St. Petersburg Preview
This morning at 11:15 Eastern Standard Time, our offseason of 173 days will finally be over. September 18th of last year was the last time an IndyCar turned a wheel in competition – 173 days ago. That’s less than ten days shy of half a year. Granted, there are no points up for grabs in today’s two practice sessions – but preparations will begin in earnest today for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It’s been a long time coming.
There has been the usual shuffling of drivers, manufacturers and sponsors – but not that much as compared to some offseasons. The most notable changes are Josef Newgarden to Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing to Honda, AJ Foyt Enterprises to Chevy and the departure of longtime sponsor Target from Ganassi.
Actually, the biggest overhaul happened at the team of AJ Foyt. About the only thing that remained the same there was the livery on both cars and the number on one of the cars. Gone are Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth. They are being replaced by Carlos Muñoz and Conor Daly. The second car (Daly) will carry No.4 instead of the No.41that adorned Hawksworth’s car for the past two years.
As mentioned earlier, Foyt swapped from Honda to Chevrolet. The most notable change is that the crew for the No.4 car driven by Daly will be housed on Main Street in Speedway, practically walking distance from Turn One of IMS. The No.14 car will still be based in the team’s shop in Houston – about a thousand miles away.
While that can pose some obvious problems, Larry Foyt explained it was necessary to hire quality people to work on the second car. There just weren’t enough experienced IndyCar personnel that were willing to relocate to Houston, since most of the crews are based in or near Indianapolis. That might explain why the car of Jack Hawksworth was noticeably inferior to Sato’s car on most weekends.
With the crew getting used to the Chevy engine and aero kit as well as to two new drivers, there will be some expected growing pains. However, I think the Foyt team has undergone the most substantial upgrade in the offseason. They won’t contend for the championship, but don’t be surprised if this team wins a race at some point this season.
Another team undergoing some changes since September is Chip Ganassi Racing. Since 1990, Target has sponsored at least one car in the IndyCar paddock. 2017 will mark the first year that that is no longer the case. For this weekend, Scott Dixon will carry livery for GE Light l LED Brand. It has been widely speculated that the four weeks between the first and second races of the schedule will allow Ganassi to button up a permanent sponsor for the No.9 car of Dixon. If not, it is believed that Ganassi can lean on his stable of associate sponsors to step up to the primary level on a week-to-week basis, but that would not be preferable.
Ganassi is also switching from Chevy to Honda. That may or may not be the best move for Ganassi, but most say it will benefit the other Honda teams to have a powerhouse team like Ganassi in the Honda stable. It is assumed that until the series goes to the common body next season that the Chevy aero kit will win most of the races that are not held at Indianapolis and Pocono. Honda may steal one here and there, but their aero kit is expected to shine at the two massive 2.5-mile ovals on the schedule.
It was no surprise when Nashville native Josef Newgarden jumped from Ed Carpenter Racing to Team Penske. Juan Montoya was the only Penske driver to not finish in the Top-Four of the final standings last season. Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves finished first, second and third respectively. Who finished fourth? Newgarden.
While there will be some bumps in the road, I anticipate Newgarden having a smoother transition to Team Penske than Pagenaud did two years ago. For one thing, Pagenaud went to a newly formed team that had never been together before. Newgarden is going to the existing team that was behind Montoya for the past three seasons, and winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2015. Second of all, I think Newgarden is a better driver than Pagenaud. Some may disagree, but that’s my opinion.
Other changes throughout the paddock have four-time IndyCar champion Sébastien Bourdais moving from the now-defunct KVSH Racing to Dale Coyne Racing to pair with rookie driver Ed Jones, who won the 2016 Indy Lights championship. What’s odd is that Coyne had signed both drivers before Christmas rather than waiting until the second week in March to announce his lineup. Last year, Coyne’s lineup included rookie Conor Daly in one car and a revolving door of drivers in the other. Experience and stability are something that Dale Coyne lacked last season. He’s got it now and it should serve the team well.
Takuma Sato has replaced Carlos Muñoz at Andretti Autosport, who kept their other three drivers from last season – including last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi. With one full season under his belt, I expect Rossi to become a legitimate threat at every track this season. I always felt like Rossi had one eye on Formula One most of last season. This year, I think he is fully committed. A focused and more experienced Rossi should be much improved over last season.
As far as this weekend’s race goes, I don’t see any major shakeups over last year except that we know Juan Montoya won’t win it as he has for the past two years. Why? Because he isn’t entered. Montoya will be in a fifth car for Team Penske at Indianapolis in May, but I wouldn’t look for him anywhere else – at least until after May.
I think Ganassi will be going through some teething issues with the new power-plant and aero kit from Honda. I‘ll be shocked if any Ganassi car is much of a factor this weekend. The same for the Foyt team for the same reasons. A car from Andretti Autosport could play a role in the finish of this race, but I don’t think this is a track where Honda excels. That’s why I’m not counting on much from Graham Rahal or the Schmidt Peterman cars. That pretty much leaves the Penske cars to battle it out for the race win. I certainly don’t think that will be the case throughout the season, but it will be the case this weekend.
Remember that Will Power did not start in last year’s race at St. Petersburg. Because of that, he ended up chasing Pagenaud from behind the entire season. I think Will Power remembers that also. That’s why I think he will get off to a strong start this season by winning on Sunday. How’s that for going out on a limb to start the season?