This past weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series returned to competition after a lengthy off-season. Beginning 2017 at their traditional season-opening venue, the Streets of St. Petersburg, FL, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was full of surprises and excellent racing action and strategy. We saw the return of competitiveness from the Honda teams, a worst to first winner, the debut of a new chassis in USF2000, and first rounds of the entire Mazda Road to Indy ladder system.
This season, we will again bring you six discussion points after each race in our “Three Up, Three Down” post-race series. These are not meant to be fulsome breakdowns of the race weekend, but some items to start deeper conversations about the recent race and implications for next race and the championship season. Jump in and share your thoughts with the FBC community (with civility and decorum as usual) in the comments section below.
Honda’s return to competitiveness
In 2016, Honda only managed two race wins during the sixteen-round season. Granted, one of those wins was the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race which resulted in a huge payday for Andretti Autosport and IndyCar rookie Alexander Rossi. The other win, however, was also on a superspeedway as Carlos Muñoz took the victory in the delayed Firestone 600 at the Texas Motor Speedway. Their performance on the road and street circuits left a lot to be desired and only two Honda drivers ended the season in the top-10 in championship points: Graham Rahal (P5), and Carlos Muñoz (P10).
During the off-season, Ganassi announced that his team was switching from Chevrolet power to Honda. This seemed a dangerous move by many given Honda’s lack of performance. Turns out that Mr. Ganassi has had a top-notch racing team for decades for a reason; he’s really good at this game! His veteran driver, Scott Dixon, led the field in preseason testing at Sebring, and led two of the three practice sessions at St. Petersburg. Other Honda drivers also found their way to the upper end of the timesheets including Dixon’s teammate Tony Kanaan, and Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti.
Although Will Power in his Chevrolet-powered Team Penske machine would take the pole position, the only other Chevrolet-powered car to qualify int he top-10 was Power’s teammate Josef Newgarden. Honda’s dominance continued through Race Day as only three Team Penske Chevrolets would finish in the top-10. Power would succumb to a pit lane penalty after running over an air hose on Lap 15. A late-race engine issue would eventually remove Power from competition, leaving him to finish in 19th position. It was a Honda day from the early moments of the race.
It’s nice to see Honda resurgent, but I hope it doesn’t come at the expense of parity. Last year, the competition suffered because of the inequity. What I’d hope to see in future races is a closer battle between the two manufacturers. The next race is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and the competition is usually similar to St. Pete, but perhaps at Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, we’ll see the Chevrolet teams rebound.
The “David vs Goliath” story
Everyone loves an underdog story, and St. Pete delivered in spades. Dale Coyne Racing has always been, and likely will always be, a small outfit. The team has not been without success, however, and they do score the occasional win, but it’s an infrequent occurrence. This year, the team has signed one a multi-time champion, Sebastien Bourdais, and one very talented rookie, Ed Jones. With solid driving talent as well as newly-hired top-notch engineering talent, the team was hoping to improve on their 2016 results where Conor Daly scored their only podium finish of the year during Race #1 at Belle Isle in Detroit.
Bourdais put in some great times in practice, posting the fifth best time across the three sessions, but failed to post a time during qualifying after an error sent him off track and caused a Red Flag Condition. As per the 2017 rules (Article 8.3.5), his two best times were forfeit, relegating Bourdais to the back of the starting grid. By Lap 30, the two DCR drivers had worked their way through the field and the early carnage in Turn 3 and found themselves in P2 and P4. In seven more laps, Bourdais would overtake Simon Pagenaud for the lead and Jones would take third from Marco Andretti. Although Jones would eventually drop back to fifth, Bourdais would lead from Lap 57 to the end of the race, placing Dale Coyne Racing in the championship lead for the first time in the teams long history. It was a feel-good story for all involved, and not least of which for Honda Performance Development.
