A critical look back at St. Petersburg

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Anne Proffit goes over the opening round of the IndyCar season in detail.

Let’s talk about St Petersburg: the first race of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series.

From the start, this was an interesting season debut. Just having Dan Mead on-hand for Verizon’s first race as partner to the series, together with their sponsorship of ultimate race winner Will Power and returnee Juan Pablo Montoya was a treat. It’s obvious this guy is in racing because he understands it’s a great way to market his company. His enthusiasm is totally contagious.

I was pleased to see so many newcomers to INDYCAR. Montoya, of course is returning to open wheel after being part of NASCAR for seven years; this time around he’s with Roger Penske, not Chip Ganassi. There’s a learning curve and Montoya has his limits quickly. And exceeded them many times over the course of the weekend.

How about Jack Hawksworth, the new driver for Bryan Herta Autosport? That kid absolutely exceeded my expectations in qualifying and during the race as well; he knew where to put the car until he got caught up in the first restart melee. More about that later. Jack knows and loves the short, 14-corner, 1.8-mile St Pete track; he won here in Pro Mazda two years ago, in Indy Lights last year (both in his debut in those two ladder series) and looked like he was on the way to a good finish on Sunday.

And while we’re talking about the track, let’s thank Firestone for sponsoring this race. After all, they pushed for the Indy Racing League’s first road race at this venue and it was a rabid success. Dan Wheldon was the winner of the big race in 2005; Marco Andretti won the Firestone Indy Lights contest the same weekend.

Mike Conway, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
Mike Conway, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: David Yowe

I loved watching Mike Conway charge his way through the field in Ed Carpenter’s Fuzzys Vodka Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone Indy car. Ever since Mike decided to eschew ovals, his career has taken off like a house a-fire. Let’s see: WEC LM P2 victories, Toyota WEC test driver and now road-course maven in Indy cars. The guy’s got chops and ethics.

Nice to see Tony Kanaan settling in at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. TK managed to drive hard in every session, overcooking it here and there, locking up his brakes when he tested the boundaries of Turn 10 at the end of the back straight, and nearly getting into the tire wall at Turn 1 in qualifying. That wasn’t trying to hard; that was finding the limit. And something we all love to see.

There were some errors in the pits that weren’t terribly pretty and, of course, Will Power’s botching of the L82 restart was ugly. Truly ugly. He claims the start came too soon, but when that green flag flies, that’s when the pits tell drivers “green green green” and everybody goes. As the leader, it’s his responsibility to go - and he didn’t, gaining the grand “wanker” term from teammate and third-placed Helio Castroneves after the race.

If you don’t what the term means, ask a Brit.

While Power obeyed the rules that stated he must start at the appropriate acceleration cones, those were placed too close to the start line. That would indicate a stay in the penalty box for INDYCAR officials, who would be wise to move the acceleration cones a wee bit farther back for Long Beach next week.

Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda
Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda

Photo by: David Yowe

There were some penalties given during the race: Conway received a reprimand for passing the pace car after he believed he’d been waved around. Rookie Mikhael Aleshin was hit for entering a closed pit and Sebastien Bourdais was told he didn’t pack up quickly enough under caution. In all three cases, the penalties ruined each team’s and driver’s day.

With regard to the L82 restart and cone placement (perhaps we should consult with @theorangecone?) and when to go, it’s my belief that we need fewer cone interventions and more use of flags, which are the first and foremost sign of activity in motorsport. By setting arbitrary start lines ahead of the stand, we tell the drivers we don’t trust them. Period. And when cars are at the rear of the field, they get information from the pit wall, which tells them to go when the green flag is waved, not when the leader reaches an acceleration cone.

Don’t get me wrong: Will Power drove an exceptional race and his team’s strategy was impeccable. I’ve spoken with drivers since the race and most agree the cone situation needs to be talked about and remedied. Less intervention from race control can be a good thing for competition; maybe INDYCAR might try that?

Beyond the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, there was great racing this past weekend in all series. Was sweet to see Tomas Enge back in the USA after his difficult IRL time. he’s quite a good racer and took advantage of an open door by Andy Pilgrim’s Cadillac CTS-V-R to bring his Lamborghini Gallardo FL2 to overall victory. Also exceptional in PWC competition was the third place result (first in the GT-A class) for Andrew Palmer, a newcomer to the series and to racing cars who beat veteran Anthony Lazzaro. Palmer drove a GMG Audi R8 Ultra and Lazarro was in a Ferrari F458 Italia GT3. Good stuff!

Also terrific were the two schools put on by Spencer Pigot in Pro Mazda and Zach Veach’s first Indy Lights victory after a couple of years tutelage. While Pigot is “just in Lights” as he told me when I asked about his Indianapolis 500 aspirations, he’s shown his innate skills to me since I watched him racing karts on a track next to Homestead-Miami Speedway a few years ago (after an IRL test). Veach wasn’t expected, if you watched pre-season testing, to be up to the skills of his new teammate Matthew Brabham, but he showed us he’s not to be discounted in any Indy Lights competition this year. Maybe it does take a few years’ seasoning to get it right?

After weather disrupted IndyCar Series Saturday qualifying (and stopped PWC from holding its first race), Sunday was one of those Chamber of Commerce days that bring tourists to a city like St Petersburg. And bring race fans back for another go in next year’s race, which has already been announced as being held on Mach 27-29, 2015. A great venue, with wonderful promotion and nearly fault-free execution throughout the weekend. Who could ask for more?

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Series INDYCAR
Article type Commentary
Tags anne proffit, indianapolis motor speedway, indy 500, indycar, st. pete