IndyCar was finally back last weekend. Although it didn’t come back with a bang, we nevertheless had an interesting and intriguing race to enjoy. Now we are in the middle of a fortnight’s break, itching to see what we saw in St Pete was the unveiling of a pecking order or whether we are still in the midst of the typical early-season shake-up, just with a more traditional result.
Chevrolet v Honda
Round 1 went to Chevy; however, Honda were much more competitive than this time last year. Takuma Sato won the pole and was a contender for race victory. With a better strategy, he might have found himself in the mix at the end, but it was Ryan Hunter-Reay who flew the flag for HPD. The ever-impressive Simon Pagenaud managed 5th, whilst Sato himself placed 7th ahead of two other Hondas, Justin Wilson and Josef Newgarden. With the Top 10 split evenly between the two manufacturers, we could have some genuine parity in performance this year. One could even argue that as the five Chevrolet cars were all Penske and Ganassi cars – teams that are always expected to be strong – it shows just how genuine Honda are.
Penske v Ganassi
For the last few years Penske have had the jump on Ganassi and 2014’s first race was no exception. Like last year though, Scott Dixon finished in the Top 5 and this time he didn’t have to fight through the field to do so. What’s more, Tony Kanaan placed 6th with a very respectable performance on a street course. Even the “G2″ drivers showed pace, Ryan Briscoe finishing 10th and Kimball doing quite well until his mistake forced him out of the race.
In years gone by we’ve seen that Penske early performance give way under a Ganassi resurgence. Here’s hoping that Ganassi’s early form will be complemented by Penske staying the course. With Power’s determination and focus from last year’s finale visibly carrying through to this season’s opener, I’d certainly like to think it’ll happen.
Andretti and the rest
Penske and Ganassi might take up a third of the regular field but there are still plenty of challengers ready to take victories off of them and maybe even the championship. The last ones to do that staked their claim early, RHR taking the next-best place for Andretti Autosport. Last year Andretti started on a real high, winning three of the first four races and five overall. However their best results were split between three of their drivers and ultimately their highest-placing driver Marco Andretti didn’t even win a race. RHR, Marco and James Hinchcliffe all need to up their consistency or results (in Marco’s case) to have a chance of being champions; the three Andrettis keeping their rivals off of the podium and out of Victory Lane will be key to their challenge.
It won’t just be Penske and Ganassi they have to have their sights on, however. Last year’s closest challengers ultimately ended up being Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports with Pagenaud producing an astonishing long-shot chance at the championship. They already have a Top 5 finish this year; if they can replicate last year’s form with a higher average finishing position, they will certainly be in the hunt again.
Outside of these teams it was pretty much business as usual. KV Racing placed a good 11th and13th, Rahal Letterman Lanigan were mid-pack again, with Newgarden taken Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing to a Top 10 position that is becoming less and less of a novelty. Ed Carpenter Racing vindicated their hiring of Mike Conway for road and street courses, running 3rd at one point before dropping the ball during the first caution period and failing to pit with the other leaders. Wilson once again showed his and Dale Coyne Racing’s abilities by securing yet another career Top 10.
Four drivers started the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg having never raced in IndyCar before. As might have been expected, it was Mikhail Aleshin, a driver who’s spent many years in feeder categories to Formula One (including winning the Formula Renault 3.5 championship) who finished highest, a very respectable 12th for SPHM. Carlos Munoz was one of the final finishers but he will only improve; Carlos Huertas had had barely any time at all in an IndyCar yet finished the race, albeit practically last. Possibly the most impressive performance however was Jack Hawksworth for Bryan Herta Autosport; after a few doubts over whether he was ready to make the jump, he handled himself very well before being caught up in the confusion of the first restart.
Bye-bye, double-file restarts
I have to say I did not enjoy the single-file restarts we saw at St Pete. The track is plenty wide to accommodate two files of cars , but this wasn’t the reasons all street and road course will now only see a single file; apparently it is now to keep things simple, so the fans know what to expect. After the disastrous restarts we saw in Detroit and Baltimore (although sadly the latter is no longer a problem) and the problems going double-file in Toronto and Sao Paulo (again, the latter sadly no longer an issue), I was very supportive of restarts being single or double-file being reviewed on a circuit-by-circuit basis. Now there is uniformity outside of the ovals in the name of simplicity. Personally I see this as very insulting on the intelligence of IndyCar and even casual fans. IndyCar is a series full of diverse talent racing on diverse circuits even within single types of courses. There will still be a split between single and double for the Triple Crown races. To my mind this was a simplification asked for and needed by no-one, to the detriment of the racing spectacle and the series’ ethos.
By the way, I don’t think reverting to single-file caused the accident at the first restart. Yes, moving the designated acceleration zone further down so more cars could be together at the green did lead to a concertina effect, but those happen at every restart and the drivers have handled many of those successfully. Ultimately the pace car drew off the racing line too late green flag was waved too early; vilified by many (including myself) at the time, in reality Power was an innocent party in all that happened. The format is a problem, but not because it’s beyond the drivers to execute it properly.
Long Beach is the next race, having swapped in the order with Barber. The scene of Takuma Sato’s first series victory, he and A.J. Foyt Enterprises will fancy their chances after last week’s strong showing. But only a daring individual would bet on Will Power making it two out of two. As ever, the thrill is in the anticipation and the enjoyment in its resolution. The St. Pete race wasn’t an all-time classic, but we have become rather spoiled these past few years. Still, let’s hope for more as IndyCar 2014 moves on to its second round.