Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg

For a race that held so much anticipation, it would be tough for the actual race to live up to the hype. Such was the case for this year’s season opener – the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a bad race by any stretch. There just were very few moments that took your breath away. After what happened in the last race on October 16, that’s not such a bad thing.

For me personally, I was very happy to see Helio Castroneves back in the winner’s circle for the first time since Motegi of 2010. Most readers of this site know that I have always considered Helio Castroneves to be my favorite current driver. Actually if truth be known, he and Tony Kanaan are probably an interchangeable 1-A and 1-B. But since Helio drives for Roger Penske, he usually gets the nod – since I’ve been a Penske fan since the Mark Donohue days.

Helio didn’t just luck into this win – he was up front all day and dominated the second half of the race. He also had what I considered the move of the race, when he passed Scott Dixon for second place on Lap Seventy-Two. Going into Turn One, Helio went on the outside of Dixon, held his ground and made the pass stick. Dixon never really had anything for him after that. When Helio passed Marco Andretti on Lap Ninety-Eight, I was thinking he needed to stay back and follow Marco. That shows how little I know. Once Helio got around Marco, he checked out on Dixon who still had to deal with the RC Cola car of Marco.

Helio won comfortably, then fittingly paid tribute to Dan Wheldon by doing his “Spiderman” routine by stopping his car on Dan Wheldon Way and saluted the crowd by climbing the fence. He then ran over and climbed the fence across the track to pat the sign that signified the newly renamed street in St. Petersburg was in fact Dan Wheldon Way.

This was a clean race, unlike last year’s race that started with an opening lap melee that was caused, ironically, by Helio Castroneves. The only real incidents I can think of were when James Jakes went into the tire barrier in Turn Ten and when Helio accidentally punted Ed Carpenter as Carpenter was about to pull into the pits. The rest of the yellows were for stalled cars, of which there were many.

With new engines and new cars, there were certain to be many teething problems. There were. There were multiple gearbox, battery and general electrical problems. What we did not see were any of the traditional blown engine issues involving plumes of blue smoke, like we would see in CART during its heyday of engine competition in the mid-nineties.

TV Coverage: The good news is that the IZOD IndyCar Series opener was carried live on major network television. ABC/ESPN did a wonderful job with their pre-race show. There was a good explanation on the differences between the old Dallara and the DW12. There was also a nice feature on Rubens Barrichello coming into the series. Their greatest segment was the tribute to Dan Wheldon.

Unfortunately, once the green flag fell – they went back to the ABC/ESPN we have all grown accustomed to. I’m sorry, but Marty Reid just doesn’t do it for me. He could call a perfect race and would still leave me cold. I think his style is more suited for The Price Is Right or Hollywood Squares than it is for calling IndyCar races. I don’t object to Scott Goodyear like most people do. Yes, he is somewhat of a monotone – but I always considered him an excellent driver and I think his opinions carry a lot of weight.

The pit reporters all performed well. Vince Welch and Jamie Little are some of the best in the business, and Rick DeBruhl holds his own. I almost called him a newcomer, but this is his third season. Where ABC really dropped the ball was in their lack of relaying information to the viewers. Not once did they ever tell us that Sébastien Bourdais was off course, much less why. The last they reported he was in the top-ten. He finished twenty-first. It was the same for JR Hildebrand. I would have liked to hear an interview with Mike Conway or a representative of the Foyt team. They were running strong all day until gearbox issues put them out. Yet all we heard was how AJ Foyt has lost forty pounds due to a staph infection.

I don’t recall any major flubs by ABC/ESPN, yet they left me wanting more. I’m anxious to see what NBC Sports Network does to enhance the coverage that Versus had done so well for the past three years.

Foyt pit woes: Although it (among other things) was never discussed on ABC, I couldn’t help but notice that Mike Conway lost several positions after his pit stop. He and several cars came into the pits, with Conway trailing only one car. By the time the stop was completed, he had been shuffled back near the rear. This happened way too many times last season, with Vitor Meira gaining positions on the track only to be undone by his own crew in the pits. With all the positive changes Larry Foyt has made to this team in the offseason, it’s a shame that poor pit work still eliminates any progress they’ve made.

