St. Petersburg Preview

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This weekend is Round Two for the 2010 Izod IndyCar Series. It has always been fairly entertaining, but it has a tough act to follow as it comes on the heels of the São Paulo Indy 300 two weeks ago. As exciting as that race was, there were still a lot of first-time glitches that will need to be worked out for subsequent races in Brazil. No such glitches should be apparent for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. They’ve had plenty of time to make tweaks and get it right.

The race on the streets of St. Petersburg has been on the Izod IndyCar Series calendar since 2005. However, it also hosted a Champ Car event in 2003, which was won by Paul Tracy. A dispute between promoters led to the race being cancelled in 2004 before it resurfaced as an IRL race the following year.

Racing on the streets of St. Pete actually dates back to 1985 in some form or another. There have been various series such as SCCA Tans-Am, Formula Ford and Barber Dodge that have run off and on since then, on different circuits in and around the city. But when the IndyCars showed up in 2005 with Andretti-Green promotions running things, it took on a whole new life.

Not only did Andretti-Green promote the race, but the 2005 edition featured a top-four sweep as AGR drivers Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta swept positions one through four respectively. The following two years saw Helio Castroneves win the event twice in a row. Helio finished second in the rain in 2008 as Graham Rahal crossed the finish line first in his first-ever Izod IndyCar Series event.

Last season saw Ryan Briscoe atone for his mistake in the 2008 race, by winning the race and getting his 2009 season off on the right foot. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second in what looked to be a promising debut for him at Vision Racing. It didn’t work out that way. RHR and Vision quickly lost their way by Indy in what ended up being a nightmare season for Hunter-Reay. Justin Wilson served notice by finishing third, that his Dale Coyne team would be a force to be reckoned with – on road/street courses, anyway.

The circuit is a combination of a long wide straightaway, which also happens to be an airport runway that funnels down to a tight right-hander. From there, the circuit has a few kinks before opening up to a shorter straight section throughout the downtown area. Then there are a series of tight turns and straights before it ends up at the beginning of the runway section to approach the start-finish line.

There will be many storylines to watch as we head into the first practice today. Probably the one on everyone’s mind is how Graham Rahal will perform in the No. 67 Dollar General Dallara for Sarah Fisher Racing. Even though it appears Rahal is headed back to Newman/Haas/Lanigan after Barber, this was a smart move for Graham, but an even smarter move for Sarah Fisher and her growing team. Putting Graham in the seat will give them a much better idea of where the team stands in its street/road course program. Give Sarah credit for admitting her skills on street circuits are lacking and putting the team before her ego. I’ll also acknowledge Nashville-based Dollar General for giving their blessing for the two race deal to have the young Rahal in the car for Barber as well as St. Petersburg.

Other things that I’ll be keeping my eye on are not quite as obvious. I’m curious to see if Ryan Briscoe can bounce back from his inexplicable brain-fade during the closing laps in Brazil when he crashed while leading. That was his second time to have contact while leading in his last three races. It was shunts like this that had people wondering in 2008 just how long it would be before The Captain let him go. Briscoe is a great driver and an even better person. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him on a few occasions over the years and he is one of the most personable drivers on the grid. But these lapses in concentration have been inexcusable and I hope this was merely a blip for this season and not a trend.

I’ll also be interested to see if Ganassi can recover from what was a very ordinary outing two weeks ago. Other than Dario Franchitti grabbing the first pole of the season and leading the first few laps, Target Chip Ganassi Racing was really not much of a factor in Brazil. They will need better results this weekend if they are going to stay on pace for a third straight championship this season.

Another item of curiosity is whether some of the surprise teams of Brazil will be able to carry their momentum through St. Petersburg. I wouldn’t classify Ryan Hunter-Reay as that big of a surprise, but after the season he had last year along with the disappointing season at Andretti Autosport – it was a good start for both.

The surprises I’m talking about though, are the third, fourth and fifth place cars from Brazil. Vitor Meira finished third in AJ Foyt’s car. Although he was aided by the first lap melee, he not only held onto his position but passed several cars throughout the race and was looking exceptionally racy at the end. To me, this was nothing short of a miracle. Here was a driver coming back from a devastating crash at Indianapolis that broke his back. He was returning to a cockpit that did not give him good results last year and even worse results for the other three drivers that filled in for him. Plus, even in their better years, the Foyt team struggles mightily on road/street courses. If Meira can follow up Brazil with another good effort at St. Pete, this could be a promising season for the ABC Supply car.

Dan Wheldon had issues in qualifying but was also very competitive once the green flag fell. As the Brazilian cameras focused on the Brazilians, Wheldon’s steady march to the front went virtually unnoticed. Yes, he benefited from the first turn mishap but he steadily moved up from about tenth to his final finish of fifth. The road/street courses were the Achilles heel of this team last year. If they have found the secret to turning right, this could be a resurgence for this once proud team.

One team that I am particularly interested in following this season is Luczo Dragon de Ferran Racing. Rafa Matos drove the race of his young career at São Paulo. The presence of Gil de Ferran is one of the most under-estimated in the paddock. I think the practical leadership he brings to the team along with the mentor role he brings to his fellow Brazilian driver will combine to make this team one to be heard from this year. They are not ready to compete for the championship this season, but I’ll stand by my prediction that this team will win a race this season and it could come as early as Sunday.

Will the black and red car domination end Sunday? It’s quite possible. I still think that the Izod IndyCar Series champion will come from one of these two teams; and I won’t try to hide my favoritism towards Team Penske to win it all this season. But it certainly wouldn’t upset me to see a winner come from one of the other stables this early in the season to inject new blood into the series. Stay tuned.

George Phillips

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5 Responses to “St. Petersburg Preview”

  1. tim nothhelfer Says:

    I look for Dixon or Dario to win. But in my heart I want to see an underdog put up a strong drive to the front to win, and Vitor tops that list.

    Was Briscoe’s crash brain fade or just a push too far on the outside of control with a brake lock issue over an extremely rough track? I think the track conditions and traffic had his full attention. Will Powers crash at Australia with a commanding lead was clearly a lapse….

  2. The problam of the Ganassis at Sao Paulo was that both chose the wrong pit strategy after the red flag. If one had pitted early to change tires, one of them could have fought for the podium.

  3. Great pole… but who will win and who one might like to win is a different matter. I’m sure you understand that distinction, but I think it has the power to change answers. Personally, I’d love to see Sarah Fisher Racing get the win (clearly your voters do too!), but based on all the practice results, I have to go with Team Penske being more likely to win. Such a dilemma! :)

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