A Defending Champ: Ryan Hunter-Reay begins his title defense sporting the #1, and with sky-high expectation for both he and his Andretti Autosport teammates. The first American champ since 2006 seems to be in a very good spot in his career and mental focus right now, and St. Pete will be his first chance to make a statement in the new season. Remember, he grabbed a podium here last year, and could very well do the same on Sunday.
Hinch’s Next Step?: James Hinchcliffe has the most star potential of just about any IndyCar driver, but what’s even more exciting has been his steady progression as a top-notch IndyCar driver. Many season previews expect Hinch to bust into the win column this season, and St. Pete (where he finished P4 last year) could be a fine early indicator of how his season will go. A Hinch win would make everyone happy—fans, Series personnel, and sponsors alike.
|Hinch & Andretti: Geared Up For St. Pete|
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Changing The Rules: Besides no activation delay on Push-to-pass, there are a couple of other notable rules changes you’ll want to be aware of, most notably a rule that stops competitors from reaching the next round of qualifying if they are found to have “interfered” with another qualification attempt on the road and street course knockout qualifying. Also, pit selection (outside of Indy) will now be linked to qualifying results on the most recent event, instead of the last same type of track (street or oval).
Additionally, points have changed slightly this year. Instead of places 19-24 receiving a flat 12 points, places 19-25 will have a 1-point differential, which could encourage a bit more backmarker and off-the-pace competition at the very back of the pack. Every point counts, after all, as your championship contenders of years past would eagerly tell you.
A Rookie Debut: Tristan Vautier looks to be the only full-time rookie in IndyCar this year, and he seems to be coming into an enviable position with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and teammate Simon Pagenaud. Vautier has impressed in offseason testing, and the two French drivers could be a formidable 1-2 punch for an IndyCar team looking to take that next step.
Welcome Back, Bia: Ana Beatriz is back to start the season, and she’ll be the first contestant this year in the 2nd Coyne car at St. Pete. We know we’ll see her for at least three rounds this year, but it would be nice to see her grab a quality finish this weekend. Believe it or not, Bia is still looking for her first IndyCar Top 10 finish, which can largely be attributed to a year in 2011 with some brutal engineering, and limited in-seat time besides that. If she’s able to pull it off in the Coyne B car, that would be quite the accomplishment indeed.
Simona’s Got The Power: IndyCar’s very own hard-luck lady suffered through a year of Lotus Purgatory, but now she’s got Chevy power at KV Racing. She finished P4 at St. Pete in 2011, a finish that remains her best yet in the Series. A great day Sunday would erase some of the sting of last year, and would be welcome by fans who know if anyone deserves a good car and a good outing, it’s the Iron Maiden.
Honda Holding Back?: Honda says it wasn’t showing all its cards in preseason testing. Coming off a year in which they won the 500 but lost the Manufacturers’ Championship to Chevrolet, 2013 is a year where we see if we Honda has been so reliable for so long for IndyCar, it’s sort of odd coming to a place where they’re getting beaten in actual competition. Of course, it wasn’t as if they weren’t in contention at all last season, but losing 11 out of 15 weekends to Chevy had to smart. Time to see how Honda reloaded.
Father and Son: Graham Rahal won in St. Pete when he was only 18 years old, but that sometimes seems like half a lifetime ago. He's reunited this season with his dad at Rahal Letterman Langian Racing, and the hope is that it's a happier situation than the last two years the younger Rahal spent at Ganassi. The Rahal team should have the speed this season, and all eyes are on Graham to win once more.
Livery Watch: It’s a new season, so there are changes to the livery all over. The Team Barracuda car is running a two-tone blue number, which is very nice, and James Jakes’ Acorn Stairlifts sponsorships has a silver and sort-of-burgundy thing going on that stands out nicely. Tony Kanaan’s Hydroxycut-sponsored #11 has an armored-plated look that’s way different than last year’s GEICO/Mouser schemes. We all know Helio’s sponsor will vary this year—he’ll start with Hitachi on the sidepods. On the numbers side, Justin Wilson will actually be in the #19, with Bia in the #18 car for Dale Coyne Racing.
Mazda Road to Indy Update: The entire Mazda Road to Indy ladder is in on the fun this weekend, as USF2000, Pro Mazda, and Firestone Indy Lights will all be racing at St. Pete. USF2000 has already started their season, with the Cape Motorsports cars looking as powerful as ever. In Pro Mazda, Deigo Ferreira comes in with 4-point lead over Matthew Brabham after the Circuit of the Americas opener, with Shelby Blackstock, Scott Anderson, and Petri Suvanto tied for P3. In Lights, it’s anyone’s game, as a small field of nine features drivers such as Peter Dempsey, Carlos Munoz, Jack Hawksworth, and Sage Karam—each with a chance to win in the FIL opener.
Last Driver Standing!: Don't forget, some of my fellow IndyCar drivers have joined me once again for another season of Last Driver Standing. Each IndyCar race week, we each pick a driver we believe will finish in the Top 10, with the catch we can only use each driver once. If our chosen driver doesn't make it in the Top 10 that week, we're out of the running. Last blogger going wins all manner of non-monetary glory (an inferior form of glory, but still)! Last year's winner, Eric Hall from anotherindycarblog, has already been experiencing some trash talk, so we'll see if he can defend his title. You can follow along this season here.
Pole Prediction: Will Power.
Winner Prediction: Will Power.
Dark Horse Pick: Let’s go with Graham Rahal, bouncing back from a rough test at Barber.
Fantasy Racing Reminder: If you’re reading this before 10am ET Friday, there’s still time to jump into the IndyCar Advocate IndyCar Fantasy League. If you’re reading after this, don’t sweat it—you can still join in Week 2. It’ll make your eventual championship and thrashing of everyone else that much more storybook.
Also, for all your race info needs, make sure to stop by my buddies at MoreFrontWing this season, who have your summaries and needed information for each and every race, all season long!
Have a great race weekend, and we'll catch up on Monday, with all the water cooler talk and such.