Random Thoughts on St. Petersburg

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If the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is any indication of what the 2022 IndyCar season is going to be like, we are in for a treat. Twenty-six cars answered the bell for a season-opener that had six rookie drivers, on a gorgeous day in a beautiful setting in front of a record crowd…plus, it was an interesting and entertaining race that wasn’t settled until the checkered flag flew.

Alex Palou proved that he was no fluke last season, as he made Scott McLaughlin earn the win in the final twenty or so laps. Will Power proved that even though he is about to turn forty-one, he can still wheel a car as fast as anyone. And Colton Herta showed that even though he did not defend his race win at St. Petersburg, he is still quick and he isn’t going anywhere.

But the secret is out on McLaughlin. Last year, he did not live up to the hype. That’s not his fault. He wasn’t doing the hyping. It was the IndyCar media that was pronouncing him as the next great thing, before his rookie season even started. It appeared McLaughlin spent the 2021 season, just watching and learning. Mission accomplished. He served notice this weekend that his apprenticeship is over and he’s ready to contend for the championship. If Scott Dixon didn’t have enough to worry about with competition coming from his own teammates, now Team Penske has another contender to add to their roster. Count me as being sold on McLaughlin.

TV Coverage: I’ve obviously not seen any of the TV coverage from the weekend, but I’ve talked to a few people that did. They focused mainly on James Hinchcliffe and his official debut in the broadcast booth. It seems the general consensus was that he didn’t say anything wrong or stupid, and he didn’t get in the way – which is always a good thing. But no one said that he brought a lot to the table, either. Those that I talked to all said he seemed a little tentative.

I suspect that Hinch will review every second of air time from this weekend, and figure out what he needs to improve on. I also suspect that he will have a few offering to coach him on what may have been lacking. It’s not three weeks from the next race at Texas, I suspect that Hinchcliffe will improve a great deal. In most sports, they always say the greatest improvement comes between the first and second games. I think that applies here as well.

A Good start to the Season: Several drivers started their season off on the right foot, even though they didn’t win. Alex Palou is now thirteen points behind McLaughlin in the point standings. While that isn’t as good a start as he got last season, second place is a pretty good start to a season. Will Power is five points behind Palou, which was enough to have him smiling after the race. Colton Herta is probably not too happy that he was kind of quiet this past weekend, but he still had a very solid start to the season – much better than last year’s.

Romain Grosjean may have made a few enemies in practice this weekend, but he did well for his new team by finishing fifth. He had, by far, the best race of anyone who changed teams over the offseason. Rinus VeeKay and Graham Rahal both had solid finishes, by finishing sixth and seventh respectively. They probably weren’t high-fiving their crew when the race was over, but they both had very solid runs.

Takuma Sato had a nice run for his new team, Dale Coyne Racing. He finished tenth. Considering this pairing came together relatively late in the offseason, both team and driver should feel pretty good how things went. The same can be said about Christian Lungaard. I’ll admit, I was one of the doubters when Lundgaard was hired by Rahal Letterman Lanigan after only one race. But he was consistent in practice this weekend and fared well in the race.

As a team, Team Penske has to be ecstatic. The team went fairly deep into the season for the last two seasons, before picking up their first win. Now they’ve already checked that box earlier than anyone else. It looks like Tim Cindric has done his homework.

Not a Bad Start: Although the results weren’t there at the finish, Kyle Kirkwood ran well, ahead of mid-pack for the better part of the race. He also got his AJ Foyt car into Round Two of Qualifying in his first IndyCar race weekend ever. Unfortunately, Kirkwood ended up finishing eighteenth. I still think he is going to open some eyes this season.

Callum Ilott is now in his first fulltime season with Juncos Hollinger Racing. I think he and the team will struggle mightily this season, but like Kirkwood – Ilott had some good moments before finishing nineteenth.

Tatiana Calderon finished twenty-fourth in her first-ever IndyCar start, after starting twenty-fifth. But considering how little time she has spent in an Indy car, and this is the third car at Foyt we are talking about – at least she kept her nose clean and brought the car home in one piece.

These Drivers Have a Lot to Think About: The weekend started off well enough for Alexander Rossi. He was sixth quickest in one practice and fourth quick in the other. But when qualifying came, things started unraveling. Rossi didn’t make it out of the first round and started thirteenth. Most of you probably know what happened by watching the telecast, but I don’t. I know he had a slow pit stop, but is that all it took to make him drop like a stone and finish twentieth. For the third year in a row, Rossi’s season has gotten off to a rough start. With Grosjean and Herta both finishing in the Top-Five, Rossi has to be wondering what is going on. So do I.

Josef Newgarden won this race in 2019 and 2020, before finishing second in last year’s race. Logic would have it that he and his crew would have this place figured out. After all, his teammates qualified first and second and finished first and third. So, why in the world did Newgarden spend practice mired in thirteenth or fourteenth, before qualifying ninth – and then finish a disappointing sixteenth in the race? His season got off to a terrible start last season when he created a multi-car melee on the opening lap at Barber, and he spent the rest of the season trying to dig himself out of a hole. This season hasn’t started out well, either. With his teammates so fast this weekend, you wonder what is going on with Newgarden’s team.

Scott Dixon is coming off of a season where he had only one win, and he finished fourth. This season has not started well. He was slow in practice, but barely missed the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and started seventh. After leading twenty-six laps, he finished eighth. Some drivers would say that was a good way to start a season. Not Scott Dixon.

