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PREVIEW: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In a matter of hours, all the words being written in the buildup to the curtain-raiser for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will stop and the actual season will be underway.

This leaves time for a few more words about the race itself, then, heading in.

2017 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Talking Points

Penske vs. everyone else

Team Penske looks for its fourth straight and ninth overall victory at St. Petersburg. Helio Castroneves (2012) and Will Power (2014) won with the base Dallara DW12 chassis while Juan Pablo Montoya has been the first and thus far only winner in the manufacturer aero kit era at St. Petersburg with back-to-back wins in 2015 and 2016.

With Montoya absent, St. Petersburg is guaranteed a new winner this year. Could it be Simon Pagenaud after he got snookered by JPM on a restart here last year? Might it be Josef Newgarden in his Penske debut? Power in his St. Petersburg return? Or Castroneves to break a near three-year winless drought for a potential fourth St. Petersburg win of his own? The odds remain firmly in this team’s court.

The road to pole still goes through Will Power

Will Power wins the pole (or Verizon P1 Award) at St. Petersburg. A lot.

Power has six poles at St. Petersburg in the last seven years, losing it only in 2014 when Takuma Sato beat him in the rain.

Problem is, those poles have not translated to victories. He won in 2010 but in the years he’s been on the pole since, his finishes are second in 2011, then seventh in 2012, 16th in 2013 and second in 2015, before failing to start last year owing to his misdiagnosed concussion. He did win in 2014, though.

Continuing components vs. new components

It says something about the whole of the IndyCar field that the one team that hasn’t had continuity in its driver lineup in recent year, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, is the only team without at least one new component this year.

But otherwise, here’s what’s new:

  • Team Penske (new driver, Newgarden, and a strategist swap)
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (new aero kit/manufacturer, Honda)
  • Andretti Autosport (new engineers, new driver, Sato)
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (new engineer)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (new full-season driver, JR Hildebrand)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (new aero kit/manufacturer, Chevrolet, two new drivers, Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz, and new engineers)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (new engineers, two new full-season drivers, Sebastien Bourdais, Ed Jones)

Certainly there’s elements of the above six teams that remain intact, but there’s a lot of shuffling this year up-and-down the grid. How well will the new pieces fit into their new puzzles starting this weekend?

Honda’s numbers versus Honda’s stats

From a purely numerical standpoint, Honda has to improve its results this season as it has 13 full-season cars to Chevrolet’s eight cars.

But Honda’s weekend performance in the aero kit era at St. Petersburg has left a lot to be desired.

In 2015, only Sato for A.J. Foyt Enterprises made it into the Firestone Fast Six for Honda, while Team Penske got all four cars in and Sebastien Bourdais was the sixth for the now defunct KVSH Racing. In the race, five of those six drivers finished in the top-six with only Tony Kanaan breaking through from outside the top six, ending third. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the top Honda in seventh. Chevrolet held a seven-three edge in top-10 results.

Last year, it was a similar story. Once again all four Penske cars made the Fast Six, Scott Dixon made it for Ganassi, and Hunter-Reay was Honda’s lone interloper. With a sterling drive to third in the race, Hunter-Reay flattered the otherwise slightly in arrears package, and Mikhail Aleshin, Sato and Munoz also made the top-10 in the race, albeit more down to strategy and surviving.

So with Penske’s four Chevrolets looking for their third straight year of getting all four in the Fast Six, it would leave two spots open for the rest of the field if they pull that off. The remaining Chevrolet drivers are all 29 years of age or younger and none has more than three full-time seasons experience; if the quartet of JR Hildebrand, Spencer Pigot, Munoz and Daly can somehow outdo the Hondas this go-around, with no disrespect to them it is not a promising sign given the available talent at Honda’s disposal. Honda needs at least two cars in the Fast Six to stand much of a chance, with three a bonus for Sunday’s race.

Strategy specials

Last year, Daly led 15 laps for Dale Coyne Racing on a strategy gamble and was unlucky to finish 13th after fading late. Who might come from nowhere to spring a surprise this year?

Might Bryan Herta get Marco Andretti some clean air and confidence if Andretti has another lackluster weekend, or will Andretti recapture the good form he’s occasionally shown at St. Petersburg in his career?

Could fellow Americans Spencer Pigot and Alexander Rossi, two of last year’s rookies, be better served in their second ‘go-rounds? Is Max Chilton a candidate to surprise as he’ll be paired with Ganassi engineering ace Julian Robertson as his strategist?

The track and series changes

Although the cars stay the same this year, there’s two big changes going into St. Petersburg, with a track repave being done to a significant percentage of the track, as well as a change to the push-to-pass system. Here’s the note on push-to-pass:

• Drivers may engage their “push to pass” for total of 150 seconds during the race, with a maximum duration of 15 seconds for any one activation. The push-to-pass is not available on the initial start or any restart unless it occurs in the final two laps or three minutes of a timed race. The feature increases the power of the engine by approximately 60 horsepower for 2017.

The change to new brake supplier Performance Friction (PFC) is also one to watch, with expected high brake temperatures a possible story line to follow throughout the weekend.

