If the F1 race was a farce, Sunday’s IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg made up for it. There may have been a number of long yellows and it still turned into a mileage race despite the added laps (it’s impossible to prevent a race from turning into a mileage race) but it featured a lot of good racing and some outstanding performances. It also featured a popular driver’s first IndyCar victory; James Hinchliffe took the lead from Helio Castroneves when Helio over-drove a corner then held him off for the rest of the race. It can only be the first of many for Hinchcliffe. It was good to see him win because he is going to be a personality instrumental in IndyCar’s future.
The first qualifying session of the 2013 IndyCar season was an interesting one. The pole sitter was no surprise; Will Power was the class of the practice sessions and carried that performance into qualifying. The surprise of the practice and qualifying was Takuma Sato in the A.J. Foyt Racing car; the Honda cars seemed to be at a disadvantage on Friday and Saturday yet Sato was consistently the second fastest car. If you would have told me Thursday afternoon that Sato and Foyt would be carrying the flag for Honda instead of the 2 Ganassi A-team cars I’d have laughed. The Sato/Foyt combination is an unexpected and intriguing one but so far it seems to be an effective one! Everyone was expecting good results from Simona De Silvestro and she delivered in both practice and qualifying; consistently the third fastest car she outperformed teammate Tony Kanaan. De Silvestro was driving with something to prove after several years of driving old heavy cars and suffering with an underpowered Lotus engine in 2012. Yet another pleasant surprise was the outstanding performance of Tristan Vautier in practice and qualifying, outperforming his more experienced teammate Simon Pagenaud to start sixth.
The slow pace of the Ganassi A-team was a surprise. Throughout practice and qualifying, both Franchitti and Dixon were unable find the speed of Sato and Vautier. Franchitti qualified in 10th with Dixon farther behind in 20th. The B-Team car of Kimball split the difference in 14th. Chip Ganassi instantly laid fault at the feet of Honda:
They said for years and years and years they want competition,” Ganassi added. “Now they’ve got competition, and they are not talking about winning. I feel like they want to sit around and hold hands and sing Kumbaya.
That’s just Chip Ganassi being Chip Ganassi. Chevrolet was obviously faster than Honda in practice and qualifying but Sato with Foyt and Vautier with Schmidt Peterson certainly were able to fight with the Chevrolets. Perhaps Ganassi needs to look to the setups of his teams’ cars; based on some of his driver’s comments I don’t think it was all engine. Sato and Vautier certainly weren’t spilling the vitriol that Ganassi was.
In the first third of the race, Will Power took off to an authoritative lead. His car was awesome on the red tires but didn’t seem to like the black tires as much. He lost the lead to Helio Castroneves on the first restart and lost another spot on the next restart. When he finally got back on a set of red tires during a yellow flag pit stop J.R. Hildebrand got distracted in the cockpit and ran him over from behind before Power could take advantage of them on the restart. Power’s race just went downhill from there. On the other hand, both James Hinchcliffe and Helio Castroneves had terrific races with the two finishing P1 and P2 respectively. There were a lot of positives to be taken out of this race. Tristan Vautier had a great race going, driving beyond his rookie status in the top 5 until a mechanical problem took him out of the race; his finish in the race certainly didn’t reflect how well he performed this weekend. Simona De Silvestro lost some positions on the start but caught back up and raced in P3 for much of the race; ultimately the used red tires her team put on in the final stint went away and though she put up a hard fight against Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, and Scott Dixon she ended up P6. Still nothing to be ashamed of. Takuma Sato had a good first half of the race but front wing damage hampered his efforts. I think if Foyt Racing had replaced it on the first stop after the damage he’d have had a better finish; he certainly started moving back up the field when they finally did. Marco Andretti was much improved in this race; he was more controlled than he’s been in recent seasons and took P3 in the end. If he can keep it up he’ll be a driver to be reckoned with this season. Ganassi had a terrible weekend; even though Chip Ganassi blamed Honda, it was obvious that they really didn’t have a good handle on setups this weekend. That said, Scott Dixon kept his nose clean and took advantage of attrition to finish P5.
Looking back to qualifying, Honda’s problems carried over in the race. They certainly have a lot of work to do and I expect them to come back soon. That said, not all of the issues were engine issues, some of theme were electrical and if I recall correctly there was one gearbox problem. I’m still not convinced that the rear wheel guards are working as it was hoped they would. Hildebrand’s car climbed the guards on Power’s car pretty easily but I wonder if that crash could have been worse had the guard not been there?
With the change from Versus to NBC Sports Network, NBC stepped up their coverage of the IndyCar series this weekend. Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Wally Dallenbach Jr. in the booth were terrific. I was skeptical of moving Jon Beekius from the booth to the pits but it was an excellent move. Brian Till in the pits was also a good choice. NBC Sports should also be thanked for not just going off of the air after the checkered flag; they hung around and got interviews from all of the major players. I truly got the impression that everyone at NBC Sports Network stepped up their game at this race and they are to be commended for it.
The 2013 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has set the stage for a wonderful 2013 IndyCar season. I hope the rest of the season is as wide open and competitive as this race was.