IndyCar Notes: Smoother Trip For Briscoe

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 18 2010

Roger Penske and Helio Castroneves had a good day in Motegi on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Motegi, Japan – Ryan Briscoe, whose pursuit of the 2009 IZOD IndyCar Series championship ended embarrassingly at the exit of Twin Ring Motegi’s pit road, had no issues with the egg-shaped, 1.5-mile racing layout Saturday.

Briscoe topped the second, one-hour afternoon practice for Sunday’s Indy Japan 300 at 200.894 mph to lead a 1-2 Team Penske sweep of the would-be front row. Briscoe was joined by Helio Castroneves at 200.609 mph in the final session leading to PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying later in the day.

Points-leader Will Power, also of Team Penske, stood sixth on the chart at 199.663 mph after leading the morning practice at 201.245 mph. Dario Franchitti, the two-time series champion who trailed Power by 17 points heading into qualifying, was seventh on the afternoon chart at 199.494 mph.

Franchitti, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, was involved in a similar points pursuit with Briscoe here last September. Recall that Briscoe had increased his championship points margin from four to 25 over Franchitti and 33 over Scott Dixon following a dramatic victory at Chicagoland Speedway _ the 200-lapper preceding the annual trip to Japan. Briscoe edged Dixon, also of Ganassi Racing, by 0.0077-seconds for his third win of the season.

Briscoe started fourth here last year in the 23-car field, led twice briefly and could have further distanced himself from his title pursuers in the season’s penultimate race. But as his No. 6 Dallara/Honda exited pit road on Lap 106, it swerved as Briscoe lit up the rear tires and brushed the inside retaining wall. The car also ran over the cone marking the end of the pit lane speed zone, lodging itself under the bodywork. After multiple stops for repairs and a front wing assembly replacement, Briscoe rejoined the race in 16th place. He finished 18th.

End of championship bid.

“Last year was tough in Japan,” said Briscoe, who left TRM trailing race-winner Dixon by eight points and never recovered. Briscoe wound up third in the 2009 championship, 12 points behind Franchitti.

“We went there (TRM) and Ganassi was killing us,” Briscoe said. “They were a lot better than we were around there, and I’m confident this year it will be different. We’ve been working really hard on our setups for that track, and I’m confident we’re going to have competitive cars that are capable of winning.

“It’s always easier when you have a fast car and you don’t have to start overdriving. That’s the first thing; we need to show up with competitive cars and the rest will play itself out.”

Power topped the morning practice at 201.245 mph, recording that lap on the 52nd of the session-high 53 he logged. The laps were Power’s first at TRM. Franchitti, meanwhile, was sixth-fastest at 198.229 mph. Castroneves was second at 200.010 mph, followed by Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon at 199.866 mph and Tony Kanaan of Andretti Autosport at 198.948 mph.

Sato’s crash saga continues: KV Racing Technology hired open-wheel veteran Oriol Servia of Brazil to serve as “driver consultant” to Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso and Mario Moraes this weekend.

Servia, who finished fourth in last year’s race at Twin Ring Motegi for Newman/Haas Racing, had hardly adjusted his headset when Sato crashed on his fifth practice lap Friday morning. Sato did a half-spin to the left and made hard right-rear and rear-end contact with the SAFER Barrier in Turn 1. Sato’s No. 5 Lotus/KV Racing Technology Dallara/Honda sustained heavy damage to the rear section.

Sato exited the wreck without assistance from the Holmatro Safety Team and later was cleared to continue in an event where he is being treated like a rock star by the Japanese fans and media. But his crash was another setback in a season that has seen him running at the finish in only six of 15 starts.

“On the main straight just before Turn 1, an oil fitting suddenly failed,” said Sato, an IndyCar rookie but a seven-year veteran of Formula One. “Oil poured onto the rear tires, which caused me to spin into the wall. The good news is the primary car looks good and the crew is going to repair it. Our plan right now is to get back on-track by the middle of the second practice and then attempt to qualify later in the afternoon.”

Sato did return to the second session and logged 26 laps, topped by a best of 196.321 mph.