Red tires also will be available to run in Friday’s second practice session, marking the first time since the introduction of the softer, alternate compounds they can run before qualifying. Teams are allotted seven sets of primaries and four alternates for the weekend.

The final word

From Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has been on the podium a few times at St. Petersburg but never taken the No. 28 DHL Honda to victory lane:

“There’s no better place to kickoff the Verizon IndyCar Series season than the streets of St. Pete. Not only is it one of my favorite street courses, it is essentially my home race, and the perfect place to start the year. We’ve finished runner up in St. Pete on a couple of occasions, so we’re looking for that breakthrough win.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

Friday, March 10

11:15-12 Practice 1
3-3:45 Practice 2

Saturday, March 11

10:50-11:35 Practice 3
2:55-4:10 Qualifying

Sunday, March 12

9-9:30 Warmup
12:23, 12:30 Drivers Start Your Engines/Est. Green Flag (ABC, 12)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Juan Pablo Montoya
2. Simon Pagenaud (pole*)
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Mikhail Aleshin
6. Takuma Sato
7. Scott Dixon
8. Carlos Munoz
9. Tony Kanaan
10. Charlie Kimball

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power*
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Scott Dixon
6. Ryan Hunter-Reay

*Power won pole but DNS; replaced by Oriol Servia. Everyone moved up one spot

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Sunday times and notebook

Thompson (90, Exclusive) and Hoogenboom (78, BN) in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.

Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.

COMBINED TIMES

INDY LIGHTS (Best Session)Full Results

Jamin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 5-Nico Jamin, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:15.7173 (Session 2)
2. 98-Colton Herta, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 1:15.7808 (Session 8)
3. 23-Victor Franzoni, Juncos Racing, 1:15.7953 (Session 8)
4. 3-Pato O’Ward, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.0900 (Session 5)
5. 4-Rinus Veekay, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:16.1419 (Session 5)
6. 31-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:16.1585 (Session 8)
7. 31-Nicolas Dapero, Juncos Racing, 1:16.2491 (Session 4)
8. 48-Ryan Norman, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.3285 (Session 4)
9. 27-Anthony Martin, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.5185 (Session 4)
10. 2-TJ Fischer, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.8124 (Session 5)
11. 21-Heamin Choi, Juncos Racing, 1:18.1931 (Session 5)

PRO MAZDA (Best Session); Full Results 

Askew. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 8-Oliver Askew, Cape Motorsports, 1:19.8142 (Session 5)
2. 79-David Malukas, BN Racing, 1:19.9394 (Session 5)
3. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:19.9815 (Session 5)
4. 1-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:20.0236 (Session 2)
5. 3-Robert Megennis, Juncos Racing, 1:20.1268 (Session 4)
6. 81-Kaylen Frederick, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.1928 (Session 5)
7. 18-Calvin Ming, Pabst Racing, 1:20.2141 (Session 5)
8. 2-Sting Ray Robb, Juncos Racing, 1:20.6289 (Session 5)
9. 91-Nikita Lastochkin, Exclusive Autosport, 1:20.7001 (Session 2)
10. 80-Kris Wright, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.9930 (Session 4)
11. 82-Aaron Telitz, Team Pelfrey, 1:21.2144 (Session 8)
12. 78-Leonard Hoogenboom, BN Racing, 1:21.3713 (Session 8)

USF2000 (Best Session); Full Results

Keane ended head of queue in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 36-Darren Keane, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.1424 (Session 5)
2. 22-Andres Gutierrez, Pabst Racing, 1:25.5618 (Session 3)
3. 27-Callan O’Keefe, BN Racing, 1:25.6295 (Session 2)
4. 21-Hunter McElrea, Pabst Racing, 1:25.7021 (Session 5)
5. 31-Rasmus Lindh, Team BENIK, 1:25.7791 (Session 5)
6. 81-Jacob Loomis, Team Pelfrey, 1:25.8514 (Session 5)
7. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:25.8743 (Session 2)
8. 23-Lucas Kohl, Pabst Racing, 1:25.9792 (Session 6)
9. 37-David Osborne, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.9996 (Session 8)
10. 20-Aaron Telitz, RJB Motorsports, 1:26.0042 (Session 6)
11. 80-Michael D’Orlando, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.2295 (Session 8)
12. 37-Jake Craig, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.2452 (Session 4)
13. 25-Elliott Finlayson, BN Racing, 1:26.3668 (Session 8)
14. 32-Jaden Conwright, Team BENIK, 1:26.4557 (Session 2)
15. 38-Max Peichel, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.5058 (Session 2)
16. 33-Myles Rowe, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.6004 (Session 8)
17. 90-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:26.6460 (Session 5)
18. 82-David Osborne, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.6824 (Session 2)
19. 34-Sabre Cook, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.9362 (Session 6)
20. 38-Oscar DeLuzuriaga, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:27.7455 (Session 8)
21. 92-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:27.7750 (Session 3)
22. 24-Zoey Edenholm, BN Racing, 1:28.5449 (Session 8)
23. 93-Jayson Clunie, Exclusive Autosport, No Time

NOTES

Old USF2000 teammates Jamin and Telitz share a high-five. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
  • There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
  • The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
  • Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
  • Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
  • Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
Veekay. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.

Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.