St. Pete 2013: Paul’s Sunday thoughts

IndyCar — By on March 25, 2013 10:29 am
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Dario crashes on his own.  Honda’s struggles continue through a dismal weekend.  Simona is mere laps away from her first IndyCar podium.  JR Hildebrand puts on a clinic on distracted driving.  Scott Dixon has perhaps the best race of anyone just to finish 5th.  And a Canadian wins for the first time since 2007.

Just another day in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Fans were hoping for rain to play equalizer for the field, but it never came. Regardless, we were treated to a fantastic street race with good battles, strong drivers, boneheaded moves, and some great drives from guys that were perhaps not expected to perform.

In the end, the day belonged to James Hinchcliffe, who scored his first IndyCar victory by holding off Helio Castroneves over the final 25 laps.  Hinch, making his 32nd career start, drove like a veteran who had exorcised the demons that so often bit him when victory was within grasp at lower rungs of the development ladder. He never put a single wheel wrong through the entire day.  It was a sensational drive that he will obviously remember for a very, very long time.

The race started much like many other road and street races on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule: with Will Power running away early and looking completely unbeatable.  Unfortunately for Will, a yellow flag erased a 9+ second lead, a questionable restart shuffled him back in the order, and an inexplicable mistake by third-year Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand eliminated any shot Power had at victory.  After pitting  to repair damage caused when Hildebrand literally drove over the rear of his car under yellow, Power was too far behind to ever mount a serious challenge and eventually brought his Verizon Wireless Penske Chevrolet home in an uncharacteristic and disappointing 16th position.

Speaking of uncharacteristic, watching four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti drive out of the pits and straight into the wall can only be described as such.  Given the struggles that nearly all of the Honda teams experienced this weekend, it isn’t completely surprising that Dario would make such an isolated mistake while trying desperately to push beyond the limitations of his Honda engine.  I don’t expect to see Dario make such a mistake again under those conditions, but if Dario seeks a fifth championship, his margin of error for the remainder of the season must become significantly smaller after finishing dead last in the season opener.

Several drivers had wonderful drives during the first half of the race that went unrewarded in the final box score.  Perhaps most impressive of those came from defending Firestone Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier.  The rookie Frenchman started 6th and ran 5th for most of the first half of the race before a broken header eliminated him.  Oddly, a similar problem also sidelined teammate and fellow Frenchman Simon Pagenaud earlier in the day.  Team co-owner Davey Hamilton was disappointed on the IMS Radio Network broadcast with having both cars eliminated with similar mechanical failures and vowed that the team would find the root of the problem and ensure it is addressed.

Another driver who showed well for himself was Ed Carpenter.  The oval specialist is often chided for his lack of road and street course skills, but Ed has worked hard over the years to improve his craft and is looking better with each passing weekend.  Though not likely to be a contender for wins or even top-five finishes any time soon, Ed ran solidly all day long and cracked the top 10 in the later stages of the race.  He finally settled into a 14th place finish, but the second-year owner/driver is showing marked improvement these past couple of seasons.

What I will take away most from this race is that while the “old guard” may not quite be ready to be kicked to the curb, the new generation of IndyCar drivers is no longer waiting in the wings.  The young guns have arrived and are ready to lock horns with the big boys at every twist and turn.  Drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Simona de Silvestro, Marco Andretti, and many more are capable of going toe-to-toe with Dario, Helio, Power, and Kanaan.  After seeing how competitive they were in this first race, I don’t know if anyone is quite ready to concede this year’s Astor Cup to a former champion yet.  If this type of parity and stellar driving continues all year long, the championship is truly an open battle that could go to any number of six to eight drivers.

With another year behind them, the folks at Green Savoree Promotions should be proud of the event they presented once again.  The crowds throughout the weekend seemed enthusiastic, and I felt the race-day crowd, even with the uncertainly of the weather forecast, was both larger and more excited than when I was here two years ago.

The race at St. Petersburg has definitely established itself as one of the great events on the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar and should be here for many years to come.  Whether it remains the season opening event is questionable, though, as INDYCAR looks to start the season much earlier in the coming years, likely in late February or early March.  Part of what makes St. Petersburg work well is its tie-in to spring break and being able to take advantage of the crowd that is already here.  I believe that keeping the date equity is more important to this event than maintaining its status as the season opener.  With the current contract scheduled to run though at least 2017, it looks like this event will continue to be an early-season anchor event for many years to come.

With that, we’ll wrap up our weekend coverage of the 2013 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg here at More Front Wing. We’ll be back midweek for the podcast to discuss these topics and many more.  If you have a topic you’d like us to discuss, shoot us an email at feedback@morefrontwing.com and we’ll look to answer it during the podcast.  Thanks again for following along this weekend.  We look forward to bringing you more exciting coverage of events throughout the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season!

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