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Monday, May 6, 2013
Upside-down world of IndyCar '13

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

OK, be honest: Before the start of the 2013 season, how many of you predicted that Takuma Sato would be leading the IZOD IndyCar Series point standings heading into the Indianapolis 500?

Takuma Sato
IndyCar points leader Takuma Sato, right, congratulates James Hinchcliffe, who passed Sato on the final turn to win Sunday at Sao Paulo.

On Sunday, the Japanese hero proved his breakthrough victory two weeks ago in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was no fluke. Sato led the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 into the final corner of the final lap, only to make a small mistake under braking that allowed James Hinchcliffe through to claim his second win of the season.

How many of you figured the Mayor of Hinchtown would have two wins on the board just four races into his first season with Andretti Autosport?

Who would have guessed that Will Power, the dominant Indy car road-racing driver of the past three years, would go more than a year without a win on any type of track?

Or that four races into the season, Power would rank 18th in the standings? For that matter, who would have thought that four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti would slot in just three places higher?

Welcome to IndyCar 2013, in which the change in engine and chassis formula implemented a year ago has done what many observers hoped it would do: It upset the status quo.

During the series' previous engine and chassis formula, which ran from 2003 to 2011, Indy car racing's three superteams -- Ganassi, Andretti and Team Penske -- won 128 of 148 races and every driver's championship.

The numbers say pretty much the same thing for the 19-race history of the DW12/turbo era, with Andretti, Penske and Ganassi combining for 16 wins in 19 races, the 2012 championship going to Andretti's Ryan Hunter-Reay.

And while Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe have combined to win three out of four races for Andretti so far this year, the racing has been great and the results anything but predictable.

Look at Sunday's race in Sao Paulo, which went absolutely down to the wire with the top five cars exchanging positions on the final lap.

With Hinchcliffe looming in his mirrors, Sato left his braking for the Anhembi street circuit's 40 mph hairpin a fraction of a second too late on the final lap and slid a few feet wide of the apex. Hinchcliffe ducked to the inside and out-accelerated Sato in the sprint to the line to claim an exciting win.

Meanwhile, just a few feet behind the battle for the lead, Josef Newgarden, Marco Andretti and Oriol Servia were dicing for third, with Andretti emerging from the final corner ahead.

"That's Indy car racing! That's what it's about," exclaimed winning team owner Michael Andretti. "It seems that so many of these races go down to the last turn of the last lap. That's what makes this such a great sport.

I was able to have a little bit more tire under me at the end of the race, and we were quicker than Takuma, but getting by him was a different story. It was great racing.

-- James Hinchcliffe

"I'm glad we came out on the good end of the stick, for sure," he added. "It's awesome to have two cars on the podium."

Sato hadn't looked like much of a threat after qualifying 12th, but the A.J. Foyt Racing car was swift on race day. A gamble on not changing tires during his final pit stop gained Sato track position and he came within a corner of producing a second straight win.

"I had the same tires for the last 35, 37 laps -- really much longer than we predicted," Sato said. "I was really struggling on the grip in the last laps. The last few laps were great fun from a driver's point of view. It's a real pity that I lost it on the final lap of the race on the final corner.

"But that shows how we are competitive, and how our series is really fun for watching the race. I think the fans really enjoy it."

Hinchcliffe had the benefit of a few extra "push to pass" power bursts as the laps wound down, but Sato did a masterful job of using the slight curvature of the mile-long back straight to hinder Hinchcliffe without drawing a penalty for blocking.

Hinchcliffe might have had reason to question the lack of a call had he come in second, but his last-lap pass for the win averted any controversy.

"At the time I thought it was a block," Hinchcliffe admitted. "I had to hit the brakes or I was going into the guardrail. That's something that we have to talk about, to look at certainly. But other than that, he was doing a very good job making the car wide. I was able to have a little bit more tire under me at the end of the race, and we were quicker than Takuma, but getting by him was a different story.

"It was great racing. That's what the fans want to see. It was a lot of fun at the end of the day."

Whether it's the traditional favorites slipping back or the new challengers stepping up, the introduction of the DW12/turbo formula seems to have speeded up the changing of the guard in the IndyCar Series.

Now headed to Indianapolis for the 500, the upstarts have the opportunity to star on Indy car racing's biggest stage.

It promises to be a very interesting month of May.