Friday, March 28, 2014

Storylines: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

After a ridiculously long winter, the newly-christened Verizon IndyCar Series powers up once again for a season opener. This offseason has seen plenty of changes on the drivers, engines, and crew fronts, but the old favorites are (mostly) still there, ready to fight it out once again for the title. Here are a few of the storylines to keep in mind for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:

Watch Those Engines: A new engine formula, and Honda switch to a twin-turbo, mean a lot of uncertainty as to just what to expect out of the engines--especially in the first few rounds. On paper, it looks like Honda has the most to prove, and with that comes the performance of would-be title contenders such as Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. Will they be able to contend with the Chevy teams of Penske and the newly-converted Ganassi crew, or will they be sentenced to a season of also-ran status?

And speaking of engines...

Rules Reminder: There is no more 10-grid driver penalty for swapping engines before their expiration date, with only a manufacturer's penalty as negative reinforcement for that action.

A Big Debut: Of course, Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the biggest acquisitions of the offseason, and everyone is anxious to see if he's on the same wavelength as his teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. If he struggles early or dominates out of the gate, expect plenty of discussion of his career and his place in IndyCar--and racing--history, for good or ill.

Livery Watch: My goodness, what isn't different this year? Mikhail Aleshin will debut the red, white, and blue colorings of the SMP Bank livery in the #7 car, while Sebastien Bourdais will be in a green-and-black iteration of the #11 Hydroxycut scheme. Graham Rahal's #15 will sport the blue-and-red National Guard colors, and Sebastian Saavedra returns to his AFS Racing yellow/red livery in the #17. Marco Andretti is in blue/yellow Snapple colors, while James Hinchcliffe debuts the light blue and white UFD livery. Jack Hawksworth will have the Charter #98 black/blue colors, and Josef Newgarden will take the #67 in a black/orange/white Florida Lotto configuration. All in all, there are plenty of very distinct liveries to start off the year.

Engineering Changes: There have been plenty of engineering changes and crew swaps over the offseason, but there are a few that stand out as worthy of special notice. Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing lost Bill Pappas in the offseason, but have replaced him with engineer Michael Cannon. Cannon is excellent, but you'll also note he never stays for long with any one team. Meanwhile, Bill Pappas moved to what looks to be a budding powerhouse at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Graham Rahal complained plenty about setup woes last year; we'll see what the magic of Pappas can do for that team. Elsewhere, James Hinchcliffe lost his engineer Craig Hampson to a R&D role, but the team grabbed Nathan O'Rourke from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. All the teams listed have plenty to prove this year, and just how the engineering musical chairs pans out will be a big part of that.

The Ganassi Revamp: With Dario Franchitti retiring, it will seem odd to see Tony Kanaan in the #10 Target Chip Ganassi car, but last year's Indy 500 champ is sitting in one of the best rides in the series. If he can come close to the excellence Franchitti showed in that seat, he'll be doing great--he has some very big shoes to fill, after all. With him will be teammate Ryan Briscoe, rescued from Part-Timer's Purgatory and placed in the #8 NTT Data car. Paired with defending champion Scott Dixon and race winner Charlie Kimball, this is a team that should be formidable each and every week.

Rookie Watch: It's essentially a three-way race between full-time rookies for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in IndyCar. Mikhail Aleshin is experienced, but it remains to be seen how he'll fare on the ovals. Jack Hawksworth can point to some brilliant moments on the street courses throughout the Mazda Road to Indy, but being on a one-car team and sketchy on ovals raise some big question marks. Carlos Munoz had a great rookie outing at Indy in 2012, but we'll have to see if he can bring that over a full season. Consistency is the name of the game to become Rookie of the Year, and any one of the three racers mentioned could surprise or disappoint. Let's see who gets off to a fast start.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: It's a big weekend for the Mazda Road to Indy, as both USF2000 and Pro Mazda have multi-race weekends planned (more on those series to come soon). In Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires, it's a double-digit car count (12), with hopes that it stays north of the low numbers shown in 2012. There are several possible title contenders in the field, but Matthew Brabaham and Zach Veach of Andretti, Jack Harvey and Luiz Razia of Schmidt Peterson, and Gabby Chaves Chaves of Belardi Auto Racing are probably the ones to watch right out of the gate. We'll see which other young prospects can join the fight and make a name for themselves this weekend. It will also be worth watching Lloyd Read and the Bryan Herta Autosport entry, to see how solid they are.

Pole Prediction: Will Power. Why mess with what works?

Dark Horse Prediction: Charlie Kimball. I don't think we can consider a Ganassi driver much of a dark horse, but I'm not seeing his name much in connection with being favored for this one. He finished P9 here a year ago, but that was after starting P22. I think he is line for an even better season than last year, and what better place to start?

Winner Prediction: Helio Castroneves. I think he'll start the season strong. Yes, that's just a hunch I will likely regret.

If you missed it: Don't forget to check out the 2014 Season Kick-off Round Table I did with Eric Hall, Mark Wilkinson, and Steve Wittich over at INDYCAR Nation. It's good fun for the whole family!

That's all for now. Enjoy the first 2014 weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and may it be a good weekend for one and all!

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