Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg
To use an old saying – the more things change, the more they stay the same. Such was the case with the Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening race at yesterday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Amidst all the offseason chatter regarding some driver movement, Honda’s aero kit mulligan and a new-look Race Control; the results at the top were pretty much the same as last year. Juan Montoya passed Simon Pagenaud on the Lap 57 restart of yesterday’s race and never looked back. Even with a faulty steering arm, Montoya cruised to his second straight victory at St. Petersburg.
Also like last year, Team Penske drivers occupied three of the top four finishing positions. Had Will Power been able to drive and not been sidelined with a concussion as a result of Friday’s practice crash, you wonder how much would have been different. Based on the way Montoya was driving yesterday, I’m not sure anything would have changed at the top. But now that we know that Power was already feeling the effects of his concussion, that makes his run for the pole even more impressive.
Team Penske could’ve at least duplicated last year’s feat of placing four cars in the top-five. But we’ll never know. That’s one of the beauties of racing – replaying all of the what if scenarios. You have to feel for Will Power. His standing at the bottom of the points total is secondary to concerns about his health. If the recent years in the NFL have taught us nothing else – we’ve all learned that you don’t mess around with concussions. Here’s hoping Will gets well soon and is in fighting form when the series resumes in three weeks at Phoenix.
Hats off to Simon Pagenaud, who looked unbeatable in the first half of the race and drove to a strong second-place finish after not being able to hold off his teammate, Montoya, on the restart. Helio Castroneves could have made it an all-Penske podium, had Ryan Hunter-Reay not passed him for third, relegating the three-time event winner to fourth. An unlikely Mikhail Aleshin made the most of his full-time IndyCar return, after spending more time in the runoff areas than any other driver this past weekend.
Overall, you have to think that Scott Dixon feels lucky to have finished seventh, after having a very unremarkable race and a lengthy pit stop near the end to clean out his radiators. In fact, three of the Ganassi cars had similar overheating issues in the late stages of the race. That wouldn’t be so noteworthy if other Chevy teams suffered similar problems. It makes you wonder why it was so specific to the Ganassi cars.
There were other top drivers who suffered problems early on. Before Lap One was complete; James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden and Takuma Sato all had issues related to early contact and had to pit. All three drivers were effectively out of contention at that point, but Newgarden’s day went from bad to worse. He finished dead last and completed only forty-seven laps due to electrical issues.
But frustration totally boiled over on the Lap 57 restart as the middle of the pack approached Turn Four. As usually occurs on a street course restart – cars were slowing down and things got crowded. The field would’ve probably made it through with only some incidental contact had Carlos Muñoz not come barreling through with little regard to what was just ahead. He plowed into the back of a helpless Graham Rahal and a melee ensued.
Altogether, there were nine cars that were stuck and unable to move. All cars were eventually restarted and able to get underway, with Rahal’s car sustaining the most damage. Ironically, the highest finishing of all the cars involved was, you guessed it – Muñoz.
Once the mess was cleaned up, the race restarted on Lap 64 with rookie Conor Daly leading. That didn’t last long as Montoya passed him in Turn One. Still Daly held his own and was able to hold off Simon Pagenaud for sixteen laps until Daly pitted on Lap 80. A slow pit stop put Daly back in the pack. He was understandably disappointed to finish thirteenth.
Had this race occurred in the middle of the season, we would probably be talking about how boring it was. While it wasn’t a nail-biter, it served it’s purpose. It got us out of our winter doldrums and was a welcomed sight as the offseason has officially come to a close.
Congratulations to Juan Montoya, who drove a commanding race – especially considering he was driving a car with faulty steering. I’ve never been a huge Montoya fan, but my respect for his ability grows with every race. You have to wonder where his career would have gone had he not spent those years in NASCAR. His foes will have to wonder if he is going to be stronger than ever this season.
TV Coverage: The teams and drivers were not the only ones knocking off the rust this weekend. But I thought ESPN turned in a decent performance for the first race – if you can ignore the fact that Eddie Cheever was in the booth.
Darrell Waltrip is the best thing that ever happened to Eddie Cheever – otherwise Cheever might be known as the biggest buffoon in motorsports broadcasting, after yesterday’s performance. Never have I heard such a random collection of clichés and statements of the obvious. I’m not sure how many times I heard Cheever say that Montoya’s win was building the foundation for the Indianapolis 500. I realize that ESPN does not carry another IndyCar race until May, but there are three pretty important races between now and May. He then proceeded to muddle through most of the race broadcast as if he were either asleep or hung over.
Cheever made sure everyone noticed key points like “Pagenaud has a really fast car”. Cheever saw it has his duty to make sure no one overlooked the fact that “…Montoya is a very experienced driver”. Just when I thought he had mastered pointing out the obvious and had used his allotment of racing clichés, he brought out this gem; “catching Montoya is one thing, passing him is another”. Come on, Eddie – Don’t just mail it in. You’re better than that.
Aside from Cheever sleepwalking through the telecast, ESPN actually did a decent job. I thought Scott Goodyear had one of his better races. Allen Bestwick continued to show what a pro he was by persevering through an obvious cold and giving a solid effort. You would never know that Bestwick had never called an IndyCar race before the 2014 season. He has acclimated himself well into this form of racing.
I’ll also give a tip of the hat to ESPN’s new on-screen graphics. The scroll at the top is much smaller, cleaner and far less obstructive than the ones they’ve used for the past few years that were so intrusive, you had the feeling you were watching the race from under a hood. These graphics are out of the way and far less noticeable, but easy to read when you want to.