Ironically, Sato is very familiar with TRM, having previously driven a Honda Formula One car on both the road circuit and oval tracks in demonstration runs. In addition, Sato’s F1 car is among those on display at the Twin Ring Motegi Collection Museum.

Sunday’s race will be Sato’s first competition in his homeland since the 2007 Japanese F1 Grand Prix at Fuji. Sato competed in consecutive F1 events in Japan from 2002 to 2007.

Mutoh won’t run with pack: Japanese native Hideki Mutoh will be making his third career IndyCar start at TRM this weekend, but first with Newman/Haas Racing.  Mutoh, who drove for the former Andretti Green Racing here in 2008 (finishing 11th) and 2009 (14th), said TRM is not your typical 1.5-mile superspeedway.

“You can’t run side-by-side as much, especially in Turns 3 and 4, because a lot of marbles build up high on the track as the race progresses,” said Mutoh, driver of the No. 06 Formula Dream/Panasonic Dallara/Honda. “You won’t see much pack racing; it will be more spread out.

“We have made improvements to our race car setup for the 1.5-mile ovals, and I hope the Formula Dream/Panasonic team can have a good race in Motegi. It doesn’t matter where we finish if we can fight with the top group and give the fans some excitement.”

Mutoh placed 16th on the combined practice sheet with a top speed of 197.490 mph after 102 laps.

Wheldon looks like sleeper: Sunday’s race will be the eighth IndyCar event contested at Twin Ring Motegi. The only driver to win at TRM and the championship in the same season is Dan Wheldon, who did so in 2005 with Andretti Green Racing. Wheldon earned his first series victory at TRM in 2004 and has finished in the top 10 in each of his seven races here.

Now driving the No. 4 National Guard entry for Panther Racing, Wheldon enters this race on the strength of second and third-place finishes in the previous two races at Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway. The Englishman stood sixth on the combined practice sheet with a top speed of 199.866 mph after 96 total laps.

Short-pitting, Japanese style: Eight drivers will be making their first IndyCar starts here on Sunday:  Points-leader Will Power of Team Penske, Bertrand Baguette of Conquest Racing, Simona de Silvestro of HVM Racing, Milka Duno of Dale Coyne Racing, Alex Lloyd of Dale Coyne Racing, Takuma Sato of KV Racing Technology, Alex Tagliani of FAZZT Race Team and Paul Tracy of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. …

Honda’s overtake assist – or push-to-pass – system will be used for the second time here Sunday. The system provided by Honda Performance Development is activated by the driver via a button on the steering wheel and provides an extra 200 RPM (about 10 horsepower) to the Honda Indy V-8 engine. Drivers will have 20 uses of 15 seconds each, with a 10-second recharge period between uses. …

Each team has received eight sets (32 tires) of Firestone Firehawk tires. Firestone’s spec is unique for TRM, utilizing the company’s superspeedway (Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway) construction, paired with compounds that provide similar grip and wear levels to the tires run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. …

A torn right biceps tendon will prevent Ricky Davis, chief mechanic on Scott Dixon’s No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry, from being one of the over-the-wall (outside right front) crew for the remainder of the season. Blair Julian will move from outside rear to the outside front tire changer, while Adam Rovazzini will move from inside rear to outside rear. Andy Snyder will serve as the inside rear tire-changer. …

Points-leader Will Power’s offseason will be dominated by his wedding in December to Elizabeth Cannon of Plano, Texas, the public relations representative for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. “We met in Champ Car in 2006 and I’ve been with her since then,” said Power, a native of Australia. Asked where the couple will reside, Power noted that Team Penske is located in Mooresville, N.C. “I just bought a house in Charlotte, to be near the team,”  Power said. …

Team-owner/driver Sarah Fisher and primary sponsor Dollar General will partner with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest breast cancer organization, for the Oct. 2 season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Fisher will rebrand the yellow No. 67 car, team equipment and gear in pink for the race weekend. Dollar General will make a $25,000 donation to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. In addition, SFR and retail partners Maingate and Indianapolis Motor Speedway collectively will donate a portion of the retail sales of all SFR Racing co-branded pink merchandise.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 18 2010
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