St. Petersburg Preview

Our long national nightmare known as the IndyCar offseason is over. The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season is finally here as the green flag drops for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this Sunday on ABC at 12:30 EDT (don’t forget to set your clocks up one hour). The first practice gets underway today (Friday) at 11:20 am EST and goes until 12:05 pm. Practice Two starts at 3:10 pm EST. The times could not have worked out better for me, as my company has scheduled a two-hour conference call from 1:00 until 3:00. With the live streaming of practice, I apparently won’t be straying too far from my office today – but I won’t be missing any on-track activity either.

We got a taste of racing during the Open Test at Phoenix about a month ago, but this is the real deal.

This will be the first of five races this season on a temporary street circuit, joining Long Beach, the double-header at Detroit and Toronto. They are not my favorite type of track, but after almost six months of no racing…who cares? Every year I say that we are going to St. Petersburg the next year, but when next year gets here – we aren’t there. Such is the case again this year, but this is definitely one I want to go to eventually. There are worse places to be in mid-March than the Gulf coast of central Florida.

The fourteen-turn, 1.8 mile circuit combines a long straightaway of an airport runway, with the tight turns of scenic downtown St. Petersburg. The stretch along Bay Shore Drive with the yachts tied up, may be one of the most scenic views on the schedule – especially when watching at home with a fire in the fireplace, as I did last year with snow on the ground. We had snow on the ground again just yesterday morning, so the palm trees of St. Petersburg will be a welcomed sight.

There is more anticipation for this season-opener than I’ve seen in a while. With the new car and four new teams represented, there is much to look forward to. There are twenty-four cars entered for this year’s race, as compared to only twenty-one in last year’s opener. Without sounding like a paid cheerleader for IndyCar, there is a feeling of resurgence with the series that I haven’t sensed for a couple of decades. While NASCAR seems to be losing fans by droves, IndyCar seems to have some positive momentum.

Even though this is not my favorite type of track, this track has produced some good races in the past. When the IRL ran their first non-oval at St. Petersburg in 2005, it may not have been the best race in the world; but it was notable that the four cars of Andretti-Green Racing took the top four spots in the race. Ironically, Andretti Autosport has won the race only one other time since then; with James Hinchcliffe in 2013.

Another memorable moment came in 2008; when a nineteen year-old Graham Rahal held off a charging Helio Castroneves in the closing laps to claim a win in his first-ever IndyCar race, just after the unification with Champ Car.

In the 2012 opener, just months after Dan Wheldon was fatally injured at Las Vegas; Helio Castroneves won at St. Petersburg. When he climbed out of the car to do his traditional Spiderman fence-climbing routine; Castroneves strategically stopped on the newly re-named Dan Wheldon Way, climbed the fence and repeatedly patted the sign with Wheldon’s name on it – creating a very memorable moment.

Race officials will have their work cut out for them if they want to replicate the drama and excitement of last year’s race. During qualifying, Sébastien Bourdais crashed into the tire barrier in Turn 13, thereby forcing him to start from the back of the field with no time recorded.

It was a shame, because with his engineers from his championship years with Newman/Haas now in the Dale Coyne Racing pits – Bourdais had shown practice. With some great driving, a little luck and typical Dale Coyne pit strategy; Bourdais went from last to first and took the win. It was the first time in history that a Dale Coyne driver had ever led the points race.

Much is expected with the new body kit. It is supposed to make the car harder to drive and fans can expect more disparity between the cars. Basically the drivers that have a feel for a car that’s a little harder to drive, are expected to move to the front. I think when the green flag drops on Sunday and everyone is headed to that first turn, it’ll be interesting to see who trusts the feel of their car.

So who will win Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg? Usually when I pick someone to win, they crash out early or they are not even a factor. Who will I put the curse on to start out the season? I usually go with experience in a race, but there are only two drivers in the field that have started every IndyCar race (not CART or Champ car) at St. Petersburg since the current series started running there in 2005 – Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

Many people feel that the only thing holding Honda back last year was an inferior aero package. Now that all teams are running the same package, Honda is expected to have an edge. Assuming that is true, I’ll go with a Honda driver to win this race. The easy pick would be Scott Dixon, but he does not usually do well at this track. Last year, Dixon finished third – but that was the exception. He’s never won at St. Petersburg and Chip Ganassi Racing only has one win there – in 2011, with Dario Franchitti. In thirteen starts, Dixon’s average finishing position at St. Petersburg is a very mediocre 10.23.

No, my choice to win this race is decided partly by my heart and partly by my head. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing paced every session at the Open Test in Phoenix. I’m not sure how finding speed on a one-mile oval translates to a temporary road course, but they seem to have things somewhat figured out. I think the presence of Takuma Sato is going to help Graham Rahal this season.

This is the ten-year anniversary of Graham Rahal’s unlikely win in 2008. This will be a strong season for the now-veteran Graham Rahal and it starts this weekend. So I predict that Graham Rahal will be your winner of the 2018 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. We’ll see.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “St. Petersburg Preview”

  1. madtad1 Says:

    My prediction for the race, with Always Bad Coverage?

    “Danica, Danica, Danica. Oh look somebody passed somebody there to maybe take the lead, but did we mentionDanica in the last 10 seconds?”

    “Don’t forget to tune in in May for the Danica 500 Coverage! One month of all Danica all the time, along with 19 minutes about some race that she’s taking part in.”

    “Look at how RHR passed that stalled car, doesn’t that remind you of Danica?”


  2. Ron Ford Says:

    it does not matter to me who the ABC announcers are or how many times they mention Danica. if you don’t like them you can simply hit the mute button without getting out of your recliner. It’s visual. Do you really need someone to explain it to you? I am just happy that the race is on network TV. At St. Pete, I enjoy the sounds of the cars being downshifted with the paddle shifters just prior to the long ocean side straight and then roaring away down the straight. Better than a Stradivarious IMHO.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I’ve waited too, too long to say “cars on track!” Heck, I’ve been watching ESPN commercial breaks just to see the promos for the race.

    I voted for Rahal in the poll, as I so often do. Here’s hoping you’re right, George.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    I will be watching closely how oversteer affects the cars and drivers now that downforce has been reduced on the new cars. Perhaps Scott “fast hands” Dixon will handle that the best. Some measures have been taken to move weight to the front of the car so they should be more nimble. “Slip Sliding Away” should be the theme song of the race.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    After just watching practice 1 at St. Pete, I can say that these new cars have more rear end wiggle than my Basset hound.

    • A very good comparison. Lots of sliding in the corners.

      So many new liveries, drivers with new teams and new teams and drivers. I am more confused than ABC. Has ABC/ESPN ever streamed qualifying? Just curious. Thank goodness for IndyCar streaming and its team of broadcasters.

  6. don’t call the Geek Squad.

    “Geek Squad employees have been working as FBI informants for more than a decade, newly released documents show, revealing a much closer relationship between the two organizations than formerly reported.”

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    I must confess. I just changed my vote to Wickens. Damn! This is a fun season already.

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