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

4 Comments

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.