Well, well, well… that was interesting.
The era of double-file restarts in the IZOD IndyCar Series got off to an inauspicious start when major carnage ensued in the very first corner of the race. I haven’t seen all the replays, but what I have seen indicates that Helio Castroneves made an aggressive move into turn one and Marco got the worst of it. It’s the second year in a row that Marco has been involved in a scary, first-turn accident to open the season — Mario Moraes ended up perched atop Marco’s car last year in Brazil. Thankfully, Marco was able to climb from his car without injury again, but it was a very disappointing start to the season. Until I am able to see the replays on what exactly happened to Marco, I’ll refrain from making further judgment about the genesis of the accident.
Unfortunately, it was only the beginning of a tough day for Andretti Autosport. Also eliminated in the opening lap melee was Mike Conway, who had a spectacular weekend and was poised to have an impressive debut with his new team. Sadly, he was taken out on the first lap and credited with a 23rd place finish, a result that in no way indicated how good his weekend was.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had a disappointing day as well in the #28 DHL/SunDrop Andretti Autosport car. Ryan was also caught up in one of the early accidents and suffered a broken suspension as a result. After lengthy repairs to his car, Ryan returned to the track long enough to pick up his maximum potential points in 21st position. His Andretti Autosport crew then called him to the pits for good. Ryan had a great weekend as well and should have obtained a better result.
Danica Patrick, for all her struggles over the weekend, actually had a pretty good race for herself. For quite a while during the middle and later portions of the race, Danica was actually turning the fastest laps of anyone on the track (I know, it surprised me too, but that’s what the time sheet said!). Her 11th place finish really didn’t show how well she ran today. Following the race, however, Danica was penalized one position for “avoidable contact,” putting her in 12th. A few reporters are indicating the contact was with JR Hildebrand after the race, but that has yet to be confirmed by INDYCAR. Danica should be pleased with a 12th place finish given her struggles during practice and qualifying, but as the highest-placing driver for Andretti Autosport (the only finishing driver for that matter), that team will be licking its wounds for the next two weeks until they can get back on track at Barber Motorsports Park.
The story of the day, though, was Simona de Silvestro. After struggling mightily all weekend, even being outside of the 105% mandate in the first practice session, her HVM Racing team finally discovered the correct setup in the morning warm-up, and Simona had the drive of the race. Yes, one can easily point out that she was greatly aided by the early accidents that took out many leaders and allowed her to move from 17th to 2nd by lap 14. However, once Simona got her position, she drove the wheels off the car and stayed at the front of the field for the rest of the day. For the last 10 laps, she dogged Tony Kanaan in every corner and created a very interesting fight for the final podium position in what was otherwise a sleeper of a race. Though she was never able to get around TK, she had the crowd on her feet and bristling with excitement. It was obvious that both drivers are fan favorites, and watching them battle all the way to the end was phenomenal to see. Simona admitted afterwards that she wasn’t really trying all that hard to pass Tony because she didn’t want to put her fantastic run in jeopardy. That’s a wise decision from a second-year driver who is on a limited budget again this year. For his part, when TK came into the post-race press conference, he made several exaggerated bows to Simona and got a good laugh out of everyone in attendance.
One final note concerning Simona. I caught quite a few messages on Twitter during the race that blamed EJ Viso for causing Simona to lose contact with Tony Kanaan late in the race. From what I saw, EJ did absolutely nothing wrong and didn’t in any way impede Simona. Simona simply tried to make the move on EJ when she wasn’t quite close enough and ended up overdriving the corner. EJ didn’t challenge her or hold her up in any way. I thought EJ handled himself well in the situation, and as much as most people were pulling for Simona, she simply pushed a little too hard and couldn’t make the corner.
At the front of the field, Dario Franchitti pretty much made a laugher of the race. Once the dust settled on the early-race incidents, he was never challenged and drove to a seemingly easy seven-second victory over Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power. Dario was able to take the lead on the second restart with a nice outside pass on Power and then held onto the lead for all but two of the remaining 96 laps. It was a dominating performance and served notice that Dario will once again be very tough to beat for the championship in 2011.
The major story coming out of the race weekend will be the restart procedures that are now in place for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Originally, the double-file restarts were only to be in effect for the oval races, but shortly before the weekend started, INDYCAR announced that they would be enacted at all races, starting here at St. Pete. Nearly all drivers interviewed on the subject this weekend said they were not keen on the idea, but most admitted that bringing excitement to the fans is a positive and so they were open to giving them a chance. Dario made a point in the post-race press conference that the car owners also called for the double-file restarts for 2011, though after getting their repair bills this week, they may think twice about it. Additionally, he pointed out that the major carnage of today’s race was not due to the double-file restarts as it came on the initial green flag, which of course has always been two-wide. The problem, he believes, might not be so much a result of the double-file restarts as it is the much slower and later acceleration point, which leaves the field much more tightly bunched going into turn one. It’s an interesting and valid perspective and one that I’m sure will be explored more in the coming weeks.
By all accounts, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was a success again across the board. Beautiful weather all weekend long brought out large crowds all three days. All areas of the facility, from the frontstraight grandstands to the Indy Fan Village between turns four and five, were filled with spectators nearly constantly. And while the crowds in the stands look nice on TV, the race promoters really get more excited about corporate sales, and the promoters were able to sell out all of the corporate hospitality opportunities, including the new Trackside Club in turn 10. Operations on the ground ran smoothly, as far as I could tell, from the time the event kicked off on Thursday. The crowds here were large all weekend, but I never saw any problems requiring security personnel or involving excessively drunk people getting out of hand. All in all, the fans were well-behaved and enthusiastic. Billing itself as the World’s Fastest Spring Break Party, the event lived up to its motto, though I admittedly saw very few of what would generally be considered spring breakers. It looks like this event has really hit on a successful formula, catering to both the year-round Florida residents and the northerners who desperately long for a warm-weather retreat following a long winter. I hope this event continues for years to come and always maintains its early-season date. I’m not confident that it would work as well at a later point in the season.
With that, we’ll wrap up our on-site coverage of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but we will be back in the coming days to continue to analyze the event. Look for the More Front Wing podcast midweek as we break down the events from the weekend and discuss all the news coming out of the season opener. Thanks to all our followers here on MoreFrontWing.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter who offered kind words this weekend and enjoyed our coverage. We look forward to bringing you more coverage throughout the rest of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season.