St. Pete 2013: Paul’s Saturday thoughts

Uncategorized — By on March 24, 2013 11:28 am
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So, how many people had Will Power, Takuma Sato, Simona de Silvestro, Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, and Tristan Vautier in their Firestone Fast 6?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  It was that kind of day on Saturday at the 2013 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Under what started out as very muggy conditions and ended up sunny and warm, the stars of the IZOD IndyCar Series put on one of the most unpredictable qualifying sessions in recent memory when Chevrolet continued its opening weekend dominance by securing 9 of the 12 positions in the second round of qualifying.

In the final session, Chevrolet claimed four of the six slots and placed their cars first, second, fourth, and fifth in the qualifying finale.  The powerhouse of Target Chip Ganassi Racing only advanced Dario Franchitti out of the first round and failed to get either of their former champions into the Fast 6.

In an article posted yesterday on Autoweek.com, Chip Ganassi laid the blame for TCGR’s woes at Honda’s feet, saying that the marque simply was not providing the power needed to compete with the Chevrolet teams.  That didn’t seem to be a problem for Takuma Sato or Tristan Vautier, however, so perhaps the problem doesn’t lie specifically with the Honda powerplant itself but rather with the car and driver setups of the Honda teams.

The biggest buzz of the day was created by KV Racing Technology’s Simona de Silvestro.  Backing up her strong effort in Friday’s practice sessions, Simona advanced to her first ever Firestone Fast 6, ultimately earning the 3rd starting position for the big event.  De Silvestro has long been considered an excellent road and street course driver, and in a season with renewed vigor brought about by her new Chevrolet engine, many people are looking at her to put in competitive efforts week in and week out.

Another driver turning heads during qualifying was rookie Tristan Vautier.  The Frenchman driving for Schmidt Peterson Racing was one of only two Honda shoes in the Fast 6, and although he was the slowest of the final group he still served notice that he expects to be competitive immediately in his series debut.  Perhaps most surprisingly, Vautier significantly out-performed highly touted teammate Simon Pagenaud, who failed to advance out of the first round.

Another driver who outshone his experienced teammate was Dragon Racing’s Sebastian Saavedra, who advanced out of round 2 and into the Fast 6, unlike his teammate and four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais.  The young Colombian, who was long known more for leaving Bryan Herta Autosport in 2010 than his on-track accomplishments, looks as if he is poised to stand on his own in the No. 6 TrueCar Chevrolet.

Of course, it was little surprise that Will Power secured his fourth pole in a row at this event — an INDYCAR record for poles in consecutive years.  Will should be strong again tomorrow in the race, but behind him the action should be fierce.

It was really a pleasure to watch such an unpredictable qualifying session and see so many names that are normally lower on the speed charts mixed in with the perennial frontrunners.  Seeing drivers like Simona, Saavedra, and Vautier mix it up for the top of the starting grid while names like Franchitti, Pagenaud, Tagliani, Rahal, Dixon, Wilson, and many others fall short of making the Firestone Fast 6 made the final session much more exciting and brought a breath of fresh air to the activities.

Speaking of excitement, something I found interesting — or, more precisely, not interesting — was how the downtime between sessions seems like an eternity when watching in person, especially in an area that isn’t in front of a large screen monitor (which is basically the grandstands outside turn 1 and the INDYCAR Fan Village area near turn 4).  Without such a monitor it’s nearly impossible to know what is happening, and when drivers wait several minutes to begin putting down laps it’s obvious that crowds get a bit listless.

One thing that is not leading to a lack of excitement is the amount of activity on the track during the day.  Like the rest of the events promoted by Green-Savoree Promotions, the track is busy nearly from sun up to sun down.  In addition to the IZOD IndyCar Series, the entire Mazda Road to Indy is in action here this weekend, and the Pirelli World Challenge is in the mix as well.

I noted in yesterday’s update that I thought the crowd seems a bit down than what I had experienced in previous years.  That was decidedly not the case on Saturday!  Crowds were very healthy throughout the entire facility, and all seemed to truly be enjoying themselves.  The grandstands on the frontstraight weren’t packed, but for a qualifying day the crowd was certainly healthy.  While wandering around the track from turn 1 around toward turn 6, the areas in and around the INDYCAR Fan Village had a very healthy crowd.  One tidbit that I noticed while making my way around was that the crowd really does seem to be 90%+ INDYCAR.  When attending race on ovals, particularly those ovals that are operated by ISC and SMI, it is not uncommon to see more NASCAR shirts and hats being worn than INDYCAR gear.  Today, I believe I saw but a single NASCAR hat and no shirts.  It was refreshing to see a crowd that wasn’t simply checking out INDYCAR as a curiosity for once and again supports the argument that taking INDYCAR to the people in these street course environments is a strategy that seems to be paying nice dividends.

One thing I do want to point out is that the volunteers here at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg are truly second to none.  I have needed to interact with dozens of them over the past couple of days, and every one of them, from the parking attendants to the people tasked with checking credentials at pit road, have truly been fantastic.  There are many other facilities and race groups that could take a lesson from the fine people here in St. Petersburg.

Stay tuned to More Front Wing throughout Sunday to keep up to date with all the latest information from the track.  I will be posting live throughout the day on Twitter at @Fieldof33.  Comments and questions are always welcomed!

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