The 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season finally kicked off today on the street of St. Petersburg, Florida, and the biggest story seems to be what hasn’t changed — the decided advantage that the Chevrolet teams appear to have over their Honda competitors.
On the combined practice chart for the day, only a pair of Honda teams were able to muster enough speed to find themselves in the top 10: AJ Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato wound up 5th, and rookie Tristan Vautier was good enough for 9th on the day.
To nobody’s surprise, Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power found himself atop the speed chart with a lap of 1:01.4467. His nemesis from last season, 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, wound up 0.18 seconds behind in 2nd for the day. Chevrolet newcomer Simona de Silvestro had a fanastic debut with the Bowtie behind her with a lap good enough for 3rd best on the day, only 0.06 seconds slower than Hunter-Reay.
Once the practice session wrapped up, the top three drivers were brought to the media center to discuss their days. Power, even more subdued than usual, pointed out that while he was fastest today he is still fighting issues with the car and isn’t completely comfortable with it yet. Additionally, Power noted that with fresh red tires he expects to see speeds in the 59-second range tomorrow in qualifying. The track record here was set in 2003 by Sebastien Bourdais at 1:00.928 (106.710 mph).
On more than one occasion Power mentioned the lack of speed of the Honda cars, and while he recognizes it is still early on he believes that he and his Chevrolet comrades seem to have a marked advantage thus far through preseason testing and practice. He even went so far as to say that the cars of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team may not give them much in the way of competition. (Those cars wound up 17th and 19th on the combined speed chart for the day.)
The smile on Simona de Silvestro’s face did not waver during the entire course of the press conference. Simona was nothing but classy during a long, frustrating, and disappointing 2012 season where she was saddled with a uncompetitive Lotus engine that made her feel as if she was “literally racing in another class,” but anyone who knows Simona’s competitive drive can easily understand the toll it took on her to show up week in and week out without the hope of even being at pace with the field. Several drivers, including the two who posted faster times than her this afternoon, expect to see Simona giving them all a run for their money throughout this entire season.
The changing weather was a topic of conversation for many people as conditions on Saturday are expected to deviate substantially from Friday, which was generally sunny and pleasant. Current forecasts call for a 30% chance of rain through most of the day, but cloudy skies should be the norm. Additionally, rains tonight will wash away all of the rubber that was built up during today’s sessions. The feeder series will start with a green track, while the IndyCars will be presented with a track covered with rubber from different tire compounds. Expect to see many of the top teams again wait before heading out so as to let the other guys clean off the track for them.
As expected, the media coverage of the season opening event has been pretty substantial in the St. Petersburg area. Several of the local news stations that I’ve seen have had coverage of or from the track, and signage throughout the area has been better than I was expecting. While attending two years ago, I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of local promotion, but that seems to be less of an issue this year.
Despite that, I’m not convinced that it resulted in a larger gate draw as I felt the attendance seemed a bit down than in previous years. My views were mostly from turn 10 and in the pit area, but I never felt like the crowd was great. Of course, it was a Friday, so given better conditions I would expect the crowd to increase for IZOD IndyCar Series qualifying and the Firestone Indy Lights race. Obviously, poor weather could make a significant impact and keep people away.
I expect to spend more time wandering through the facility on Saturday to get a better feel for other aspects of the event such as vendors and fan amenities and see how they are being received. Look for that report on Sunday morning here at More Front Wing, and follow @Fieldof33 on Twitter for my off-the-cuff observations direct from the track at St. Petersburg all weekend long.