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Car Racing
May 2003

Indy 500: Brazil All Over

Gil de Ferran, Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan complete
unprecedented 1-2-3 sweep, marking a third straight year of Brazilian
dominance at Formula Indy's premiere competition. The three
Brazilians were separated by less than one-quarter second,
marking the closest ever 1-2-3 finish in Indianapolis 500 history.

Phillip Wagner
 

One has to wonder if the little city of Speedway—an independently governed community within greater Indianapolis, Indiana—might soon be renamed "Little Brazil". Brazilian mastery at the most acclaimed racing venue in the United States defies description. Consider these superlatives: Brazilians have accounted for seven of nine top three finishes over the past three years when they twice started from the pole position (fastest qualifier), won all three races and were twice named fastest rookie.

In 2001 Brazilians accounted for five of the top-ten finishing positions (1, 2, 5, 8 and 10). In 2002 three Brazilians finished in the top-ten (1, 3 and 10). And now, in 2003, they complete an improbable sweep of the top three places in such matter-of-fact fashion that a national media reporter asked Hélio to describe his disappointment after finishing behind teammate and fellow countryman Gil de Ferran.

For any Formula Indy driver to anticipate securing a second place finish at Indianapolis in his, or her, third year would be something. But Hélio, in three appearances, had finished in first, first and, now, second-place. Success has become so expected that now it was simply taken for granted.

If Brazil's 1-2-3 sweep seems improbable at first glance it seems miraculous when examined more closely. Tony Kanaan wasn't even expected to qualify his own car. Recovering from an accident earlier in the season he was still wearing an arm brace when qualifications took place. Had track legend Mario Andretti, recruited by team-owner and driver son Michael, successfully qualified Tony's car for him, Tony would have had to start from the last position in the 33-car field.

No car has ever won at Indianapolis from any position lower than 28. Tony needed to begin the race from somewhere in the first five rows to be competitive. A near deadly accident in pre-qualification practice convinced the elder Andretti to reconsider the "opportunity" son Michael had afforded him. Injured or not, Tony would have to "tough it out" and qualify his own car. And did Tony ever "tough it out"; he posted a four lap qualifying average that had him securely on the pole until Hélio edged him out late on qualification day.

Hélio, for his part, was vying for an inconceivable first-place-finishes-only "three-peat". Inconceivable because no one else had ever won three consecutive Indy 500 races in the 92 years since the inaugural competition in 1911. And Hélio was trying to accomplish it in the only three years he had ever competed at Indianapolis. And it would have been an improbable feat, in any case, just because a driver has to be almost as lucky as he, or she, is good just to finish three consecutive 500 mile races on crowded tracks at speeds of up to 240 miles an hour.

But Gil de Ferran, more than anyone at the end of this race day, stood for the magic and the mythology, the courage and the dedication, that the approachable and entertaining Brazilians have come to represent at Indianapolis. Only two months after suffering a lower back fracture in a race at Phoenix, Gil strapped himself into his red and white Marlboro/Johns Manville Team-Penske G-Force Toyota `rocket' and posted the 10th fastest qualifying speed.

Then he strapped himself in again to tackle 500 miles on a track crowded with nine Indianapolis `rookie' drivers. A journalist asked Gil if he had experienced pain by the end of the race. "I was in pain I have to admit," he said "Half way through the race my shoulders started cramping. I really had a hard time putting my hands up, especially the left hand. It was getting more and more and more and more painful, really. It was getting more and more difficult to block (the pain) out."

From the outset it appeared that the two fastest qualifiers, Castroneves and Kanaan were going to run away from the field. On laps five through eight Hélio consistently posted lap speeds exceeding 225 miles an hour. Meanwhile, Brazilian Felipe Giaffóne, who finished 3rd last year, suffered a disappointing early exit. His car lost power on lap seven, forcing him into the pits; the problem could not be resolved. De Ferran patiently held his ground around positions ten or eleven. On lap nine an engine problem that forced another competitor to the sidelines prompted a "yellow flag," which slowed the field to a cautionary pace until the track could be inspected and or cleaned. Kanaan, and later Castroneves, took advantage of the `paced' progress to complete scheduled pit stops for checking and/or changing tires and topping off fuel.

