Monday, March 25, 2013

St. Pete Notes; Or, Holy Crap, That Was Awesome

Sometimes, the night before a race, before you drift off to sleep, all the potential scenarios for how the next day will play out run through your head. Of course, there's always the fantasy scenario, where your favorite driver or someone you really want to see win finally has the breakthrough needed.

Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg wasn't a perfect race, but it was a tremendous opener for IndyCar. One of the most popular drivers got a huge first victory, the GoDaddy sponsors have to be thrilled, and between restarts, tires falling off, and pure, excellent racing, fans saw an immensely exciting race. The tension for the last 20 laps was especially intense, from Hinch battling Helio, to Simona trying to hold off a brace of challengers, to the battle just behind to squeeze into the Top 10.

Here are a few more quick thoughts I had during and after yesterday's race:

-James Hinchcliffe has just continued to improve every year as a driver, and his racing resume is starting to really match his charisma and potential star power. I don't know of many IndyCar fans who were put out by him winning yesterday--the guy is almost universally liked, and he simply had a great race, especially on the restarts. It wouldn't hurt my feelings at all if he was in contention like this throughout the season. IndyCar should never put all its eggs in one baskets when it comes to their stars (nor do they need to), but you have to feel really good about how guys like Hinch can connect to both fans old and new tuning into the broadcast. I'm also very happy for IndyCar's Canadian fans, many of who were so accommodating and kind during my visits up there. It's great to see the Maple Leaf back in Victory Circle--a place I hope it inhabits with some regularity for many races to come.

-Andretti Autosport served notice (just in case you thought otherwise) that 2012 was not a fluke season. Not only did they end up with Hinch celebrating the win, but Marco Andretti made a furious charge into a podium position. I was impressed by what I saw of his demeanor and patience this weekend. Ryan Hunter-Reay won't lose too much to Power by finishing in P18 with mechanical issues, and looked good before that. EJ Viso seemed destined for a brutal weekend, and simply refused to quit, fighting back for a remarkable P7 finish. It was just a great weekend for the team all-around.
An image IndyCar fans had been waiting for.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

-There also needs to be a big round of applause for the NBC Sports Network crew and the job they did. I thought Townsend Bell was excellent, and the play between he and Leigh Diffey was very good. The best thing the broadcast booth was to simply go with the ebb and flow of the race, to concentrate where there was action, and to focus on themes of the race as they developed. Just a great job by all concerned all weekend. It wasn't perfect, and there were still a few things missed, but by and large, I like the direction they're headed.

-Simona de Silvestro's driving was absolutely on point, perhaps no more than when she was trying to fight off Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, and Scott Dixon in the last few laps on what were essentially shredded playground surface masquerading as racing tires. Actually, both KV drivers had a great weekend overall, and both Kanaan and Simona fans should feel pretty good about this week. It's a bummer the Iron Maiden couldn't grab that podium, but running competitively with Penske and Andretti all day and finishing P6 is infinitely preferable to running P26.

-We may only have one full-time rookie in IndyCar this year, but if we have to one, Tristan Vautier is a pretty good one to have. Before falling prey to the mechanical gremlins that seemed to plague half the teams Sunday, Vautier looked to be in contention for a podium, and looked absolutely nothing like a rookie out there. He'll have his rough moments, but I like how he's carrying himself thus far. It was one of those great drives that ultimately won't reflect as such in the results.

-Of course, plenty of drivers, from Simon Pagenaud to Josef Newgarden to Graham Rahal, didn't have the weekends they wanted, but Dario Franchitti made a rare mental error to finish dead last in this one. It was not a happy weekend at the Ganassi team, between Chip Ganassi calling out Honda for engine performance and poor qualifying. Scott Dixon made things a little better by somehow showing up and finishing P5 at the line, but when a P5 finish is the best thing a Ganassi team has to crow about on the weekend, you know there's trouble. Also: Scott Dixon is an incredible driver, and we don't given him enough credit.

-There were a frankly stunning amount of electrical and mechanical issues Sunday, and it definitely affected the results of the race somewhat. Although Oriol Servia was off-strategy when he had to come in and pit, I'd have liked to have seen what he could have done had he not suffered the mechanical failure in the pits. It was all a bit puzzling, and one has to hope there's a bit less of that at Barber.

-If there was a rough spot of the race, it had to be the yellows, though the broadcast team did an excellent job in filling in the lengthy slow spots as best they could. I'm not precisely sure what can be done about the length of the cautions, but it's something that needs to be looked at.

-It was a full Mazda Road to Indy Schedule, with USF2000 running two races, and Scott Hargrove consequently running away from everyone else to win both. His teammate Neil Alberico should be right there with him on points, but had no shortage of bad luck. In Pro Mazda, Matthew Brabham won both races, but Andretti's Shelby Blackstock grabbed the pole and finished with two podiums, serving notice he could do some big things this year, too. Both series are now off until "The Night Before The 500" in May.

Firestone Indy Lights saw a bit of contact between Carlos Munoz and Gabby Chaves, and that allowed rookie Jack Hawksworth to win his first race in Lights, with Peter Demspey P2 and Sage Karam rounding out the podium. It remains to be seen if Dempsey is going to have anything for the Schmidt cars this year, but one would think this title battle will remain close for awhile. It's on to Barber for Lights in two weeks.

Other Quick Notes: I thought if Takuma Sato had that wing change earlier, he might have avoided some of the jostling late in the race and finished a bit higher. Still a good weekend for the Foyt team overall...Ed Carpenter finished P14, but at least he stayed out of trouble and kept it clean. That's not a bad street course result for him...Team Barracuda didn't seem to have a car that would be in contention this weekend, but they clawed their way to a Top 10. Going back to after Indy last season, they've finished P10 or better in all but two races...In your Top 10 at St. Pete, Chevy took all three podiums, P4, P6, and P7...Josef Newgarden had to retire with mechanical issues, but I think that team is in for a very good result sooner rather than later...That was a rough mistake for JR Hildebrand to make, but like Dario did earlier, he just copped to it and apologized. Always good to see, even when we don't want to see the accident itself...



  2. Agreed, amazing race! Anyone ever find out why JR was allowed to pass simona under yellow before he plowed through power?