IndyCar – Three up, three down: St. Pete

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It’s the beginning of the open-wheel racing season! Yes, I know you rally guys have been at it for a while. Formula 1 has had its traditional season opener in Melbourne, and the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Mazda Road to Indy have once again done battle on the streets of St. Petersburg, FL. Street races are often fraught with greater danger than purpose-built road circuits as the surface, being genuine city streets rather than a groomed racing surface, are bumpier and and the limitations of the course are closer to the racing line. The St. Petersburg circuit offers a bit more room than many street circuits thanks in large part to its front stretch being an airport runway. Once you negotiate Turn 1, however, the course tightens significantly and the walls come up quickly. It frequently makes the race a festival of carbon fiber, as we saw in last year’s event. While the course did bite a few people this year, the degree of damage for the field as a whole was far less than it has been in previous years.

In a remarkable display of pace and performance, Simon Pagenaud, driving the No. 22 Penske Racing machine, lead the first 48 laps of the 110-lap event. His early success would not last as his teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, would eventually overtake him and then leader Conor Daly and succeed in scoring back-to-back victories on the Streets of St. Petersburg having also won the 2015 season opener.

“It was good. Our Verizon Chevy was great and it’s exciting with this new paint scheme and to come out and win with it. I want to thank everybody on the team and all of our supporters because they do an amazing job. No, it’s all good, it’s just awesome. You know, we started the year last year like this and I thought this morning that we had a really good car and it paid off.” — Juan Pablo Montoya, #2 Penske Racing

Three Up

Clean racing
The St. Petersburg race is known for producing more than it’s share of carbon fiber shards. This is in part to it being a street race where the walls can rush up on a driver extremely quickly, but also because it is the first race of the season and everyone is eager to go fast again after an extremely lengthy off-season. Last year, it was hard to keep track of all the incidents and broken wings, winglets, and aero tidbits. This year was a very different story. Most of the race was run clean. There was only one major incident. To be sure, it was a significant incident, one that clogged track, but it was just a singular incident. Absent was the abundant Turn 1/Turn 2 messes we’ve seen in the past, and that’s a good thing.

Small teams show strength

Conor Daly and Dale Coyne chat along pit lane prior to the final practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg -- Photo by: John Cote, IndyCar.com
Conor Daly and Dale Coyne chat along pit lane prior to the final practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg — Photo by: John Cote, IndyCar.com

In any racing series, the more cubic dollars one has to throw at the problem of going fast, the better results you see. That is certainly true in the IndyCar Series as well. To be sure, the Penske and Ganassi organizations have some of the very best driving and engineering talent, but it doesn’t hurt that they also have the biggest budgets. This puts some of the small teams like Ed Carpenter Racing and Dale Coyne Racing at an immediate disadvantage. It doesn’t put them out of competition, though. Both teams have highly skilled drivers and experienced engineers as shown in the St. Petersburg race. Conor Daly, driver of the No. 18 car for Dale Coyne Racing, found himself leading the race in the dwindling laps of the late afternoon. If not for exiting the pits right in the middle of a scrap between James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz. Contact with the kerbing damaged Daly’s car and ended his very real chances at a podium finish.

“We came out of the pits right in the middle of a scuffle and, obviously, we’re on cold tires but the tires come in pretty quick. I thought Hinch was a couple of laps down so I didn’t know he was going to go heavy to the inside. But then Munoz tried to go on the outside of both of us and we’re both already trying to do something, there was no room there. You can’t go three wide there. I don’t know what he was doing exactly and I ended up on the curb and the wheel actually flew out of my hands.

“I had no idea if the suspension was broken or if anything was broken. I kept going and it felt fine and we would have been fine but there was debris from the nose that lodged in one of the sidepods so that caused us an extra stop and that killed our race.

“Other than that, it was fun. It was nice to be out there. We had a bit of luck to get out to P1 but, I thought we really nailed it on that set of Firestone Reds when we got there. The Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality car was really good on the reds and I was able to kind of just establish a pace but I got caught in traffic a little bit. I need to work on where I apply the overtake and our traction. We’re not good on traction and a lot of people were getting us and it made it hard for overtaking. I mean, there’s a lot to learn, but overall it was nice to fight upfront with the Penskes. That’s the key thing, it’s that we were fighting upfront and they weren’t pulling away. We were right there and we were saving fuel.

