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Indy 500: Brazil All Over

 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.

by: 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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