“A lot of things come back. I caught myself thinking about 2003, when obviously, we started the opposite. We dominated the weekend, were on pole, cleared the field, then all hell broke loose. I found myself tapping the wall in Turn 8, threw it away. It was kind of redemption day here. To come out on top with obviously a lot of friends and family on-site, the whole community supporting the effort, it was just a great feeling. I couldn’t really be any happier for Honda and Dale for giving me the opportunity to put the band back together and make it happen. Everybody works really, really hard. We’re a small group. There is nobody at the shop that doesn’t travel. But it works. It’s a great little group. We’re sure not going to stop there. We’re just going to keep on trying.” — Sebastien Bourdais, No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing
On Monday, Racer.com reported that the viewership for the St. Petersburg race was up significantly over that of last year’s race. The 2016 season-opener, which like this year was on ABC, drew only a 0.8 overnight rating. This year’s race drew a 1.1 rating, equivalent to 1.4 million viewers. While those numbers are still low in comparison to what NASCAR drew on Fox, a 3.6, it’s positive and much-needed growth. Even major media outlets like the New York Times are starting to take notice of the growing strength of the IndyCar product.
While there are still some differences in viewpoints between the team owners and the series management regarding the future direction of the sport in regards to cockpit protection and aero development, the relationship between the two sides is far better than it has been in decades. Perhaps, it’s better than it’s ever been. If those involved in the sport can work together, instead of at cross-purposes as we saw beginning in the late 70s, we could be seeing the dawning of a new golden age of open-wheel racing in North America. Will it be as dominant as the sport enjoyed in the late 80s and early 90s? No, probably not. The sports media landscape has changed in some very fundamental ways since then, but that’s not to say that IndyCar could not again become a rival for the preeminent American-based racing series.
Dependency on three teams
As we mentioned in Episode 19 of FBC indi, while the total car count of 21 makes for a decent sized grid, there is a legitimate concern regarding the number of actual teams to field cars. Right now, there are eight different full-time teams, but 12 of the cars at St. Pete, over half of the grid, were from only three teams: Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske, and Andretti Autosport. Those three teams certainly have a long history with the series, and don’t show any signs of folding up, we have seen on team, KV Racing, close its doors this year. There are many elements of strength and growth in IndyCar as we mentioned above, but the heavy dependence upon three teams to field half the grid is an indication that there’s still work to be done.
Lack of televised content
One of the long-standing complaints about the ABC/ESPN coverage of IndyCar is the lack of televised content. There are some issues with their on-air talent, as well, and I’m sure we’ll discuss those in Episode 20 of FBC indi later this week, but the lack of any practice or qualifying coverage, and no coverage of any of the Mazda Road to Indy races means that there’s less air-time for sponsors and other corporate partners of the series and teams. At least, there was a half hour of pre-race coverage which is more than has sometimes been offered in the past, but it highlights the importance of the impending broadcast rights negotiations. ABC’s interest in the series seems only to extend to the Indianapolis 500, but for IndyCar to be successful overall, it must improve the on-air content at all of it’s races, and that means including coverage of qualifying at the very least and a highlights package of the Mazda Road to Indy races.
Street race carnage
Street racing always brings carnage. Combine fast but fragile cars with a group of eager and aggressive drivers and the confining concrete canyons of a temporary circuit, and you have road-clogging mayhem just waiting to happen. One of the benefits of the St. Petersburg circuit is the very wide entry into Turn 1 as the field comes off of an airport runway into a sweeping right-hander with lots of run-off room. Things tighten up significantly by Turn 3, and especially this year with the turn having been reprofiled. Not surprisingly, Lap 1 Turn 3 was the location of the first full-course caution inducing incident of the race as Graham Rahal squeezed Charlie Kimball into the inside barrier. That first incident also involved Carlos Muñoz and JR Hildebrand as collateral damage. The only other FCY of the race would also be initiated because of a Turn 3 incident, this time between Mikhail Aleshin and Tony Kanaan. To be honest, the mayhem was no where near what we’ve seen in the past, but it still played a pivotal role in the outcome of the race.
So those are the key elements I saw during Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. What are your thoughts? How important is the success of Bourdais and Coyne last weekend? Are the TV numbers still relevant? Will we see a Honda-dominated season? Leave your thoughts and insights in the comment section below.