on each lap, consistently lapping several tenths faster than anyone else in the field.
At this point, Jan Magnussen was hot on the tail of Robby Gordon, both in Swift-Fords. Magnussen, who was driving his first CART race as PJ Jones' replacement, first put his car sideways trying to make it past Gordon, but recovered well. On the 24th lap, though, things finally came to a head. Magnussen, who clearly had the measure of Gordon, took the inside line at turn 3, the only real passing spot on the Belle Isle circuit. The young Dane pulled up inside Gordon, but at the apex, Gordon moved back in, touching Magnussen, spinning both cars into the tire barrier.
On the restart, at the same corner, Cristiano de Matta and Mauricio Gugelmin touched on the entry to the same corner, with near-tragic results. Gugelmin's Reynard-Mercedes went airborne, bounced off the top of Patrick Carpentier's Player's Reynard-Mercedes, and barrel-rolled on its way to the tire barrier. Gugelmin walked away immediately, unhurt, but Carpetentier received considerable attention from the medical team prior to being assisted out of his car and being taken to hospital. Certainly an unpleasant surprise for the Canadian, driving cleanly by himself through a corner and having another car land on top of you …
From there, things went from bad to worse, as Gil de Ferran hit the wall while the track was still under full-course yellow. Keeping your tires warm for the restart is an important thing, but it's even more important to keep the car between the concrete barriers!
All in all, thirteen laps under full-course yellow follow before things get back under way. Finally, the race gets back under way, but with Montoya's ten-second lead having been evaporated. The pit stops shuffled the order further, with Greg Moore the biggest beneficiary, moving from 8th to 4th. Moreno was the loser here, losing the advantage he had worked hard for, and dropping to 8th, behind not only Andretti but also Vasser.
At the 40-lap mark, Michel Jourdain Jr was all over Al Unser Jr's rear end, but was having difficulting getting by the veteran Penske driver. This time the tire barriers stayed intact, as Jourdain coasted to a halt, his gearbox having had its day. But with his teammate Memo Gidley also slowing down and stopping on the next lap, also with a broken gearbox, the yellow flags came out again.
Nearly all the leaders came in to pit again under yellow, even though this was too early in the race to be able to finish the race without another stop. The exceptions were Montoya and Mark Blundell, who chose to continue running. While Montoya's only gain was to get a lighter car - enabling him to pull away from Franchitti after the restart at a rate of more than a second per lap - Blundell moved all the way up to 5th position.
This was rather remarkable, given that Blundell's early tire puncture had forced an unplanned pit stop, dropping him to dead last after only three laps had been run. Alas, Blundell's position didn't last. Blundell was finding the race physically demanding after his long absence from Champ Cars showing, Andretti, Vasser, Kanaan and Moreno all passing him within two laps of the restart.
Meanwhile, Montoya had pulled out all stops, and was truly flying away from Franchitti, Tracy and Moore, who were focusing on conserving their fuel allocations, and trying to avoid another pit stop. The young Colombian was throwing his car around the tight street with abandon. Lapping below 1:16, his laps were consistently 1.5s to 2.0s faster than those of Franchitti, Tracy or any of the other drivers.
Would Montoya be able to build up enough of a lead before his fuel ran dry to be able to come back out in the lead? In the event, this was not to be. Although Montoya succeeded in building a lead of over 15 seconds before pitting, the 20 seconds required to make the stop dropped him down to 8th place, behind Kanaan.
This was no deterrent to Montoya's fury, though, and on his first full lap after pitting, he eliminated Kanaan's 1.5s lead, passing him into turn 3. Montoya was clearly on the limit, slipping and sliding as he made the pass, nearly allowing Kanaan to take the position back. The next time around, Montoya made the same move at the same corner, diving underneath Moreno. The "super sub" didn't even know that Montoya was there, though, and thus moved over, spinning both cars at the corner.
While Montoya lost two positions, Moreno was clearly worse off. After stalling his engine, he first had to wait for assistance to get it started, and then to make a pit stop to get some clean tires, dropping a lap down in the process. On the restart from the ensuing yellow, de Matta hit the concrete barriers, slicing off his wheels and spraying bits of carbon fiber all over the track surface.
At this point it was becoming increasingly unlikely that the winner would be able to complete the full 75 laps prior to the two-hour limit expiring. The other effect of this time limit was that it would become unnecessary for the leaders to come in for a final pit stop, thus removing any chance of Montoya being able to recover from his pit strategy.
Meanwhile, the Ford Mustang pace car was leaking fuel at each turn, making the track even more slippery, and forcing the race officials to switch pace cars. Adding insult to Montoya's injury, Helio Castro-Neves appeared to think the switch indicated a green flag, and tapped the rear of Montoya's car three laps from the end, spinning the Colombian off course and terminally out of the points.
Not only did Team Ganassi's pit strategy cost Montoya the win, the final accident also cost him the championship points lead, with Franchitti now taking a 136-131 lead in the drivers' championship. Now, we can only hope that Mid-Ohio and Chicago can recapture some of the excitement lost in the short driver from Michigan Speedway to Belle Isle.