Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg
For a race that held so much anticipation, it would be tough for the actual race to live up to the hype. Such was the case for this year’s season opener – the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a bad race by any stretch. There just were very few moments that took your breath away. After what happened in the last race on October 16, that’s not such a bad thing.
For me personally, I was very happy to see Helio Castroneves back in the winner’s circle for the first time since Motegi of 2010. Most readers of this site know that I have always considered Helio Castroneves to be my favorite current driver. Actually if truth be known, he and Tony Kanaan are probably an interchangeable 1-A and 1-B. But since Helio drives for Roger Penske, he usually gets the nod – since I’ve been a Penske fan since the Mark Donohue days.
Helio didn’t just luck into this win – he was up front all day and dominated the second half of the race. He also had what I considered the move of the race, when he passed Scott Dixon for second place on Lap Seventy-Two. Going into Turn One, Helio went on the outside of Dixon, held his ground and made the pass stick. Dixon never really had anything for him after that. When Helio passed Marco Andretti on Lap Ninety-Eight, I was thinking he needed to stay back and follow Marco. That shows how little I know. Once Helio got around Marco, he checked out on Dixon who still had to deal with the RC Cola car of Marco.
Helio won comfortably, then fittingly paid tribute to Dan Wheldon by doing his “Spiderman” routine by stopping his car on Dan Wheldon Way and saluted the crowd by climbing the fence. He then ran over and climbed the fence across the track to pat the sign that signified the newly renamed street in St. Petersburg was in fact Dan Wheldon Way.
This was a clean race, unlike last year’s race that started with an opening lap melee that was caused, ironically, by Helio Castroneves. The only real incidents I can think of were when James Jakes went into the tire barrier in Turn Ten and when Helio accidentally punted Ed Carpenter as Carpenter was about to pull into the pits. The rest of the yellows were for stalled cars, of which there were many.
With new engines and new cars, there were certain to be many teething problems. There were. There were multiple gearbox, battery and general electrical problems. What we did not see were any of the traditional blown engine issues involving plumes of blue smoke, like we would see in CART during its heyday of engine competition in the mid-nineties.
TV Coverage: The good news is that the IZOD IndyCar Series opener was carried live on major network television. ABC/ESPN did a wonderful job with their pre-race show. There was a good explanation on the differences between the old Dallara and the DW12. There was also a nice feature on Rubens Barrichello coming into the series. Their greatest segment was the tribute to Dan Wheldon.
Unfortunately, once the green flag fell – they went back to the ABC/ESPN we have all grown accustomed to. I’m sorry, but Marty Reid just doesn’t do it for me. He could call a perfect race and would still leave me cold. I think his style is more suited for The Price Is Right or Hollywood Squares than it is for calling IndyCar races. I don’t object to Scott Goodyear like most people do. Yes, he is somewhat of a monotone – but I always considered him an excellent driver and I think his opinions carry a lot of weight.
The pit reporters all performed well. Vince Welch and Jamie Little are some of the best in the business, and Rick DeBruhl holds his own. I almost called him a newcomer, but this is his third season. Where ABC really dropped the ball was in their lack of relaying information to the viewers. Not once did they ever tell us that Sébastien Bourdais was off course, much less why. The last they reported he was in the top-ten. He finished twenty-first. It was the same for JR Hildebrand. I would have liked to hear an interview with Mike Conway or a representative of the Foyt team. They were running strong all day until gearbox issues put them out. Yet all we heard was how AJ Foyt has lost forty pounds due to a staph infection.
I don’t recall any major flubs by ABC/ESPN, yet they left me wanting more. I’m anxious to see what NBC Sports Network does to enhance the coverage that Versus had done so well for the past three years.
Foyt pit woes: Although it (among other things) was never discussed on ABC, I couldn’t help but notice that Mike Conway lost several positions after his pit stop. He and several cars came into the pits, with Conway trailing only one car. By the time the stop was completed, he had been shuffled back near the rear. This happened way too many times last season, with Vitor Meira gaining positions on the track only to be undone by his own crew in the pits. With all the positive changes Larry Foyt has made to this team in the offseason, it’s a shame that poor pit work still eliminates any progress they’ve made.
Looks of the car: For the most part, I think the looks of the car have grown on me. Unless the rear “bumper” is white (Takuma Sato), it doesn’t really stand out very much. The side view doesn’t bother me either. About the only thing I’m still not used to is when the car was headed straight for the camera. That’s when the car takes on the appearance of a Batmobile. That will still take some getting used to.
I really liked the livery on the car of Bourdais. Many cars are a big improvement over last year, including Graham Rahal, the Foyt car and the Fuzzy’s car. There seems to be a plethora of light blue and white cars (Sato, Pagenaud and Newgarden) that got a bit confusing. I’m also not a fan of the small numbers on the rear-wing end-plate.
Surprises and disappointments: I hate to admit it, but Helio winning in dominating fashion was a pleasant surprise. I’m not sure I really saw that coming. Simon Pagenaud being strong all weekend was another positive. Seeing Sébastien Bourdais with Lotus power run as high as sixth late in the race was something I didn’t expect to see either.
What I did expect was to see Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal and Will Power battle for the win. Franchitti and Rahal were non-factors throughout the weekend and Power was taken out of contention early with a flawed pit strategy. I would also have to say Marco Andretti was a disappointment. He slid backwards all day, saying his car was handling poorly. Marco finished fourteenth, while his Andretti Autosport teammates finished third and fourth. Hmmm.
All in all: It wasn’t a great race, but it could have been a lot worse. I found it refreshing that Race Control didn’t take center stage. Beaux Barfiled kept a low profile during the race. That’s the way it should be. It was a very clean race, but I think drivers were being overly cautious. I’m not sure you’ll see the same thing at Barber Motorsports Park next week. Barber is a tight circuit with few passing zones. I think drivers might test the more enclosed wheel of this new car next week. I think Barber could be much more interesting than what we saw yesterday.
But I saw this as a good way to start this new era of the IZOD IndyCar Series. They’ll get the bugs worked out and it will only get better from here.