St. Petersburg, FL (March 27) - Two-time defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti served notice that his own hunger for another championship would continue in the 2011 season, as he stamped out a dominant victory in a crash-filled season opener at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Sunday afternoon.
Franchitti easily withstood the challenge from runner-up Will Power of Penske Racing, while a reinvigorated Tony Kanaan nabbed the final podium spot in his debut for KV-Lotus Racing after a spirited multi-lap battle with second-year driver Simona De Silvestro that had the strong crowd roaring in approval.A lap one, turn one accident flipped the car of Marco Andretti upside down onto its roll hoop, and resulting contact damaged or removed five other cars from the field including Helio Castroneves, with the two trading blame for the incident in dueling pit lane interviews. Mike Conway, who started fourth, was also taken out, with damage also affecting Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ryan Briscoe and Graham Rahal. In all, nine cars were removed from contention due to contact, although several were repaired to run for points at the end of the race. Turn one was the primary culprit of the carnage, as cars fanned out three and four wide on the start and subsequent restarts.
Franchitti pulled a daring outside-inside pass on the first restart that left Power with an impossible scenario as he yielded the lead heading into turn two. Power was forced to pull up or take both drivers out in a plume of carbon fiber. Power chose that discretion was the better part of valor in the first race of the season, but never really closed the gap on Franchitti, who led 94 laps of the 100-lap event on the 14-turn, 1.8 mile street circuit.
"Yeah, I knew if I could just get through the apex of (turn) one, I would be on the inside of (turn) two and it would be up to Will, he had the decision to make," Franchitti said. "Our tires were cold... and we were both going to there pretty hard, neither of us wanted to give.
"But when you get to do moves like that, and they come off, it's a buzz."
Power fought through mechanical issues including a jammed gearbox, brake bias adjustment issues and the loss of some aerodynamic trim to contact, but was never able to mount a serious threat to Franchitti, who was over seven seconds clear of the field at the checkered flag.
Four caution flags in the first 15 laps resulted in several of the front runners sustaining damage and all intents and purposes left the remainder of the race to Franchitti. The double file restart format, subject of much speculation and discussion before the season, received a mixed review from the drivers, receiving blame from Power and compliments from De Silvestro, who noted that it allowed her to make up many positions.
"It was a start, NASCAR-style. And we are not NASCAR. That was the problem, we can't hit each other, we can't bump each other," Power said. "And when we start cars nose-to-tail that late, there's (too) many cars in a short space."
"As drivers, I think we have to take some of the blame there for what happened," Franchitti said. "We are ultimately in control of these cars."
If the Cinderella of the race was upstart De Silvestro, who fought forward from a 17th place starting position to finish fourth, then the Prince Charming was Kanaan, as the popular Brazilian weathered an off season of uncertainty to drive the wheels off the car in his KV debut. Kanaan joked that he had to finish in front of De Silvestro after his team had hired veteran race engineer Michael Cannon away from De Silvestro and HVM Racing earlier in the week.
"I definitely had a couple of boosts left, maybe I should have used it a little bit earlier, but I got close a couple of times to TK because he was making a couple of mistakes," De Silvestro said. "But like I said it was really high risk to make the move. You know I was running fourth and I never really got the shot that I was next to him... I didn't want to take any crazy chances to ruin the race."
Takuma Sato finished fifth, also for KV-Lotus Racing, while Alex Tagliani notched a sixth-place finish in his debut for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. J.R Hildebrand weathered a rough weekend to post the highest rookie finish in P11, moving up from 24th on the opening grid. Fellow rookies Sebastian Saavedra, Ana Beatriz and James Jakes finished in positions 13 through 15.
- Four-time ChampCar World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais damaged his car in a fiery crash in the morning warm-up session and was unable to make his debut for Dale Coyne Racing.
- Josef Newgarden edged Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammate Conor Daly in the Firestone Indy Lights race at St. Pete. Peter Dempsey of Ireland was third in his Lights debut, as rookies took the top 13 positions in the race.