The race track at St. Petersburg, Fla., is not your typical tight, twisty, short street circuit. Its location in this medium sized city's waterfront area is ideal for both drivers and spectators. At just under two miles in length, there are a variety of long flat-out straights, high speed bends and tight back-to-back turns. Taking a lap of this track is a definite hair raising experience.
The front straight, dissected by the Start/Finish line, is the actual runway of the Albert Whitted Airport. Cars are at top gear crossing the line and continue another 2000 ft to Turn 1. The first turn is a 120 degree, bouncy, right-hander with plenty of runoff area. Turn 2 is an immediate quick left hander taken while accelerating up through the gears. Getting the third turn right is important because it leads out on to the first of three straightaways. The run from Turn 3 to turn four is three full city blocks. At the moment cars reach top gear, it is time to jab hard on the brakes for a very tight, narrow turn.
From Turn 4 through Turn 9, the track is a virtual rollercoaster. Right, left, left, right, right! It is a tight, single line section with no margin for error. Handling is paramount here. This is where the majority of drivers "just touch" the walls.
After turn nine, it's all about horsepower. The straightaway down to Turn 10 runs along the harbour. Past the yachts and bikinis, it has one of the most challenging kinks in racing. Most drivers do not admit that they lift here but if they don't, they are certainly swallowing hard. This quick stab to the left produces 3gs and the moment they make it and realize that everything is still intact, they are hard on the brakes to make the turn.
The distance from Turn 10 to Turn 13, is really a straightaway broken up by a pair of esses which are Turn 11 and Turn 12. This run is very fast with another two quick jabs, first to the right and then to the left. Both producing again 3gs laterally. Turn 11 is covered by the Acura bridge which produces a momentary blip of shade which can be distracting while concentrating on the apex of the 12th turn.
Turn 13 is a long 180 degree bend. Let me repeat that again. A very long bend that leads out on to the front straight. It is a "Monza Parabolica" type bend. Getting it right is very important because your exit speed will determine who gets to the finish line first.
As I just mentioned about the blip of shade. Being a street circuit with buildings and bridges, shadows are a real challenge for drivers here. Many turns are approached in the sunlight and taken in the shade. Many braking markers are in the shade while the track is bathed in sunlight. Many drivers have said that sometimes you just have to know where you are even if you can't see it.
Last year it rained and turned everything upside down. Graham Rahal took his first IndyCar win here. This year, the weather report is questionable. But, no matter rain or shine, racing at St. Petersburg will always be a challenge.