The ebb and flow of the 2011 title fight could rival that of any other year. Several times this year, either Will Power or Dario Franchitti appeared to have the measure of his rival only to lose it during the next race.
Sunday’s Indy Japan The Final was yet another cog in that swing swinging pendulum. As Will Power had a quietly efficient run to second, Dario Franchitti had to dig out of a hole he threw himself into with one poorly timed move.
On a lap 25 restart, Franchitti, then running fifth, took a look inside of Ryan Briscoe, who was already on the inside line entering turn one with Charlie Kimball next to him. Franchitti knew he’d made a mistake immediately and tried to back out of it, but the hole closed before he could get out of the way. He pitched Briscoe into a spin that also collected Graham Rahal (Briscoe made contact with Rahal after he was turned) and forced Kimball into the gravel trap.
Franchitti didn’t mince his words and accepted full responsibility. “The incident was totally my mistake, totally my mistake,” said the disappointed Scotsman. “I did a lot hard work to get from ninth to fifth, and I'd been saving fuel the whole first stint. I made risky move on the restart. I thought there was a gap and Ryan (Briscoe) was going wide on the entry and that was that. I apologized to Graham and I apologized to Chip. Briscoe and Charlie (Kimball) I will apologize to when I see him. I own up to the mistake and Chip is right to be critical. It was a stupid move, and I shouldn't have done it."
In terms of the championship, he was philosophical about the effects Sunday’s run could have. “If you win or if you lose, you always look at the championship as a whole. Today, Loudon, Texas, Indy and on and on. You always look at these things, but Will (Power) can do the same with his races. That was a mistake today. Shouldn't have made it.” Of course, it could have been much worse. Franchitti rallied to finish eighth, far better than most would have predicted after the contact.
With that said, Power seemed to be on cruise control behind Dixon, stalking him the entire way. He couldn’t grab the win, but the result is exactly what he and Verizon Team Penske wanted. “I just need to keep finishing in front of the 10 car the rest of the way and we'll be fine,” said Power. “We'll keep chipping away like we have been.”
In finishing second, Power also claimed the Mario Andretti Trophy for the Road Course Championship, the second year in a row he’ll hold the crown as the series’ best road and street racer. “It's an honor to win the Mario Andretti Road Course award again - I have such respect for Mario and all he's accomplished,” he said of the accomplishment. “Now, we need to keep going and finish the season strong on the ovals.
Race Control’s Inconsistency Wearing on Drivers
The other entity that will have the lion’s share of the criticism is Race Control. The manner in which penalties were assigned by Brian Barnhart, Tony Cotman, and Al Unser Jr., who all call the race together, is at the forefront of the controversy.
Franchitti was penalized for his role in that lap 25 restart, but it was a different penalty than they had been giving. Since Edmonton, penalties for avoidable contact have come in the form of drive-throughs. However, in this case, Franchitti was simply moved to the back of field, where he already was running after he pitted for a new front wing. That decision drew the ire of Wally Dallenbach and Robin Miller during VERSUS’ broadcast.
However, the ruling that drew headlines, albeit for the reaction it got, was Helio Castroneves’ penalty for passing under a local caution. With two laps remaining, Hideki Mutoh spun and stalled in turn three. No full-course caution was flown, but a local yellow was issued, meaning that drivers were not allowed to overtake in that corner. Castroneves, battling with J.R. Hildebrand for seventh, passed him in that corner on the final lap and failed to give it up. A penalty beckoned. Castroneves was moved down the finishing order to 22nd.
The Penske driver took to twitter after the race and fired his anger in the direction of race officials. Even though Castroneves deserved a penalty, his words were very condemning of the team in Race Control on the way Franchitti was “penalized” and the lack of one for Sebastien Bourdais, who spun Ryan Hunter-Reay late in the going in turn three as well.
The officials have come under fire numerous times this year, with the criticism getting louder. It has been at an all-time high since Loudon, with more of the drivers now publicly lashing out.