Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for 2017 is now in the books. It did not go as planned. Going into the weekend, I think most people (including myself) were convinced that this would be a battle among the four Team Penske drivers. After all, they had won the last three races at St. Petersburg and four of the last five. Going into the weekend, Team Penske driver Will Power had won five of the previous six poles. Power added another one on Saturday.
With Chip Ganassi Racing moving from Chevy to Honda, the general assumption was that Penske was the only top team that had the top engine and aero kit – at least on road/street courses. Well, we all know what happens when you assume something.
If I were to have picked which team had the best shot to win yesterday’s race, Dale Coyne Racing would have been last on my list. They had a horrendous year last season. They were fielding a rookie driver and a driver who was looking at the backside of his career. On top of that, they were saddled with the Honda engine and aero kit that only won twice last season – at Indianapolis and Texas.
That shows how little I know. Sébastien Bourdais started dead-last in yesterday’s race, due to a crash in qualifying. I would have thought finishing in the Top-Ten would have been categorized as heroic. When he took the lead on Lap 37, I assumed it must be due to an off-sequence pit strategy and his lead would be short-lived. I was wrong.
Other than cycling through for pit stops, Bourdais never relinquished the lead. He led the most laps, had the fastest lap and won the race with an almost nine-second lead over fellow Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, who finished second.
Scott Dixon started alongside Power on the front row and finished a relatively quiet third. Ryan Hunter-Reay had a disastrous start after a rough morning that saw him lose his brakes during the morning warm-up and crash into the tire barrier, heavily damaging his right-front suspension. Then as the field took the green flag at the start, he was seen darting into the pits with engine problems. His team fixed the issue, got him back out without losing a lap and he ended up with a strong fourth-place finish.
In post-race interviews, Hunter-Reay credited his experience for his not giving up. He conceded that earlier in his career, a rough start like that would have caused him to throw in the towel. But he said he has learned that in the Verizon IndyCar Series, if you can stay on the lead lap – you’ve always got a shot. If he drives like that through the season, you can expect to see the DHL car at the top of the podium before too long.
Normally I would consider Hunter-Reay having the drive of the day, after turning in a performance like he did. But his drive was overshadowed by Bourdais, who took his Sonny’s BBQ car from last to first in thirty-seven laps and kept it there. It was an impressive start to the season.
TV Coverage: Overall, I thought ABC/ESPN had sort of an OK day. That is, once the race started. I know there were a lot of complaints on social media regarding so many commercials. I thought it was on par with when NBCSN does an IndyCar broadcast and with Fox’s coverage of NASCAR. So long as they show the race over to the side in the commercials, I won’t complain. That’s the age we live in.
Prior to the weekend, ESPN had bragged about their new analytics that could predict when caution periods would come. It actually worked for the second caution of the race on Lap 26, but they kept saying their model was predicting a certain caution later in the race. It never came. As they kept insisting it was coming, it became more and more annoying. I found myself hoping it would never come, just so they would shut up about it. I got half of my wish. The caution never came, but they never did shut up about it.
I’m not sure what I was hearing, but throughout the telecast I thought I was hearing the director giving commands from the production truck. I suspected that was what I was hearing, but when I heard this voice counting down from ten as they headed to a commercial – my suspicions were confirmed. How does that happen?
In their pre-race show, they had the potential to have a great segment, but they messed it up. They had Josef Newgarden with a visor cam giving a one lap tour of the track at speed. What they showed from Newgarden’s cockpit was spectacular. For some strange reason, however, they chose to cut away from the visor cam view multiple times to just show the standard shot we see all the time. It seemed they would do this just as Newgarden was headed into a turn. I would have been interested to watch his line through the turns and watch him hit the apex. Instead, they toggled back and forth between views so that you could never get a good sense of where he was on the track. I remember watching that and thinking “what a shame!". They took what could have been something very entertaining and informative, but completely screwed it up.
Except for once calling Power "Will Pagenaud", I thought Allen Bestwick did his usual good job. He’s a pro and is usually flawless. That gaffe notwithstanding, he delivered a strong performance yesterday. Scott Goodyear is usually everyone’s whipping boy, but I heard him say nothing that sounded unusual or ridiculous. He was mostly on point with his comments and I thought did an exceptional job.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the third man in the booth – Eddie Cheever. Cheever was on the air for less than two minutes before unleashing what many interpreted as an idiotic statement.
Paraphrasing, Cheever said that for the first time since hiring Al Unser, Jr. in 1994, Roger Penske now has an American driver that can win every race. Umm…what about Sam Hornish? Cheever’s defenders will say that he was referring to Hornish’s poor results on road/street courses. The thing is, when Penske hired Hornish in 2004, there were no road/street courses on the schedule. Cheever’s detractors (and there were several on social media yesterday) will say that Cheever was either ignorant in overlooking Hornish, or vindictive in purposely omitting him. Neither is befitting of a top broadcaster.
