DiZinno: St. Pete provides solid 2015 season kickoff, but issues some warning signs

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The upside going into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, regardless of the race outcome, was that for the first time in seven months, the Verizon IndyCar Series would be racing again.

The offseason seemed an eternity, and despite moments of news interruptions, it was a generally quiet seven-month period on the whole.

Judging by the on-the-ground atmosphere at one of North America’s best street race venues, the anticipation for racing to finally commence was palpable.

The grounds were packed, with perfect Florida weather (except on Friday, with rain) welcoming the series back to life. Per CBS affiliate WTSP in Tampa/St. Petersburg, the weekend attendance topped 150,000.

The action on-track was nonstop, with the three Mazda Road to Indy divisions all kicking off their seasons – and in Indy Lights’ case, another new era of cars with the all-around attractive Dallara IL15 Mazda making its debut.

Pirelli World Challenge added in four total GT/GTS showcases, albeit caution-strewn in GT, while Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series wowed fans and media onlookers alike with two entertaining tilts.

In IndyCar, though, the story was always going to focus on two elements: Team Penske’s fearsome foursome, and the introduction of manufacturer aero kits.

Team Penske’s intra-team battle wrote its first chapter of 2015. Will Power won the pole and dominated the race, before the Australian lost the lead on the final pit stop sequence and Juan Pablo Montoya took advantage.

Montoya ratcheted up his game, hounding Power on the theoretically slower Firestone blacks (primary) in the middle stint and then emerging ahead after his final stop. He then defended and held off Power’s two attacks, one that was stymied by contact and the other by ill-placed lapped traffic, en route to a popular win.

Meanwhile the aero kits – or as Power so humorously called some aero pieces “rabbit ears” – played a role throughout the race as bits, bobs, pieces, winglets, nuggets and elements of carbon fiber were littered around the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg street circuit like beer cans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Carb Day.

The positives of Team Penske’s battle and the aero kits were there to be seen, although both offered warning signs heading into the rest of the year.

Penske Chevrolets went 1-2-3 in each of the first two practice sessions, before going 1-2-3-4 in qualifying and ending 1-2-4-5 in the race, in what was an utterly dominant weekend that lived up to all the preseason hype and sent shivers down the spines of the competition.

Montoya and Power downplayed the achievement, but third-placed Tony Kanaan reflected on how he had “done his job” to break up the quartet and prevent them from matching the Andretti Green Racing achievement of a top-four race sweep in St. Pete 10 years earlier.

Judging by this weekend though, it seems a question of when, not if, Penske will match that achievement in a race.

The more worrying part of the weekend came with the aero kit debut, with St. Pete essentially serving as a trial run for the rest of the season, and the first opportunity the 24 drivers had to really go at it after taking it easier in testing, practice and qualifying.

There was passing – particularly on restarts – but the consensus post-race seemed to be that the dirty air caused in traffic limited prolonged passing opportunities.

There was a substantial amount of contact on the day. Sometimes it came from ill-judged moves, and at other points it came by accident when pulling out to pass and accidentally clipping the cars’  rear wheel guards (Marco Andretti on Gabby Chaves, Simon Pagenaud on Charlie Kimball were the two notable examples of the latter).

St. Petersburg’s streets occasionally looked like a war zone with all the carbon fiber littered everywhere, and at times it seemed the street sweeper was the best running vehicle on the racetrack.

Undoubtedly the worst moment of the race came outside the track, when one piece of debris launched and cleared the fence at Turn 10, and struck a spectator in the head.

She’s in stable condition, which is good, but beyond the point – when you’re a fan, you’re not signing up to become part of the in-race action and take on that risk.

The aero kits are expensive engineering exercises, for sure, and will undoubtedly produce further cautions throughout the season. As a point of reference, St. Pete’s caution/laps number jumped from 2/10 last year to 5/22 this year.

Is one race far too early to draw any major conclusions? Of course it is.

But the concerning elements gleaned from the weekend are that the racing itself overall, save for a few moments of brilliance, didn’t pack the same level of excitement as it has the last three years. The diversity of teams wasn’t evident at the front, yet. It was, at best, a C+ or B- race to kick off the year.

More worryingly, we saw what can happen when the debris from aero kits goes flying and hits someone or something it shouldn’t.

That’s something that must be monitored by the sanctioning body, and heeded by the competitors, as the year goes on.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).