I’ll also repeat something I’ve said several times over the years. Jon Beekhuis does a great job as a pit reporter. But I feel strongly that his talents are misused in that role. When NBCSN had him in the booth, I thought he added so much more value to the listening audience than most of the talking heads in any booth. He thinks very well on his feet at analyzing pit strategy and no one can explain engineering concepts to those of us not so inclined like Beekhuis.
Closing this segment out on a negative note, though – they needed a different person doing voiceover going in and out of commercials. The sultry voice telling me that the telecast was being presented by Firestone sounded more suitable for introducing a porn movie than a race telecast – or so I’ve been told.
Throwing away a good finish: No one in the Verizon IndyCar paddock exemplifies the phrase can’t get out of his own way, like Marco Andretti. After a poor qualifying run forced him to start the race from the fourteenth starting spot, Marco quickly moved up through the field to seventh place. But he threw those efforts away by making an amateurish move, trying to go inside Luca Filippi in Turn One on Lap 46 – less than halfway through the race.
Marco spun and brought out the first caution of the day. He later spun on the Lap 64 restart. He stalled the car on both spins and had to wait for the Holmatro Safety Crew to reach him and re-fire his engine. The onboard camera showed Marco’s eyes where he appeared to be incredulous at how long they were taking.
Granted, I’m taking the liberty and acting only on my opinion of what I saw. But the way Marco was flailing his hands around and repeatedly banging the steering wheel, he sure seemed dissatisfied with the safety crew. Had he been on fire or injured, I feel quite certain that they would do what it takes to get to Marco. That’s what they do and they do it well. But the Holmatro Safety Team is not going to put themselves in harms way, just because a driver made a bone-headed blunder and is now frantically waving his arms. That’s not what they do. That sense of entitlement that Marco exudes is what has made it hard for may fans to embrace the Andretti family over the years.
Marco is starting his eleventh full IndyCar season. He obviously has talent, given how quickly he moved through the field. But you would expect an eleven-year veteran to show a little more patience than what he showed yesterday. That was a move I would’ve expected from one of the four rookies in the field, not someone with as much experience as Marco.
Rookies do themselves proud: Speaking of the rookies, all four did pretty well. Some showed flashes of brilliance, while all four made rookie mistakes – but none of them were devastating. The lowest finishing rookie was Max Chilton, who finished one lap down in seventeenth after starting sixteenth. We hardly heard his name all day. For a rookie – that’s a good thing.
The highest finishing rookie was Alexander Rossi for Andretti Autosport, finishing twelfth after starting eighteenth. His cockiness aside, Rossi showed me something by not putting a wheel wrong (at least none that I saw), keeping his nose clean while advancing all day. He comes from Formula One, but this is a much heavier and different car than he’s used to. Spencer Pigot did very well in his part-time role with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, starting twenty-first and finishing fourteenth.
Probably the most celebrated rookie of the day was Conor Daly. He led fifteen laps, many under yellow – but he held his own up front in second place, sandwiched between the two Penske cars of Juan Montoya and Simon Pagenaud. A Dale Coyne car keeping pace with the top finishing Penske cars says something to Daly’s ability.
This is one of the most talented rookie classes in a while. I’ll go out on a limb now and predict that one IndyCar race this season will be won by a rookie.
His back against the wall: Not to minimize Will Power’s health issues, but assuming he fully recovers from his concussion – he suddenly finds himself in a huge hole to start the season. He left St. Petersburg with one point in hand – for winning the pole. He now trails his teammate by fifty points with fifteen races to go. Is that insurmountable? No, but this has to be Power’s one big hiccup for the season. He can ill-afford any low-finishing DNF’s for the season. We’ve seen Power squander big leads in the championship and hold onto a lead in 2014. Now we’ll see how he handles the adversity of starting the season in a hole.
On a lighter note: You have to feel for Curt Cavin of The Indianapolis Star. His paper ran a story he wrote Saturday morning, then attached the following embarrassing misspelled headline.
The bad thing for Curt is, most people don’t realize that someone else with the newspaper always writes the headlines – not the reporter that wrote the article. He’ll catch a lot of blame for this when he had nothing to do with it. My posts are rife with typos, but no one pays any money to read what I write.
Newspapers of today have fallen on hard times. The Star is owned by Gannett, the same penny-pinching group that owns my local Nashville paper, The Tennessean. This type of gaffe is an everyday occurrence with The Tennessean. They’ve done away with their copy desk and apparently leave proof-reading and editing to entry-level employees. I guess this a Gannett-wide policy. The worst thing is that the correct spelling of Kanaan is right there on his fire suit and in the caption. Poor Kurt Kavin.
All in all: Was this a race for the ages? No. But it sure was good to see IndyCar racing after a long offseason that began before Labor Day. The best thing was, we got a glimpse to some of the answers we had been seeking.
Honda showed that they made the right improvements to their aero kits. Was it enough? I think so. Four of the top eight cars were Hondas, with Ryan Hunter-Reay finishing best in class in third. Looking at the results doesn’t tell the story, because even if Honda and Chevy are exactly even – it won’t show on the score sheet because the two best teams in the business both run Chevy’s, accounting for eight cars. Even if Honda had the superior package, the deck is stacked against them for that reason alone.
Would Montoya maintain his focus after letting last year’s championship slip through his fingers? From what we saw yesterday, I’d say so. Would Pagenaud fold under the pressure of going winless last season? The jury is still out. He didn’t win, but he sure showed a lot of speed. How will the rookies do? From what we saw yesterday, they accounted for themselves very well.
The 2016 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will not go down as a classic, but it wasn’t really a snoozer either. Perhaps it’s good to ease into the season with a race that is not edge-of-your-seat competition. Remember, as Eddie Cheever says, we’re building a foundation towards the Indianapolis 500 – or something like that.