The 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series got under way today under perfect skies all day long. With temperatures in the upper 70s and not a single cloud spotted throughout the day, conditions were perfect for teams, drivers, and spectators alike.
We had a number of stories that we were looking to cover coming into today, and several figured prominently into the day’s highlights.
The most interesting story was the fantastic debut of Mike Conway with Andretti Autosport. Conway, who is making his return to the Series after a savage accident on the next-to-last lap of last year’s Indianapolis 500, was the fastest of the four Andretti Autosport cars and finished third on the day behind only Will Power and Dario Franchitti. The remaining Andretti cars finished the day 7th (Andretti), 10th (Patrick) and 12th (Hunter-Reay). Hunter-Reay led the first practice session but was unable to better his time in the second session after clipping the wall and breaking a piece in the right rear suspension. It’s obviously still very early, but it seems that Conway it fitting in well so far and could bring a new spark to that team.
Another question we were hoping to get answered today was how Tony Kanaan’s presence at KV Racing Technology/Lotus would affect that team. While Tony himself had a nice showing, wrapping up the day ninth on the combined speed charts, the two other drivers struggled. Sophomore driver Takuma Sato could do no better than 16th, while EJ Viso picked up where he left off last year by bringing out a pair of full-course yellows, the second causing a good amount of damage to his Dallara. If KV hoped to have a better (and less expensive) year than 2010, it is not off to a promising start.
Sadly, Simona de Silvestro struggled all day during her first official practice session without former engineer Michael Cannon. Listening to her on the radio revealed that Simona was never comfortable with the car’s stability through the corners, and the HVM Racing team seemed to be throwing all sorts of different combinations at the problem. In the first session, Simona was the slowest on track and fell outside of the 105% time as set by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Luckily, she was able to pick up her speed in the second session, but she still finished 23rd on the charts ahead of only James Jakes and Ana Beatriz.
Friday also marked the return of Sebastian Bourdais to American open-wheel racing. The four-time Champ Car champion returned to the United States and the city he used to call home driving for Dale Coyne Racing and finished a very respectable eighth on the combined speed charts. It seemed like Bourdais experienced a little bit of the problem that Takuma Sato had last spring when he jumped into the Dallara from a Formula 1 ride and found the braking to be quite different. Bourdais missed turn four at least three times in the second practice session today but was fortunate to have no damage in any of the run-offs. Sebastian will have to keep the car on track during qualifying tomorrow to post a quick time, but his impressive debut today shows that he still has the skills to wheel a car around with the best of them.
During the press conference for the day’s two fastest drivers, Will Power and Dario Franchitti both admitted it is unlikely that a driver from another team will win the championship this year, but they both pointed out how tough winning a race will be. Dario even went as far as to suggest that as many as 10 to 15 cars have a legitimate shot at reaching victory lane this year. Personally, I think those numbers seem high, and I think the number of different winners in 2011 will be closer to seven or eight. Even though the winners will likely be the same bunch of drivers and will likely include Wilson, Rahal, and one other surprise victor, I continue to maintain that a top-10 finish will never have meant more. Of the 25 drivers starting this weekend and James Hinchcliffe (who is expected to join the Series is the near future), I predict that at least 20 different drivers will post top-10 finishes before the season wraps up at Las Vegas in October.
Away from the track, the crowd today was quite impressive for a Friday, and several people made mention of the increase in spectators this year. In my tours around the facility, it seemed that there were people everywhere. Moving around proved to be a difficult process, particularly in the turns 4-8 complex. Of course, the pit and paddock areas were busy with people trying to catch glimpses of the cars and their favorite drivers, and merchandise trailers seemed to be doing a decent business whenever I walked by them. I can only assume that the crowds will grow over the next two days, and race organizers must be pleased with the turnout.
The media center also had a good crowd. Though it was not front page news, the lack of media at the INDYCAR open test at Barber Motorsports Park last week was certainly a bit concerning. One reporter said there were only six members of the media present for most of the sessions. If INDYCAR is going to thrive, it will need the media to become more engaged in promoting it. Today’s turnout in the media center was probably the largest gathering I’ve seen in a media center outside of Indianapolis. Though completely unofficial, I would guess there were close to 100 reporters and photographers in attendance today, and a very quick scour of the internet tonight suggests that there are already a good number of reports from the track.
An unexpected news item came today from the announcement that Dan Wheldon will pair with Bryan Herta Autosport for the Indianapolis 500 this year. Though the deal is currently only for Indianapolis, both Wheldon and Herta are optimistic they will be able to grow the program to include several more races. They were, of course, teammates at Andretti Green Racing in 2005 when that team dominated the IZOD IndyCar Series, and much was made about the camaraderie between the four drivers at that team, which also included Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti. Herta and Wheldon hope that familiarity and previous experience in working together will bring them good fortunes, and both believe that this can be a winning effort at Indianapolis. Though Wheldon has finished second in the last two 500s, BHA struggled mightily to make the field with rookie Sebastian Saavedra last year and only made it in because of a miraculous combination of withdrawals, poor decisions by other teams, and a lot of luck. It’s good to have goal, and they obviously want to say the right things, but it will be a massive upset if this entry finishes in the top 10 at Indy this year, even with an experienced and proven champion like Wheldon.
Finally, something I like to gauge at each race I go to is how the race is received by the community and how the race is promoted locally to the traveler passing through. Sadly, I’m not getting much of a vibe that the community is heavily involved in this event. Outside of a three-block radius from the track, I have seen very little that suggests that a race is going on this weekend. When I arrived at Tampa International Airport yesterday afternoon, there was no signage, no “welcome mat,” and basically no indication that there’s a race in town, even though displays throughout the airport have welcome messages to many other conventions and events going on around the Tampa Bay area. I admittedly haven’t driven a lot of the roads around here, but I have yet to see a single billboard displaying race information, especially on the stretch of I-275 that links Tampa International Airport to the race track located only a few blocks from Tropicana Field. The local television news last night (at least the two channels that I caught) only had very brief snippets of information about today’s activities at the tail end of the sportscast. Today, I saw a couple of reports that looked like local news anchors, but no TV stations had broadcast setups and only one radio station that I saw did any broadcasting from the track. There must have been some good promotion going on somewhere, though, based on the size of the crowd today and the very nice turnout at last night’s parade. However, it would have been nice to see the welcome mat rolled out a little more to create the feeling that out-of-towners were coming to a big event that had been well-embraced by the locals. Interestingly, I also had the same impression last year when I visited the Honda Indy Toronto, which is also run by Green-Savoree Promotions.
All in all, it was a beautiful day at the track (when isn’t it a great day at the track?!) and an excellent way to kick off the 2011 IICS season. Tomorrow, we will follow another set of stories throughout the day. The top story will be whether any drivers really have anything for Will Power, which should start to play out when everyone shows their cards in qualifications. If the Andretti cars have truly found the speed they showed today, it will be a welcome relief and bring additional much-needed competition to the field.
Stay tuned to More Front Wing throughout the weekend here and on Twitter (@MoreFrontWing) as we bring you the latest breaking news and live updates from practice and qualifying sessions and do our best to convey the atmosphere and feel of the event.