Cheever also added this gem just before the halfway point of the race; “By now, we know that Bourdais and Pagenaud are on different fuel strategies”. Bestwick corrected him by pointing out that they only pitted one lap apart. What was Cheever watching?
These were not Cheever’s only gaffes of the day. He seemed completely disconnected and would only occasionally offer up the tired old “catching Bourdais is one thing, passing him is another”. He also gave us the lame “Bourdais is now hearing every noise in the car, feeling every vibration and hoping nothing breaks”. Please.
Opening-Lap Crash: More times than not, it seems that this race has an opening-lap crash. The most memorable one was in 2011 – a five-car pileup in Turn One that saw Marco Andretti end up on his head. There was nothing that dramatic, but the reconfigured Turn Three saw Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball getting caught up in a melee that also took out Carlos Muñoz.
I’m not sure where Muñoz got involved, but from the safety of my couch – it sure looked like Charlie Kimball tried to go where there was no room between Rahal and the concrete barrier to his right. Both drivers had their day ruined. Rahal finished seventeenth, Kimball eighteenth. Out of the car, Kimball seems quiet and mild-mannered. But we are starting to see a pattern with him putting his race and the race of his competitors at risk. Successful drivers must take the occasional risk, but the risk needs to be attainable. Kimball is starting to rack up a lot of these no-win situations that end up taking more than himself out of races.
Honda’s Resurgence: Heading into the weekend, I was convinced that we were looking at a repeat of the 2016 season. Honda would not even offer a challenge to Chevrolet on the road/street courses, but would be strong on the super speedways.
After the first practice, only two Chevys were in the Top-Ten, with the fastest being fifth quick. I wrote it off as the Chevy teams having a different objective in the first practice than the Honda teams. The second practice showed an improvement by the Chevy teams. Will Power was second quick behind Dixon, and four of the Top-Ten were Chevys. I suspected that by the Saturday morning practice, normalcy would be restored and Honda’s brief visit at the top of the charts would be over.
I was wrong. Honda paced the field with the six fastest cars, while Chevy had only two cars in the Top-Ten. By then it dawned on me that the Chevy teams weren’t sandbagging and that Honda’s newfound strength was actually real. Chevy did find its way onto the pole and placed two cars in the Firestone Fast Six, but eight of the Top-Ten cars on the grid were Honda-powered.
Honda won the race and placed four of the Top-Five in the final race results. They also had nine of the Top-Twelve cars. Honda won this race for the first time since 2011, when they were the sole engine supplier to the series.
It may be too soon to say that Honda is completely back. We’ll know more in four weeks at the Toyota Grand Prix at Long Beach. But Honda and HPD have obviously done their homework on the engine, since the aero kit has been frozen from last season. They probably feel better than they have since Chevy returned to the series in 2012. Quite frankly, it’s a refreshing change.
Coyne’s Resurgence: Last season, Dale Coyne had one of his more forgettable seasons. In the regular season, he ran rookie Conor Daly in one car and a revolving door of drivers in the other. Daly finished eighteenth out of twenty drivers that started every race (not counting Will Power, who missed the first race and still finished second). At the Indianapolis 500, Coyne ran four cars. Pippa Mann had the most experience in the “500” than any of his other drivers. Her eighteenth-place finish was also the highest “500” finish of any of the Coyne drivers last year.
Reuniting with Sébastien Bourdais and bringing rookie driver Ed Jones onboard gave me little reason to think that this season would be much better. Starting positions in yesterday’s race of twenty-first and eighteenth respectively did nothing to tell me this was a team that would turn things around.
But Bourdais was fast in every practice, despite the fact he crashed early in qualifying. Ed Jones was very solid in his debut, scoring a Top-Ten finish and ending up on the lead lap. Most importantly, he kept his nose clean. When you don’t hear a rookie’s name mentioned in his debut race – that’s a good thing.
Like Honda, there is no guarantee that this is a sign of things to come for Coyne. But yesterday sure made them smile more than finishing thirteenth and twentieth, like they did in last year’s opener. For one thing – for the first time in history, a Dale Coyne driver is leading in the IndyCar championship. That helps ease the frustration this team has endured over the decades.
Four-Week Break: After one race, we now enter a four-week break with no IndyCar racing before the series returns at Long Beach on April 9. I’ve seen where some are complaining about that, but I actually like it. We have a lot to chew on for the next few weeks. Dale Coyne and Sébastien Bourdais can sit at the top of the standings for almost a month now. And in April, we’ll know that we still have sixteen more races in our future. Once things start back, it’ll be pretty much non-stop racing for a while, except for Easter and Mother’s Day.
All in all: The 2017 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was not the most thrilling race I’ve seen. There was no last-minute pass for the lead. But then again, this race rarely produces great theater like that. Instead, it serves as a good way to stick our feet back in the water after several months of no racing at all.
As our friend Ron Ford likes to say…there were shiny race cars on track going fast. Who can complain about that? I know I can’t. It was good to see the Verizon IndyCar Series back on my television. It was also good to see Sébastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing and Honda all start the season with a win. This is suddenly looking like it could be a very interesting season.