St. Petersburg Preview
When the green flag drops for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend, it will be the tenth time for the Verizon IndyCar Series to visit the streets of St. Petersburg. That’s really hard to believe. It seems like yesterday that the Indy cars made their first-ever competitive right-hand turn at this track in 2005. Up until that point, the series ran on ovals exclusively. That year, St. Petersburg was the third race on the IndyCar schedule, after Homestead and Phoenix respectively. It was to be the first of three road/street courses that season – to be followed by Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
How times have changed. Now, road/street courses dominate the IndyCar schedule. A quick glance at that 2005 schedule is a reminder how much things have changes since then. Ovals like Homestead, Phoenix, Motegi, Richmond, Kansas, Nashville, Kentucky, Pikes Peak and Chicagoland have vanished over the last few years. But I digress. That leads into another subject for another day. Let’s keep things upbeat and free of controversy on opening weekend.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg first opened the season in 2009, and has been the season-opening race consecutively since 2011.
One of these years, I plan to attend this race. There are worse places to be in March than the gulf coast of Florida. Although I’ve never been to the race, Susan and I did drive on the track while visiting the area on our honeymoon a couple of years ago (has it really been that long?). The red and white curbing was still down and I pounded the curbs with our rental car as I pretended to be Will Power for a few seconds; before realizing that this was not proper behavior for a man in his mid-fifties. While acting like a teenager, I was able to get the full perspective on just how tight this course really is. You gain a greater appreciation for what these drivers do, keeping their cars under control while navigating tight turns at the speeds they are carrying.
That 2005 race was notable. The racing wasn’t that fantastic, but when the four Andretti-Green teammates all crossed the finish line ahead of everyone else, it marked the first time that a single team placed four cars in the top-four of a race. Dan Wheldon won the race, followed by Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta – all driving for Michael Andretti.
Over the years, there have been some good races there – including last year’s race won by James Hinchcliffe, giving the young Canadian his first career victory. He would follow that up with two more wins later in the season.
For a while, it looked as if pole-sitter Will power would run away with the race. He had opened up a twelve-second lead, when a caution bunched up the field. His teammate, Helio Castroneves, passed him on the re-start before another yellow came out. On the next re-start, Hinchcliffe passed Power, relegating the Australian to third place.
It was during the next caution period that Power was taken out of contention, when JR Hildebrand had a brain-fade and ran over the top of Power, who was warming his tires. This was somewhat reminiscent of Dennis Vitolo crawling over the back of Nigel Mansell’s car under caution during the 1994 Indianapolis 500. While not as damaging or as comical as Vitolo’s shunt, it probably set the stage for Hildebrand’s eventual ouster from Panther Racing, just after last year’s Indianapolis 500.
From there, it was generally between Castroneves and Hinchcliffe. As is often the case on street courses, it came down to who did not make the mistake. Helio made a mistake on a re-start and Hinchcliffe pounced and never relinquished the lead.
The first corner at St. Petersburg will remind longtime CART fans of Turn One at Cleveland. The first turn at both tracks follows a long and wide airport runway straightaway, forcing cars to funnel into a narrow right-hand corner. Whereas Cleveland runs the entire race at Burke Lakefront Airport; the race at St. Petersburg quickly finds itself meandering through downtown streets. Part of the course runs by a scenic boat dock area, where fans can watch the cars streaking by from their yachts. Something tells me if I ever do attend this race, that is a vantage point I’ll never be asked to enjoy.
As it is every year for the season-opener, there are lots of questions heading into the season. Many will not be answered this weekend, but we’ll at least get a glimpse into how the season might go for some teams. Last year, Helio Castroneves was strong in the race and was strong all season. James Hinchcliffe won the race, but had a very inconsistent season. Will Power was strong in qualifying, but had bad luck in the race – pretty well typifying his entire season. We won’t know a lot on Monday, but we’ll know a little bit more than we do right now.
I’ll have one possible scheduling dilemma this weekend. On the off chance that Tennessee actually beats Michigan tonight in the NCAA Tournament, there’s a good chance that Sunday’s Elite Eight game and the race may overlap. I’m not a great multi-tasker. I’ll have a tough decision as to which event gets relegated to the DVR, while the other one gets watched live. As a friend of mine said yesterday; maybe I’ll get lucky and Tennessee will lose tonight – thus ending any sort of decision. I don’t think so. Which to watch? Hmmm…
So, now it’s time for me to pick a winner – not only for the race, but for the season championship. If you’ll recall, I correctly picked Scott Dixon to win the championship. I was also more successful than usual in picking race winners last year – including successfully picking Tony Kanaan to win the Indianapolis 500. But last year, I picked Ryan Hunter-Reay to win at St. Petersburg. He limped to an eighteenth-place finish.
This year, we’ll see if I can be more consistent with my picks. For the season, I’ll go out on a limb and pick Will Power to finally win his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship. For the race, I’ll go with a three-time winner of this event – Power’s teammate, Helio Castroneves. Enjoy the race!