Castroneves Commands the Streets of St. Pete Although considered to be one of the top road racing talents in the Indy Racing League, Helio Castroneves had yet to even finish -- let alone win -- and IndyCar Series event featuring both left and...
Castroneves Commands the Streets of St. Pete
Although considered to be one of the top road racing talents in the Indy Racing League, Helio Castroneves had yet to even finish -- let alone win -- and IndyCar Series event featuring both left and right turns after the IRL adopted a limited road racing schedule last season. That drought ended Sunday, as the Marlboro Team Penske driver claimed the checkered flag at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in a race that featured five different leaders over 100 hard-fought laps.
In three road-course events in 2005, the popular Brazilian contended for the win, but was eliminated in multi-car crashes in each race. But on the streets of St. Petersburg, Castroneves was unstoppable, leading three times for a total of 40 laps and dominating the leader board once pole starter Dario Franchitti was eliminated by mechanical failure and Scott Dixon was hobbled by a damaged front wing.
Franchitti took the lead at the green flag and was in command for the first 14 laps, then was forced into retirement when the constant pounding of the St. Petersburg streets led to the failure of a bearing in the right front suspension.
Dixon then took over at the front for most of the next 30 laps, but damaged his left front wing against the back of a lapped car. The wing never failed, but began rubbing against the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver's left front wheel, which eventually began to cause the wing endplate to separate, costing Dixon front-end downforce.
Sweeping past Dixon in the run to the first turn, Castroneves took the lead for the first time on Lap 45 and stayed at the point until his next pit stop, under caution on Lap 54. That gave the lead to Rahal Letterman Racing's Buddy Rice, one of four lead pack cars not to pit at this time. But Castroneves took the lead again when Rice finally pitted on Lap 63. Dixon and Castroneves briefly swapped the lead one final time during a round of "splash [of fuel] and go" stops between Laps 88 and 95, and Castroneves was firmly, if only narrowly, in charge over Dixon and Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan during the final laps.
Bryan Herta finished fourth for Andretti Green Racing after a strong and incident-free run, followed by Panther Racing's Vitor Meira and Danica Patrick in her strongest IndyCar road course performance to date.
Running in the lead pack through much of the race, Kosuke Matsuura appeared headed for a possible fifth-place finish, but suffered a flat tire in the closing laps dropping him to seventh at the checker, last car on the lead lap. Sam Hornish Jr. also fell off the pace in the closing laps as his attempt to stretch his tires over two complete fuel runs failed, and went a lap down to the leaders as his handling deteriorated.
After going "off sequence" in his mid-race pit strategy, Rice led eight laps and appeared headed for a good result, but contact with Tomas Scheckter as the pair fought over fourth place in the final laps brought out the yellow flag on Lap 97, ensuring the win under caution for Castroneves.
After a one-day open test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday, the IRL IndyCar Series heads overseas to Japan for the third round in the 14-race championship and the Honda-owned Twin Ring Motegi circuit outside of Tokyo on April 22.
Helio Castroneves (#3 Marlboro Team Penske Honda) Started 5th, finished 1st, first IndyCar Series road course win, eighth career IRL victory, takes over early-season championship lead: "Boy, I was really hauling out there today. I had to go as fast as possible throughout the entire race; it was 100 qualifying laps. The car was great today, it was another fantastic job by the team. Once I got in front, man, I just kept driving it 'like I stole it'. Everything came our way today, and with the good result [second] we had last weekend in Homestead it's been a fantastic start to our season. I just want to thank all the fans that came out today and the race organizers. This is an awesome event and I'm already looking forward to coming back here next year."
Scott Dixon (#9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) Started 2nd, finished 2nd, led 36 laps: "I didn't notice the [front wing] problem at first. But eventually the end plate started flapping and rubbing against the tire. Like Tony [Kanaan] said, I was in a similar position. I could run with Helio [Castroneves], but we just weren't strong enough to put up a challenge against him on the track. There was no way I was getting past him today."
Tony Kanaan (#11 7-Eleven Andretti Green Racing Honda) Started 3rd, finished 3rd, set fastest race lap: "I was fighting hard just to keep up with the leaders. I had to drive the wheels off the car all race long and I'm exhausted. I think maybe we had too much wing in the car. it was really fast, but when I came up against Scott [Dixon] and Helio [Castroneves], I didn't have enough speed at the end of the straights to try to out-brake either of them. I could run with them, but I couldn't pass them. So we finished where we deserved today -- the cars that finished 1-2 were the ones that belonged there. We did the best job with what we had today, and that will help us in the championship."