Four races into the IndyCar season, Will Power looks like the driver to beat; but, as he knows all too well, an early lead is often no guarantee of success.
After stumbling out of the gate with a seventh-place finish in the season opener, the Penske driver took his third consecutive win of 2012, this time on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday. The win gives him a commanding 45-point lead in the championship standings. Drivers get 50 points for a win.
But Power isn't taking anything for granted after his blazing start – after all, he has seen the title slip through his fingers late in the season in the past two years, despite getting an early jump on the field in both seasons.
"We've had some great starts to this season the last two years, and fell short both times," he said after his 18th career IndyCar win in Brazil,.
In the past two season, Power has come out of the gate fast but lost momentum later in the year, allowing four-time champion Dario Franchitti to catch up. In 2010, Power excelled on road and street courses but had some trouble on ovals, which allowed Franchitti to put in a late season charge and snatch the championship by a mere five points.
A year later, Power led the championship until the penultimate round in Kentucky, when an accident in the pit lane ruined his day and allowed Franchitti to jump ahead by 18 points. When the finale in Las Vegas was called off after an early accident claimed the life of driver Dan Wheldon, Franchitti was champion again.
Franchitti is now showing signs of coming out of his early season slump, earning a solid fifth-place finish in São Paulo after starting from second on the grid.
For Power, relaxing is not an option.
"You don't hold a guy like Dario down for very long," he said. "He's going to be back. You can see he's back in the championship fight. So I'm glad I got some points off him while I could."
After four races, Franchitti is 10th in points.
The Brazilian victory makes Power the first driver to win three straight races since Scott Dixon went on a tear in July 2007, wining at Watkins Glen International, Nashville, Tenn., and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The last driver to win four consecutive races was Sebastian Bourdais in Champ Car in 2006. The record for straight wins is seven, set by A.J. Foyt in 1964 when open wheel was sanctioned by the United States Auto Club.
The early success in 2012 gives Power almost a full race-win-sized gap between himself and his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, who is second on 135 points. James Hinchcliffe from Oakville, Ont. is third overall in the points standings, 57 adrift of the high-flying Power. Hinchcliffe's Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay is two points behind in fourth after a second-place finish in Brazil. Simon Pagenaud rounds out the top five with 118 markers.
Hinchcliffe is the only driver to make the Fast Six in qualifying in all four races so far this year – and he kept up his string of top finishes by crossing the line in sixth place. The Fast Six is the final session in qualifying, which decides the pole sitter.
In addition to staying at the pointy end in qualifying, Hinchcliffe has not ended a race outside the top six this season, taking a fourth in the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., a sixth at Alabama's Barber Motorsport Park and a third on the Long Beach, Calif. street course.
Unfortunately, the slippery conditions caused by rain earlier in the day gave Hinchcliffe fits early, until the team dialled in his car and got him back on track. A fumbled first pit stop didn't help matters much, and bumped him down to 12th at the halfway point. But things got better for him in the second half.
"As the track dried out the car really came to us and we had the car back that we had yesterday [in qualifying]– we set the third quickest lap and the car was hauling," he said.
"We'll take the finish and take the points – if we're not thrilled with a sixth-place finish, that means we're doing something right."
The next race is the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.
Wickens gets caught speeding in DTM debut
Mercedes driver Gary Paffet took the opening victory of the 2012 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) Series as the Canadians racing in the series endured a tough start to the season.
Rookie Robert Wickens finished his debut race with Mercedes in 14th place after a mistake in the pit lane cost him any chance at a top 10 result. Wickens, 23, started 13th and was briefly as high as eighth, but it was all for naught.
While he had a chance to steal some points in his maiden DTM race after several drivers ran into trouble, a speeding infraction on his first pit stop ruined his day.
"I have learned a lot from this first race, and I'm sure it will put me in good stead for the rest of the season," he said. "I'm pretty sure that with the superb support of the Mercedes team, I will continue to improve as the year progresses."
Bruno Spengler of Saint-Hippolyte, Que., also had a disappointing debut race with BMW after seven seasons with Mercedes.
The 28-year-old was an innocent bystander on Lap 4 when he got caught up in an accident involving other drivers, and retired after the hood of his car was torn off.
"We were having a really good weekend until the crash," he said.
"Ralf Schumacher braked too late and drove into Dirk Werner's car. He took me out at the same time. It is such a shame, as we could have picked up a good result in this race."
The top BMW driver was three-time World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx, who finished sixth.
Spengler and Wickens will have little time to rest as the next race goes ahead this weekend at Germany's Lausitzring circuit.
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