What We Learned At St. Pete
The first race of any new season is always informative and educational. With the new Dallara DW12 chassis and turbocharged V-6 engines from three competing engine manufacturers, there was even more to watch for and learn from as the IZOD IndyCar Series kicked off its 2012 campaign with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Despite everything that was new, the 100-lap street course ended with a familiar winner – Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves. But that’s not to say that Castroneves’ 26th career Indy car race win came easily.
Castroneves and second place finisher Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing vigorously fought for the lead over the course of several laps just after their final round of pit stops. Helio took the lead for good on the 74th lap by using the DW12’s new carbon brakes to go around the outside of Dixon at the St. Petersburg circuit’s wide Turn 1, and he pulled away for a comfortable 5-second margin of victory.
The IndyCar Series’ dominant three teams for the last decade (Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport) took seven of the top nine places at St. Pete, but had a full course caution occurred in a timely (or untimely) manner, the result could have been considerably different.
In short, the first race for IndyCar’s new turbocharged era was uneventful in a good way. Yes, the usual suspects ran up front, but some of them struggled – notably four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, who qualified ninth and ran out of fuel on the last lap, dropped four spots to 13th place.
During the course of the weekend, Team Penske’s Will Power was easily the fastest driver over one lap on a clear track. But when the Verizon car got mired in the pack in the race after committing to a three-stop strategy, Power wasn’t able to execute many passes and he finished seventh.
His teammate (and fellow front row starter) Ryan Briscoe was the first of the three-stoppers to cross the line, in fifth place.
So the unpredictability of street racing, combined with the unpredictability of the new DW12/turbo V-6 package ended up producing what we’ve come to expect as a predictable result. But what did we really learn? Here are four things…
1. Chevrolet appears to have the early advantage – Honda was looking good after the Saturday morning practice, with six of the top eight. But Chevrolet drivers occupied eight of the top 14 positions, and on Saturday afternoon, Chevy drivers swept the first five positions on the grid.
“The Chevy was obviously the strongest engine,” said fastest qualifier Will Power. “We made a couple adjustments for the Firestone Fast Six and the car was really good. I was able to get pole.”
Team Penske qualified 1-2-5 with Power, Briscoe and Castroneves. But Andretti Autosport also turned in a strong qualifying performance, lining up 3rd (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 4th (James Hinchcliffe) and 8th (Marco Andretti).
By contrast, Honda’s best qualifier was Simon Pagenaud of Sam Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports in sixth place. Pagenaud started 16th after an engine change penalty, but charged back to match his original qualifying position in the race.
Meanwhile, Chevy dominated the race results as well, with Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe matching their qualifying results in 3rd and 4th to give the Bowtie six of the top eight finishers.
“We just got beat by the two-stop strategy today,” Briscoe said. “The Chevy engine did an awesome job all day long and had plenty of power - definitely more power than any of the competition. I’m really pleased with that.”
2. Franchitti and Power don’t always win – Four-time series champion Franchitti and his fiercest championship rival over the last two years weren’t happy about how they started the season.
Dario and the Ganassi team didn’t work out the best setup form the soft compound red Firestone tires during qualifying and the Scotsman lined up ninth. Although he was occasionally near the front of the battle among the three-stoppers, the #10 Target car ran out of fuel on the last lap and Franchitti lost four positions (and potentially valuable championsip points) before he coasted over the line.
“We didn’t have the best day in the Target Honda today overall, but we'll do some work and be back strong in Barber,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Power was very frustrated after the Penske team committed him to a three-stop strategy when a yellow flew on Lap 12 for Katherine Legge’s stalled car.
“I just got swamped on that first restart and that kind of screwed us,” said the Australian. “My restarts were atrocious and I just kind of was too conservative. Then it’s just impossible to pass. I was two seconds a lap quicker than guys in front of me and couldn’t get by until we got a clear track at the end and got a chunk of track position back.”
3. Reliability wasn’t a massive problem – Thirteen cars finished on the lead lap and eighteen cars were running at the finish – slightly more attrition than we’ve come to expect in the single engine supplier era.
Of the eight retirements, three were classified as off course, two each for mechanical and electrical, and one contact.
The Chevrolet runners experienced an electrical problem where their batteries would not charge at low revs while running under caution. The Chevy drivers were instructed to keep the revs up while running behind the Pace Car, leading some to have fuel worries at the end.
“When we are trying to save fuel under caution, you are running very low on the RPMs and the alternator only charges over a certain RPM,” explainedfourth place finisher James Hinchcliffe. “A couple of guys were running a little bit too low and actually drained out the battery. But my guys on the [Andretti Autosport] team were keeping me up-to-date on where my battery was and when I needed to raise the revs; when I could conserve more fuel, I did. It was a really big team effort there.”
4. IndyCar has some stout rookies – A pair of rookie drivers had extremely strong showings at St. Petersburg. Simon Pagenaud was the top Honda qualifier in sixth place, though he was demoted to 16th after Sam Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports opted for an unauthorized engine change. Another Honda runner, Josef Newgarden, ran as high as sixth and ultimately finished 11th for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
“Josef has really come in and energized our team,” said team owner Sarah Fisher. “He’s amazingly mature and professional and we’re really enjoying working with him. To deliver this kind of a result in our first race shows the kind of potential we have.”
Pagenaud ran the last year of the Champ Car sanctioned Indy car series in 2007 and has mostly raced sports cars since then. He started a handful of IndyCar Series races in 2011 as a substitute driver and is highly rated by Honda.
Pagenaud drove a forceful yet mature race on Sunday to score his best IndyCar Series result in four starts.
“I want to thank the whole Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports team,” Pagenaud said. “They did a fantastic job in the pits, and it’s because of their pit stops that we were able to gain so many positions. The strategy was fairly amazing, and I didn’t make any mistakes.
“We have a good baseline now to go into the next race,” he added. “It’s a good way to start the championship. This is a good position, but we have more in the bag.”