Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg
What a race! I don’t usually get that excited over street races in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but yesterday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg may possibly be the best street race I’ve seen…ever! To use a cliché that is way overused already – this race had it all. It really did. There was a lot of hard, clean racing. There were some bone-headed moves that affected several championship contenders. Many drivers suffered some bad racing luck, while other drivers took advantage of every opportunity that came their way.
Congratulations to James Hinchcliffe on his first IZOD IndyCar Series victory. When Helio Castroneves bobbled slightly heading into Turn One on a re-start, Hinchcliffe was there to seize the opportunity. Although Helio stayed right with him for the remainder of the race, you got the sense that we were watching a driver in Hinchcliffe, who had come of age and that Helio was destined to finish second. That’s exactly what happened.
This was no fluke – for Hinchcliffe or his team. James Hinchliffe earned this victory. We all knew that this would be a breakout season for Hinchcliffe and that he would probably win a race or two this season, but I don’t know that we thought it would come this quickly. After all, St. Petersburg is the playground of Team Penske, which has won five of the ten races run there. No one else comes close. Going into yesterday’s race, Andretti Autosport, Target Chip Ganassi, Newman/Haas and Forsythe Racing were the only other teams to win there. With yesterday’s victory, Andretti Autosport becomes only the second team to win multiple races at St. Petersburg.
Before the first caution came out, it looked as if it would be a Will Power runaway. Power pulled away from Takuma Sato well before the first turn and never looked back. When Dario Franchitti slapped the wall and brought out the first caution, that was the beginning of Power’s backslide. Helio Castroneves passed his Team Penske teammate on the subsequent restart and it was downhill from there. Hinchcliffe got Power on the next re-start sending the Pole-sitter back to third.
During a caution, JR Hildebrand provided one of the more memorable shunts I’ve seen in a while. Power was riding around in third with the caution still out, when Hildebrand was distracted by adjusting some knobs on his steering wheel. He had no idea that the field had slowed ahead and he ran over the top of Power’s car in an incident similar to what we saw in the 1994 Indianapolis 500 involving Dennis Vitolo and Nigel Mansell – a backmarker going over the top of a contender with no real excuse. Hildebrand’s day was already very shaky and was mercifully over at that point. Power had to make two stops to make repairs to the minor damage done to his car. The real damage was done to his race. He entered the pits in third and came out in fourteenth. While trying to catch up, Power spun late in the race and finished sixteenth. Ironically, Hildebrand had passed Simona de Silvestro under the yellow early on in the same caution period. She frantically complained and wanted to move past him. Had she gotten her wish, it would’ve been her car JR launched over instead of Power’s.
This was no parade. There was late race drama all through the pack. While Hinchcliffe and Helio battled up front, Simona de Silvestro was holding onto third place for dear life. Her rear tires were going away and it was all she could to keep the car on track. First, she was pursued by her teammate Tony Kanaan, but then Marco Andretti got by Kanaan and set his sights on Simona. He pressured her into a mistake on the next to the last lap and took third. Then Kanaan passed her, relegating the Swiss driver to fifth. Scott Dixon passed her at the line to seal her fate for sixth place, after she had run in the Top Five all day. It’s a sign of how far expectations for Simona have risen, that she was disappointed with a sixth-place finish after the dreadful year she had last season with the woeful Lotus engine.
Speaking of Scott Dixon, he had the drive of the day. Dixon started twentieth and carved his was up through the field before taking fifth away from Simona at the line. I’ve always thought that the best sign of a good driver is what they do with a car that isn’t very good. What he did yesterday is why I picked Scott Dixon to win the championship this season.
Many contenders found themselves looking up a long way to the top of the standings this morning. Four-time champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti finished dead last due to his self-inflicted boneheaded move leaving the pits on cold tires. Simon Pagenaud, who everyone thinks is also headed for a breakout season, finished just ahead of Franchitti. Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay wound up eighteenth after dealing with a stuck throttle, while Will Power finished just ahead in sixteenth.
Meanwhile, Marco Andretti was on the podium in third, EJ Viso finished seventh in his first outing with Andretti Autosport and Takuma Sato finished eighth for AJ Foyt after starting on the front row. The standings certainly have a different look than usual this morning.
While it was no surprise to anyone, it was certainly good to see James Hinchcliffe get his first win under his belt. He is an extremely talented driver and is quickly becoming a fan favorite. He is a good face for the sport and those in charge of such things need to do all they can to capitalize on his newfound stardom. He had the pre-race line of the day when he said the best way to win was “…to pee in Will’s fuel tank.” But when he pulled into victory lane and removed his helmet, you could tell that he understood what had just happened and that he genuinely appreciated the gravity of the moment. He is someone that is very easy to pull for.
TV Coverage: Bob Jenkins has retired from the NBC Sports Network and there has been some shuffling among the on-air talent on the IndyCar cable outlet. Townsend Bell moves from pit lane to the booth, while Jon Beekhuis takes the opposite route. Brian Till was filling in for Marty Snider in the pits, while Marty was away doing basketball. He will return at Barber. Wally Dallenbach, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider and Robin Miller all return to hold the same spots as last year.
