Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg
More of the Same
by Esteban Morales
April 1, 2006
One week after Dan Wheldon’s dominant performance at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Florida fans were treated to another crushing display by a red and white Dallara at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Instead of Wheldon’s Target livery, Helio Castroneves crossed the finish line in his familiar Penske Racing colors to claim his first victory of the season after taking pole for the event. Though Castroneves’s win was no surprise, the Brazilian won the same event last year, the weekend yielded some unexpected performances. Wheldon, who came into the event leading the championship, only qualified fourteenth while Darren Manning showed some speed in the Foyt Racing entry and lined up fifth on the grid.
As Johnny Rutherford pulled the Honda pace car off the track and the field went green Castroneves held onto the lead despite an outside charge by Marco Andretti and contact further behind. The yellow flew on the first lap after the cars of teammates Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti touched and set off an accordion effect involving Jeff Simmons, Kosuke Matsuura, and A.J. Foyt IV. Kanaan spun during the incident and rejoined at the back of the pack while Franchitti lost a lap due to suspension damage; although the race looked grim for both drivers, Kanaan and Franchitti later charged from behind to finish an impressive third and fifth respectively. At the restart Andretti again attempted to pass Castroneves to no avail while Manning, who moved into fourth during the melee, kept up with the leaders for several laps. By lap 15 Scott Dixon was pressuring Andretti for second while Castroneves opened a large lead over the field; Dixon took the position on lap 19.
Castroneves continued unchallenged at the front while Wheldon entered the pits out of sequence in a bid to make up for lost time. Manning managed to take third from Andretti one lap before the second yellow of the afternoon, which flew when Matsuura stalled his car on lap 28. Castroneves led Dixon, Manning, Andretti, Sam Hornish Jr., and the rest into the pits while Wheldon assumed the lead. During the lap 34 restart Wheldon bobbled and Castroneves muscled him out of the lead on the final turn leading to the front straight; Castroneves later insisted he had no intentions of aggressively moving Wheldon’s car and assumed the Briton made a mistake. Wheldon fell from first to seventh on the restart while Dixon continued in second with Hornish in third. A few laps later an ill transmission caused Vitor Meira to lock his brakes and slide into a tire barrier. Through careful strategy and luck the yellow that followed Meira’s incident allowed Franchitti to regain his lost lap while Kanaan moved into sixth behind Wheldon.
The field raced for a few laps before turn 1 contact between Ed Carpenter and A.J. Foyt IV resulted in another caution. Castroneves led Dixon, Hornish, Manning, Kanaan, and the rest to the restart at the halfway mark of the race. Dixon kept pace with Castroneves and the two began to open a lead over Hornish. On lap 63 the order behind the frontrunner's was shuffled when Hornish locked his brakes allowing Manning to take third; Hornish continued to struggle with his car and fell to seventh. A few laps later scheduled pit stops allowed Wheldon to move into third behind Castroneves and Dixon. With the closing stages of the race looming Manning looked poised to finish on the podium but unfortunately spun and stalled his car with a quarter of the race distance left.
Just prior to the final restart Castroneves and Dixon sped away from Kanaan, who had moved into third after Wheldon made his final stop of the afternoon. At one point Kanaan closed in on the leaders and was even slightly quicker but lost ground when all three cars approached Sarah Fisher’s lapped car. With a few laps left to race Castroneves expertly carved through traffic and crossed the finish line ahead of Dixon. Wheldon’s frustrating weekend dropped him to second in the championship standings while Dixon quietly took the championship lead. Castroneves and Wheldon have taken a page from last season’s script repeating as back-to-back winners in the same two events. This year’s St. Petersburg podium was also identical to the 2006 edition. According to last season’s results Castroneves should take the checkered flags at Motegi in a few weeks.