“It’s a good place to start. We have to start somewhere. We had all kinds of ups and downs but these are INDYCAR races it’s normal for that. I’m happy with it but you always want more. When we’re running up front, that’s the real feeling that we like. We just want to get back there.” — Conor Daly, #18 Dale Coyne Racing

Honda finds pace
One of the biggest stories throughout the 2015 season was the inequity between the Chevrolet and Honda aero kit designs. Honda went for an aggressive, high-downforce design that ultimately lead to high-speed yaw instabilities on the superspeedways, but also limited their straight-line performance on road circuits. The Chevrolet design was better suited to the Dallara chassis and the style of racing seen in the IndyCar Series. Over the off-season, Honda was permitted to rework their aero program. The result was a package that was much closer in both appearance and, more importantly, performance to the Chevrolet kit. Although Chevrolet won the day, I think we’ll see closer competition between the two manufacturers this season than we did last season.

Three Down

Power out
Everyone is very sensitive these days to driver and spectator safety. Beyond motorsport, professional sport in general is taking the long-term risks of head injuries and concussions far more seriously than they have in the past. During a post-qualifying practice session, pole-sitter, Will Power, suffered a hard impact, an impact that destroyed his car and left him nauseous. Although he was cleared of having a concussion, he did sit out the season-opener as Oriol Servia took the wheel of the No. 12 Penske Racing machine in his place. Will Power has as many fans as he does detractors, but regardless of what you think of him, he’s always fast and exciting to watch. It’s a shame that he was absent from the starting grid after showing great pace and taking the pole position during qualifying.

Rahal punted

Carnage in Turn 4 during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg -- Photo by: Chris Jones, IndyCar.com
Carnage in Turn 4 during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg — Photo by: Chris Jones, IndyCar.com

Although most of the race was very clean, the one major incident that did occur was a whopper. After a late-race restart, and contact up-front between Scott Dixon and Helio Castronevez, Carlos Munoz made hard contact with the rear of Graham Rahal as they entered Turn 4. There was significant mayhem immediately following the contact resulting in a completely clogged racetrack. Of course, the hand gestures began immediately, and it was not entirely unwarranted. The contact was ultimately just a racing incident, but in the dwindling laps of the season-opening race, emotions and tensions were high. Rahal, who had been running in eighth place prior to the incident, was one of the last cars to be restarted and released from the scene. This put the second-generation driver near the very back of the grid, and he would only manage to claw his way up to a very distant sixteenth place finish.

Minimal action
It’s hard to claim this as a down point given that the lack of intense side-by-side battles allowed for longer green-flag stints and fewer banged up racing machines. For the sophisticated viewer, there was lots of strategy to follow as some smaller teams, including Connor Daly for Dale Coyne Racing, found themselves up front while executing an off-sequence pit-stop strategy. Those who are keen on the subtleties of racing, it made for a good race, but for the casual viewer, it may have appeared a bit flat.

Next up: Phoenix

This weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indy Lights Series return to the Phoenix International Raceway for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. It’s been eleven years since there has been open-wheel racing at the funky-shaped oval, but the venue, until 2005, has been a traditional stop for Indy car racing dating back to 1964. It’s good to see some of the traditional open-wheel venues return to the schedule. Hopefully, enough fans feel the same way and buy enough tickets to keep the Phoenix International Raceway on the schedule for years to come. Be on the lookout for our Phoenix Grand Prix preview on Thursday.

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partofthepuzzle

I’m a dedicated open wheel racing fan. Primarily F1 but also IndyCar. However, I’m fed up with the IndyCar street tracks that are just too damn narrow for realistic racing. Watching pile up after pile up in Baltimore, Long Beach, St. Pete, etc. just ruins the racing for me. I appreciate the scenic and historic nature of the street circuits and how they bring racing to urban locations, but for me it just isn’t worth watching cars trying to defy the laws of physics: not in the good way of sticking to the ground at 200 mph but in the… Read more »

The Captain

Another ‘down’ was the way ABC opened up their coverage literally within the first paragraph of dialog saying this race means very little, is just practice for Indy, and boy can they not wait for the Indianapolis 500. I’d never seen a network crap on what they where about to show like that before.

oregonwings

I’d have to say the biggest “down” was the deplorable ABC coverage. They didn’t follow the action all around the track, their commentary sucked (as usual), and they had zero pre-race show for the first race of the season explaining all the changes (aero kits; driver changes; etc.).

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