The biggest change is that Leigh Diffey has replaced Bob Jenkins. Some will say he brings more excitement than Bob Jenkins, while others will claim that he screams a lot more than Bob. While I tend to like my announcers to be a bit more understated, I thought Diffey did a good job, and I was most impressed with how well prepared he was. This form of racing is not his first love like it was with Bob Jenkins and Paul Page, but you could tell he did his homework. Yesterday’s race didn’t require any manufactured excitement from the booth, but I’m sure that his enthusiasm will be sorely needed at some events down the road.
The broadcast was not without flubs, but with a new cast that is to be expected. They haven’t completely gelled yet, but their chemistry will come. The original Versus crew didn’t have immediate chemistry in their first race either, but it quickly came together. I’m confident that will happen with this crew, as well.
By the way, I thought that Robin Miller’s Grid Run came off a lot better yesterday than some of his previous efforts. And a quick shout-out to Pippa Mann for superb fill-in work as an analyst on the Firestone Indy Lights telecast.
Shoulda known better: While it’s easy for someone who has never turned a wheel in competition to sit behind a keyboard and call into question the judgment of veteran drivers – you still have to wonder what Dario Franchitti was thinking yesterday. The camera was following him as he was leaving the pits after his pit stop. As he drove out of sight of the lens, I was thinking to myself that he sure looked like he was leaving the pits rather quickly on cold tires. He was. As soon as he pulled out onto the racing surface, he slid directly across the track and clouted the left wall. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances that we viewers were unaware of. Dario later said that he hit a bump in Turn Three on his out-lap and that caused the accident. But from my seat – it looked more like a rookie mistake than something from a veteran driver of seventeen years at this level.
Good start for KV: After some sub-par and, frankly, disappointing seasons, it was good to see KV Racing Technology start the year off on a good note. The addition of Simona de Silvestro and the move from three cars to two may prove to be pivotal. The general consensus, throughout the years, has been that Kevin Kalkhoven treated his team more like a hobby than a business. Word has it that there is a renewed focus with this team and it certainly showed this past weekend. Both Simona and Tony Kanaan were quick off of the trailer. If they can carry the momentum to Barber Motorsports Park in two weeks, this could be a team to watch out for.
Piling on Hildebrand: The overwhelming sentiment that I saw on Twitter after the race, was to show compassion and understand for JR Hildebrand following his gaffe yesterday. I suppose I’m not a compassionate person, because I found it to be inexcusable and unacceptable. I did something similar once, but I was sixteen when I plowed into the back of a stopped car while messing with my 8-Track. I was embarrassed, but not near as much as JR should have been. Again, it’s easy to criticize when you haven’t done what they do – but I’ve watched a lot of races and I’ve seen very few drivers do what he did yesterday. Of course, Juan Montoya and a jet dryer comes to mind – but JR doesn’t have the skins on the wall that Montoya does.
It’s unfortunate that heading into his third full season, Hildebrand’s career is still defined by his crashing within sight of the checkered-flag at Indianapolis. He’s done very little to erase that scene from our memories – until yesterday. He now has two major blunders on his resume. At least when Takuma Sato crashes, it is usually while trying to improve his position. Both of JR’s mistakes occurred during the most curious of circumstances. But by bringing this up, I don’t see it as piling on. When you choose to make your living in the public eye, mistakes like this will be discussed and not ignored out of compassion.
I want to like JR Hildebrand and would like to see him succeed. Panther Racing owner John Barnes isn’t known for his patience. He has parted ways with much more accomplished drivers than Hildebrand for far less serious reasons. If JR doesn’t perform this season, I fear he may be shown the door sooner than later.
Honda Woes: Chevrolet was very impressive winning the championship in their return to the IZOD IndyCar Series last season. One would have thought that Honda would’ve had plenty of incentive to come up with an answer over the offseason. If they did, Chevy bested their answer to the point that Chip Ganassi called Honda’s commitment to winning into question over the weekend.
The results were not pretty for the Japanese automaker. The highest finishing Honda-powered car was Scott Dixon, who literally inched past Simona de Silvestro at the line for fifth. The other Top Ten Hondas finished eighth through tenth, and no Honda led a single lap. Ouch!
Keep in mind, this is not the same group that ran Chevy and Toyota out of the series in 2005. Ilmor Engineering, who is partially owned by Roger Penske, built the Honda engine from the time Honda entered the series in 2003 through 2011. Honda Performance Development (HPD) took over the design and manufacturing of the Honda engine in 2012, while the current Chevy engine is built by who? Ilmor Engineering.
All in all: No matter how you slice it, this was a great and entertaining race. Road racing purists should like it because it had long segments of clean racing. There were also many separate battles throughout the field and not just at the front. Casual fans should like it because there was plenty of action and not a single time to nod off out of boredom.
For us diehards, we liked it because it gave us more reason to think that our preferred form of racing is the best out there and that if only more eyeballs could see it, the more fans we’ll get. That seems to over-simplify things, but that’s really what the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to sustain itself – more fans. Find more fans and all the other problems will take care of themselves.
A fun and exciting race is a good way to start the season. A popular first win by a deserving driver who should be the next face of the sport, couldn’t be drawn up any better. Now, if only the series can use this to their advantage – perhaps they can keep some momentum going. Things are off to a great start.