Castroneves relinquished the lead when he entered the pits on lap 16. The lead remained out of Brazilian hands until Tony Kanaan recovered it with 25 percent of the race completed, on lap 50. But Kanaan immediately gave it up to South African Tomas Scheckter who maintained the lead through lap 94 with the exception of 10 laps led by Kanaan's teammate Michael Andretti. Castroneves recaptured the lead on lap 95, but yielded it again on lap 100, at the halfway point of the race. Scheckter led for 27 of the next 28 laps before Castroneves recovered it once more. From that time forward the Brazilians would lead all but three of the remaining 72 laps.

As Castroneves and Kanaan re-established their competitive edge, Gil (de Ferran) quietly and successfully stalked the competition in front of him. Ditto for Brazilian Airton Dare who began from where Tony Kanaan might have started at position 33. Dare moved up to as high as 2nd place and maintained a threatening 7th place position before experiencing mechanical problems that led to him crashing into the wall on turn two, ending his day.

Rookie Brazilian Vitor Meira displayed uncanny veteran good-sense and capable driving to keep out of trouble and gain position as attrition eliminated cars in front of him. By lap 160, Castroneves, de Ferran and Kanaan had long been running 1-2-3. Kanaan inherited the lead on lap 166 when Castroneves and de Ferran pitted, but Kanaan himself pitted a lap later giving it up to Scheckter. Scheckter did likewise, passing the lead to Tora Takagi, who appeared to be about to pass it back to Castroneves on lap 170. But de Ferran made a move, sliding past Castroneves when Hélio got caught up in traffic on a turn and had to hit the brakes while downshifting into 4th gear. Castroneves quickly recovered, but Gil was already by him. And Kanaan was suddenly closer than a bullet's shadow to both of them.

Track anxiety was palpable as de Ferran, Castroneves and Kanaan screamed around the two and a half-mile oval as if connected back to back to back. Hélio was fingertip close to making history; so close it seemed he must have been able to taste it. But teammate Gil de Ferran was driving flawlessly, and appeared to be strong enough to hold him off. Come what may, Team Penske would not sanction a controversial "ordered" finish, as had been the case in Indianapolis last September when Formula One Team Ferrari's Michael Schumacher pulled aside to allow Rubens Barrichello to take the checkered flag.

Advised "not to do anything stupid" Castroneves and de Ferran were left to their own devices to determine the outcome. Three "three-peat" victories were at stake here, one for Castroveves, one for Team Penske and one for Brazil. De Ferran threatened one of them and Kanaan two, but it appeared Brazil was destined to have a great day barring unforeseen mechanical failure or an accident.

The atmosphere vacillated between anticipating a three-car race-to-the-finish showdown and deflated expectations as three incident-triggered yellow-flag cautions were declared in the final 30 laps. The most spectacular, and the one that may have sealed Hélio's fate and allowed Gil his own place in the pantheon of victors at Indianapolis, was truly heart-stopping. British Dan Wheldon's red and white Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara Honda crushed into a wall and flipped over so that the driver was head down as the momentum-driven wreckage scraped across the track.

In the ensuing confusion many track-side spectators first concluded that Hélio had crashed, owing to the fact that Wheldon's red and white car was so similar in appearance to Team Penske's two red and white entries. Bits of wreckage were strewn across the track, delaying clean-up and denying Hélio precious green-flag laps that might have provided more opportunity for another move on de Ferran.

But in a post race press conference, Castroneves was quick to concede the obvious: "It's one of those deals that you just don't know. My car was extremely well balanced, so any mistake that might have happened I would've had the location. But I spoke with Gil after the race and he said that he was flat out. So I guess I'm glad that nothing more happened because I think that maybe we'd of been in a tough (`head to head') situation …".

The final six laps were run under the green flag, but Gil was just too strong for the stuck-like-glue Castroneves and shadow Kanaan. De Ferran, Castroneves and Kanaan were all separated by less than one and a quarter second, marking the closest ever 1-2-3 finish in Indianapolis 500 history. De Ferran's edge over Castroneves was the third closest between the number one and number two cars.

De Ferran, who'd finished second to Castroneves in 2001, was overcome with emotion following the race. "I'll tell you, it's hard to describe in words what I'm feeling right now," de Ferran said. "It's just unbelievable for me. You always dream of winning a race like this. Words escape me right now." Words didn't escape Team Penske President Tim Cindin though. "If there's a guy that deserved to win this race it's the guy that won today. He's a class act, he's great for the sport".

 

Phillip Wagner is a regular contributor to Brazzil and is working on additional material for a future article covering the history of Brazil's love affair with racing. Phillip can be reached via email at pwagner@iei.net  and maintains a web site at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm .

 
 

 


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