Looks of the car: For the most part, I think the looks of the car have grown on me. Unless the rear “bumper” is white (Takuma Sato), it doesn’t really stand out very much. The side view doesn’t bother me either. About the only thing I’m still not used to is when the car was headed straight for the camera. That’s when the car takes on the appearance of a Batmobile. That will still take some getting used to.

I really liked the livery on the car of Bourdais. Many cars are a big improvement over last year, including Graham Rahal, the Foyt car and the Fuzzy’s car. There seems to be a plethora of light blue and white cars (Sato, Pagenaud and Newgarden) that got a bit confusing. I’m also not a fan of the small numbers on the rear-wing end-plate.

Surprises and disappointments: I hate to admit it, but Helio winning in dominating fashion was a pleasant surprise. I’m not sure I really saw that coming. Simon Pagenaud being strong all weekend was another positive. Seeing Sébastien Bourdais with Lotus power run as high as sixth late in the race was something I didn’t expect to see either.

What I did expect was to see Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal and Will Power battle for the win. Franchitti and Rahal were non-factors throughout the weekend and Power was taken out of contention early with a flawed pit strategy. I would also have to say Marco Andretti was a disappointment. He slid backwards all day, saying his car was handling poorly. Marco finished fourteenth, while his Andretti Autosport teammates finished third and fourth. Hmmm.

All in all: It wasn’t a great race, but it could have been a lot worse. I found it refreshing that Race Control didn’t take center stage. Beaux Barfiled kept a low profile during the race. That’s the way it should be. It was a very clean race, but I think drivers were being overly cautious. I’m not sure you’ll see the same thing at Barber Motorsports Park next week. Barber is a tight circuit with few passing zones. I think drivers might test the more enclosed wheel of this new car next week. I think Barber could be much more interesting than what we saw yesterday.

But I saw this as a good way to start this new era of the IZOD IndyCar Series. They’ll get the bugs worked out and it will only get better from here.

George Phillips

25 Responses to “Random Thoughts On St. Petersburg”

  1. For all the whining we collectively do about ABC/NBC/ESPN and how they cover this series. (Randy Bernard took to twitter last night to complain about NBCSN.com’s coverage of an event they didn’t air) It’s really amazing to see that indycar.com still has last year’s standings prominently pasted on their front page at this hour this morning. This of course, on a brand new website design, one that did nothing to fix a major issue of ease of access to vital data like session results, standings, and schedules. Those of you that have access to Randy Bernard need to point this kind of crap out. To still have last’s year’s standings up, is beyond the excuse of ” blah blah blah we’re working some launch bugs out”.

    Indycar.com was one of the worst designed sports websites I’ve seen, and it still is. They could make a huge improvement by just copying the right side column of F1.com

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    I agree with Bart that the Indycar.com website still leaves much to be desired. Vital information was (and still is) more available on Speed and Trackside this morning.

    I thought the race was great for this season’s opener because most of the anticipated problems that we have been obsessing about during the off season did not occur. No engines blew up which is a very good thing in my opinion. In addition, there were quite a few teams that did better than the usual Penske/Ganassi suspects. Others that retired early with electrical or gearbox problems also showed promise.

    As George noted, the ABC pre-race segments were well done. ABC continues to miss or choose not to show much of the passing. There was much more passing than one would have guessed watching their coverage.

    Bourdais seemingly could put a go-cart in the top ten.

    No race control issues that I know of. (What will Robin Miller talk about?!)

    I don’t see how Barber could be more interesting than St. Pete unless you like crashes. It is still basically a very scenic motorcycle track. For great scenery and passing, let’s return to Road America.

  3. St. Pete looked good. New cars looked good. Everything seemed to go fine, except for those mechanical/electrical gremlins. Pagenaud, RHR, Hinch ran well–Andretti team looks like they’ll be good. It seems like everyone minded their manners, but you’re right about Barber–they’ll start to try out those back bumpers next week.

