Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg

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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.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Great summation George…
    Quite the race…

  2. Jim Gray Says:

    Great race, great start to the season. My most lasting memory, from a race filled w/ so many moments, is from the in car camera of Simona. I was in awe watching her do everything in her power to hold on at the end of the race. Getting crossed up every turn and just refusing to back off, even when her tires were failing her, was my favorite memory. This season will be a good one for many drivers, should be interesting to see who struggles and who overcomes first race issues.

  3. I felt that the season was going to get off to a great start, but Hinch winning the first race is most excellent. Let’s ee their teams get RHR and Dixon back up to speed and I feel that we are in for a terrific year!

  4. Yellows last way too long. So damn long driver’s are causing more yellows before they restart.

    Two weeks into Diffy season (with a welcome Bob Varsha teaser from Malaysia), and I don’t know if I can make it to the F1 finale in Brazil in late November. I just don’t get the SCREAMING.

    What fine and penalties will Hildebrand get for his 3 infractions. Have we already forgotten the odd looking pass he made at the pit exit under yellow. If that was legal, even if it was green flag racing, then some rules or blend lines need to change.

  5. The Lapper Says:

    No offense to the Danica fans out there, but this is how you see the Go Daddy car win!!!

  6. Best race I have ever seen….bar none! We had our usual great seats, with an excellent view of the first turn, and seeing Hinch pass Helio was a real treat, the master being shown a trick my one of the new guys.

    Congrats to Hildebrand for pulling a true bone-headed move and ruining Will’s day. In my mind, that should call for a huge fine.

    Most of all, congrats to Hinch on his classy win, and to Simona, who showed what a great driver she is.

    I was so damn excited, I’m wondering if I can make the trip to Barber. Hmmmm, how to convince my wife we need to be there……

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    The Chipster whining. Whoda thunk it?!

    It appears that Simona and Vautier will have to be accounted for this season. Wonderful!

    Marco drove an aggresive yet smart race. Good to see him on the podium.

    Despite an interesting, exciting IndyCar race there was little or no mention in the morning national news. Instead we get “Crashes, Fistfights, NASCAR” (MSN.com) Sheesh!

    • Ron Ford Says:

      With the NRA sponsoring the NASCAR race at Texas this season, one can only hope they don’t put real bullets in those six-shooters.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    What a great way to start the season, a very good race and some very good race summaries on my favorite Indycar blogs.

    On the Leigh Diffey:
    Strange to hear a new voice calling Indycar races, but I thought he did a fine job. Was impressed by how much homework it seemed that he did.
    I had no problem with his volume, though his accent could be a bit disorienting. Playing a drinking game whenever he said “Simoner” or “Suhn Petersburg” is not advised.

    On the Hildebrand incident:
    That’s about as boneheaded as it gets. …And to be fair to Montoya, a trailing arm failed on his car in the Daytona jet-dryer incident.

  9. Yes, there’s no question that Hildebrand pulled a numbskull on that launch on Power. He does deserve criticism for that boneheaded move, more so because he admitted his attention was split. Dealing with controls is something you MUST be able to handle while at speed. Borking it while on a pace lap is simply something a professional should never be caught out doing, and like it or not, it’ll draw attention from some to the possibility of Hildy having a problem splitting his attention properly.

    On the other, people are pleading for compassion because he manned up and owned his mistake. That’s something no one wants to discourage, and right or wrong, people have a natural tendency to lean towards forgiveness when a person owns up to a bad mistake. Most times it’s a laudable societal trait. Whether it is here is up to the individual.

    I think he and his team needs to have a discussion about the wreck, and the league needs to look into things to see if they need to do anything. But at the same time, I don’t think it needs to go any further than that. Unless a pattern establishes itself, there’s no reason to believe that the mistake will be repeated in the future. If it does, deal with it then, but there would be nothing wrong with treating this as simply a bad race for the guy.

  10. Gene Valentine Says:

    This was a very fun and exciting race! It’s disappointing and discouraging that it received so little attention from the media afterward. It was a great win for Hinchcliffe–and truly deserved. Others have some work to do–most notably Honda. I’m looking forward to Barber!

  11. The race and the broadcast, with a few exceptions that you’ve mentioned, were both very good yesterday. And I don’t even need to give it the “for a street race” qualifier–just very good racing. The new car continues to perform well. Power’s bad luck continues, Hinch gets a popular victory and Simona showed her stuff. Dixie is a great driver, I can’t figure out why he gets so little attention. JR seems to have a focus problem–they should take the 8-track out of his car. Comparing Indycar to Nascar yesterday is like comparing a Ken Burns documentary on PBS to The Honey Boo-Boo Show. But unfortunately most people would rather watch the latter.

  12. Damn that was a great race. It’s been a long off season, but if the racing is going to be like this every week it was well worth the wait.

    JR’s gaffe reminded me of Dixon spinning under caution and taking out Briscoe at the Glen back in ’08. JR does not have Dixon’s resume though, and seeing this mistake in his 3rd year at Panther I’ve got to believe John Barnes is eying Ryan Briscoe and thinking hmm… Lord knows that Briscoe has had his brain fades too, but he’s backed them up with wins.

  13. Yes, Montoya hit a jet dryer at Daytona, but it was not a bone head move. Something in the rear of the car broke which sent him into a spin and the jet dryer was just in the worst spot for him. Watch a replay and you can see the mechanical issue happen as he is coming out of turn 2. Montoya made no mistake.

    It may be a bit early for my Christmas wish, but I wish Will Power and Mark Webber could switch rides. Webber could be treated as an equal and avoid standing starts (for the most part). Power could avoid ovals and not have his race pace compromised by ridicules yellow flags.

  14. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    There is really no excuse for the JRH incident on Sunday, however I recall a two week period in 2007 when Dario Franchitti drove into two competitors, one incident was post race at near race speed resulting in a pretty interesting inadvertent aerial performance by Dario.

  15. Donald McElvain Says:

    Great race! Though a very loyal Penske Racing fan for life I took notice of one driver in particular and was impressed. SdS

    There are people who drive race cars. There are people who are race car drivers but Simona is a racer! A distinct difference and the real deal!

    • Ballyhoo Says:

      Thank you, Donald, for calling Simona a racer, period. Not a female race driver or a woman racer. A racer! I thought she performed marvelously and was so hoping she could hold on for a podium finish. Can’t wait for Barber to see what is next.

      And kudos to you, George, for your thoughtful posts. I read your review of St Pete’s before I even opened Speed.com. I too thought the broadcast was great. Will miss Bob Jenkins, but feel that the both the booth and pit reporters were in fine form for their first outing. And yes, Robin’s grid run was one of his best. Loved the red NBC polo shirt!

      One deficiency I see with the coverage (in comparison with F1) is the lack of a race wrap-up show. Even though the race itself went overtime, we saw it to the end and then some of the interviews. I like watching the podium festivities and would appreciate seeing more. Maybe if viewer numbers increase a wrap-up show could happen next year.

      A great start to the season!!

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