Yesterday was the nineteenth installment of this race. In those nineteen races, Chip Ganassi has been entered eighteen times and won once – in 2011 with Dario Franchiiti. This has not been a good track for Chip Ganassi Racing and yesterday was no exception. Palou struggled during practice and qualifying and managed to start tenth, before almost winning the race. Marcus Ericsson started eighth and finished ninth, while Dixon finished eighth. Jimmie Johnson struggled for most of the weekend and finished twenty-third, after starting dead last. Altogether, it wasn’t bad; but it’s not what championship caliber teams settle for. I have an idea that Chip Ganassi bristles every time he sees St. Petersburg appear on the schedule.

Drive of the Day: Many drivers had impressive drives yesterday. I almost thought the Drive of the Day should go to Alex Palou for moving up from tenth to second. But he was with the same team last year, when he’s supposed to put himself into a position to win. Instead, I think the award should go to Takuma Sato. He is with a completely different team that bhe doesn’t know and they don’t know him either. He qualified poorly, in twenty-second – but quickly moved up and finished tenth. All things considered, I felt like Sato overcame a lot more to earn that Top-Ten finish.

All in All: This was a fun way to start the season. We only decided less than three weeks ago to come to this race. By that time, all the hotels nearby were booked. Learn from our mistake – if you want to come to this race (and you should), book your hotel early. We had to stay in Clearwater which was about thirty-five minutes away. But I am so glad we came. It snowed in Nashville on Saturday and was about 31°. That made it all the sweeter to have clear blue skies, and temps in the mid-80s each day.

We ate well, we got to see a lot of old friends – some of whom we hadn’t seen since 2019 and we got to watch and listen to race cars. When the cars all pulled away from the grid just before the start of the race, I was engulfed in the aroma of methanol exhaust and tire smoke. There is nothing in the world like it.

This was also a good race. There was only one caution, but a lot of action; before the duel at the end between Palou and McLaughlin. A better weekend could not have been scripted.

Congratulations to Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske and everyone involved with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It was a weekend to remember.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Random Thoughts on St. Petersburg”

  1. Brandon Wright Says:

    I thought Hinch did a great job. He brings a lot of very recent knowledge about the cars and methods used and shared a lot of interesting tidbits throughout the weekend. I felt like I learned more from this one race than I did all of last season combined. I also thought he seemed very confident and comfortable and of course, humorous, and he had good chemistry with Bell and Diffey.

    • Keep in mind, I haven’t seen the broadcast yet. I just asked for opinions from others. However, I do trust their opinions. I’m anxious to see for myself. – GP

      • Brandon Wright Says:

        Right, I wasn’t criticizing your comment, was letting you know an alternate point of view. I saw some people being critical of him but I think they were going to trash on anyone because they’re mad PT is gone. PT was fine but his knowledge was decades old, Hinch’s knowledge is as current as you can get and I think that’s a real asset to the broadcast.

    • Hinch was OK, but I missed PT. Leigh Diffey, in particular, has a tendency to get carried away and to say ridiculous things in an attempt to make everything seem incredibly dramatic, and PT was able to puncture some of those balloons. The most famous example was when his partners were speculating what teams would be willing to hire Marco if he were to leave Andretti, and PT replied that Marco’s only offer would be from Uber; but there were other examples yesterday.

      For example, and I forget just how he did it, but Diffey compared Colton Herta’s race yesterday to his race at Nashville. Um, no. At St. Pete, Herta had a good car, but at no time did it appear that he had the best car. At Nashville, it was obvious at every point in time that Herta had by far the best car. Not similar at all.

      So PT’s departure means that there’s a role that’s currently unfilled, and I hope that Hinch will fill it.

      • billytheskink Says:

        I thought the biggest challenge Hinch faced yesterday was that both Diffey and Bell can dominate the microphone (and be, well, loud). Hinch needs to be assertive (and not necessarily loud), which is something Tracy usually did very well when he was in the booth. I expect he will improve over the course of the season.

  2. What happened to Rossi? He somehow managed to get Brian Barnhart from Hinch’s team of last year to run his show.
    BB managed to turn a fuel decision into an almost last place finish.

    Good luck this year Rossi.

    • Rossi needs to sort this and fast. Maybe it’s BB maybe it’s other stuff but he needs to find the remedy before the next race.

      Is Harvey going to sink or swim ?

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Typical results from a clean street race, though Palou pushing McLaughlin late was definitely exciting. Without cautions, most of the order shuffling came from some bafflingly bad pit strategy calls (see Rossi and Newgarden, in particular).

    While good tire strategy might vary from driver to driver, there seemed to be very little to gain from choosing a 3 stop strategy. A 3 stop strategy requires drivers to make up 40+ seconds on track just to keep pace with the 2 stop strategy and you need clean track and no traffic to make that happen. St. Pete is too tight and too short for that with a field this size. Everyone who pitted on a 3 stop strategy came out in traffic more often than not.

  4. As I was reviewing the race results I realized that given that the winner had scored all 54 points possible, Palou had maximized second place with 41, so both are off to a good start. I also realized that the published INDYCAR points system is actually inaccurate. It says the winner gets 50 points, but it should say the winner gets 51 points because the winning car had to be scored as the leader of the last lap and leading a lap scores one point, so the minimum points scored for winning a race is 51.

  5. Also, one bit of information from the TV broadcast is that Ed Carpenter confirmed to one of the pit reporters that he will drive a third team car at Texas.

  6. Yannick Says:

    Thank you for the coverage from trackside.

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