    Are street races boring or are they just made to seem boring by the television coverage?

    • From the ST. Pete Times

      Passing problems: The new car and fuel strategy appeared to limit passing.

      Wilson said the car’s wider wings increased the grip but made passing more difficult. Pit stop strategy also played a role as some drivers tried to conserve fuel instead of race each other aggressively.

      “It’s definitely tough,” James Hinchcliffe said of overtaking competitors in the new Dallara DW12.

      “You don’t want it too easy, right? You want guys to have to work for it. I think that’s where we’re at.”

      Translation: The new car makes it even worse.

  4. I noticed the same thing on Conway’s pit stop. It must be frustrating as a driver to know that every time you pit you will give up 1-2 positions.

    I haven’t seen anyone else point it out, but the call to pit Will Power was a head scratcher. Pitting to go “off cycle” is a good strategy when you are stuck in traffic mid-pack. I have no idea why you would do this when you are P1, and checking out on the field. All it accomplishes is putting you mid pack for a double file re-start, which on a street course is sort of like Russian roulette. Also, for a P1 whose car is trimmed to run out front in clean air, why would you want to move back into mid pack unless you had to?

    I was surprised to see how well Josef Newgarden did. In a car he’s had little time testing, he still made some nice on track passes, and finished ahead of some more notable drivers/teams.

  5. Same sentiments as above, it could have been a **lot** worse for the first race in a new car, new engines, new gearbox. Newgarden wasn’t afraid to mix it up with Dario, which was very encouraging.

    I did hope that the drivers would be cautious, as a crashfest was the last thing the series needed at this point. I would have preferred the first race with the new car to have been on a real road course where if one takes a chance that doesn’t turn out well, one likely ends up in the grass or a gravel trap…rather than into a Jersey barrier, bouncing back into other cars or littering the track with debris. I think that would have made for more passing attempts.

    And that’s precisely why I’m more hopeful about Barber. FWIW, I thought the 2011 race there was a huge improvement over the initial race. Many more passing attempts were made in the hairpin, and more downforce & carbon brakes can only encourage drivers to take more chances this year than in the past two.

    Also, it seems that nearly everyone keeps saying Barber is very narrow. I’d suggest that if you believe that to be true, use Google Earth to measure the track width at various points at Barber, then do the same at RA, M-O, and WGI….I believe you would be massively surprised at what you find.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      I will do what you suggest Steve, because while I have been to Road America many times, I have only seen Mid-Ohio, Watgins Glen, and Barber on TV and they just seem very narrow. Perhaps I have been influenced by how much better the bratwurst tastes at Road America.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Decent, clean race with lots of good drives, and an on-track pass for the win. You know you have a deep field when several drivers who have proven themselves to be very good wind up as non-factors. Outside of one restart that Dixon blatantly jumped, I thought the starts and restarts were fine too. Ryan Hunter-Reay, I thought, drove the best race… fast and clean. Clean isn’t regularly a part of a winning formula on street circuits.

    I was hoping to see a bit more overtaking, but it appears that ABC was the reason I saw so little. They were tremendous in pre-race, though.

    While the engines had understandable problems, I’ve got to give Dallara some kudos for durability. Hunter-Reay and others got pinballed around at times and it didn’t result in regular yellows for fallen debris. This might make guys unrespectably brave in later rounds, but I think teams have got to be happy that the new car can take a punch at 100+ MPH.

  7. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    Yeah…from all I’ve seen on twitter and blogs, ABC missed some good stuff as usual. I understand you can only show one thing at a time, but showing Sato before a pit stop while Helio and Dixon nearly ran over each other at pit out in the race’s key moments is ridiculous. It seems to me that they employ producers that just dont understand racing.

    By the way, if you liked Bourdais’ car on TV, wait ’til you see his car and Kat’s car in person. Dragon makes up for Lotus’ engine issues by making some seriously snappy cars with the metallic paint accents.

  8. After watching Bourdais the past year and a race and combine that with his time at Newman-Haas, I am even more confused about why he failed in F1. The man can drive.

    Anyone ever watch Speed’s coverage of F1? That is how you cover a non-oval race. A Play by play man, an old driver, and an old mechanic. Lots of tech info, lots of lap times, sector times and they will tell you about any car on the track. Why do IndyCar fans suffer with a dumbed down broadcast?

  9. Disappointing, to say the least. That’s how I’d sum up St. Pete

  10. I was at the race, and had just one major disappointment…..Cameron, the Izod girl, didn’t make an appearance until Sunday. Other than that, I thought it was a perfect day. Lots of action, no blown engines, great driving, impressive results from a lot of drivers. All in all, fantastic!

  11. Absolutely get rid of Marty Reid. Paul Page called a race with enthusiasm, whereas Mousy Marty is better suited to golf (or something MORE boring). Scott Goodyear is okay with a good play-by-play announcer, but I would prefer a more recognised and credible driver like Danny Sullivan, or someone more recent (but still credible) like de Ferran or Cheever. It’s important that the driver analyst on ABC is an Indy champion. I’d swap the incompetent/annoying Vince Welch for Gary Gerould.

    Other Steve, F1 on SPEED is INCREDIBLE! They know how to make a race with few passes exciting, let alone an exciting finish like Belgium 2008. I found the ITV call of that finish and it left much to be desired. Bob Varsha can call any form of racing, as can Ralph Sheheen and Leigh Diffey.

    • You’re right – Ralph Sheheen is great on TV and radio. But calling a stint on the IMS PA system is certainly not his forte. Not that I’m trying to compare him to Tom Carnegie; but he talks way too much, tries a little too much humor and that high-pitched voice of his doesn’t sound good resonating through the stands. Give me Dave Calabro anytime on the PA. Bob Varsha could make a tractor pull sound eloquent. – GP

  12. I enjoyed the pre-race programs and I enjoyed seeing the race even though there wasn’t a lot of “laying it on the line” moments. Surprised at Ganassi, but glad to see RHR and Hinchcliff do so well.

  13. I think I saw maybe 8 or 10 passes on TV. I hope that there were many more than that with 26 cars and a 100 laps. I still don’t understand why the fuel cells are so small. It makes the racing one dimensional. Why not allow the teams to gamble more with big fuel loads? All in all I was not impressed. The cars look like something made by “Hot Wheels”.

    • Yes, ugly Hot Wheels toys and too-small fuel bladders. As George said, side view is not horrid if rear crash attenuators are dark & unnoticeable. But front views are fugly

    • I understand that IRL wanted slightly bigger fuel cells but that there was a large variation in the size that went out to the teams. IRL had to go for the smallest size, and mandated teams with bigger cells to use filler balls to equalise the volume. Hopefully teams with the smaller fuel cells can get bigger ones to allow the tire wear dominate tactics rather than fuel economy.

  14. I do dislike fuel-saving (in Indy and Nascar) races and wish they could do something to forever end that “strategy.”

    But the cars are cool and there’s a list of interesting, great drivers. I think the year will get racier and more interesting as we go. I mean it was the very first race with new chassis and new engines and new race control. It’s good now and it’s going to get better. (Had to throw something out there to counteract the negativity.)

  15. The Lapper Says:

    All in all, I thought that the St Pete race was good enough to kick off the season. I am glad that we now have it out of the way and that it came with decent results.

  16. Randy Holbrook Says:

    I’m just glad racing is back and thankful I didn’t have to hear “boogity, boogity, boogity”. I can’t wait to get to Barber for 6 races in 3 days!

  17. It was a typical “tough to stay awake while watching” street race.

    Way too many of those on the IC schedule.

    And judging by the continued puny (and getting smaller) TV ratings, America is not catching on.

    First real Indy Car race is in May at Indianapolis. They can actually race there.

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