Associated Press

PREVIEW: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Leave a comment

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – With the series side of the preview out of the way, we now turn to a preview of the race itself that kicks off the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

A fair bit has changed from 2015 to 2016. To wit, here’s the driver changes from last year at this race:

  • OUT: Gabby Chaves (Bryan Herta Autosport); Simona de Silvestro (Andretti Autosport); Sage Karam (Chip Ganassi Racing Teams); James Jakes (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports); Francesco Dracone (Dale Coyne Racing); Carlos Huertas (Dale Coyne Racing)
  • IN: Alexander Rossi (Andretti-Herta Autosport); Max Chilton (Chip Ganassi Racing Teams); Conor Daly (Dale Coyne Racing); Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports); Spencer Pigot (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)
  • CHANGED: Luca Filippi (CFH Racing to Dale Coyne Racing); CFH Racing (CFH to Ed Carpenter Racing); Bryan Herta Autosport (Andretti-Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian)

And while the field is reduced from 24 cars last year to 22 this year, when you look through the grid 1-22 there are no weak links, and still a plethora of storylines.

2016 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Talking Points

Will opening race variety roll on?

For one, can this race’s record of producing a different winner on a recent annual basis continue?

Last year, Juan Pablo Montoya scored a calculated victory after a late-race move on teammate Will Power. Power won it the year before, with James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti in 2011. So there’s been five winners in as many years, with Power’s 2010 win on a rain delay the last repeat winner.

How will the new components handle the weekend?

Second, how will the new variables factor into play? How will rookie quartet fare? How will Hinchcliffe be in his much-awaited return race? How much will Honda close the gap to Chevrolet? Will the new-look race control be a factor?

Chevrolet teams held the edge overall in the debut weekend of aero kits last year, with Honda teams a bit behind. Takuma Sato, who’s traditionally done well at St. Petersburg, was the lone Honda to crack the Firestone Fast Six last year. But Chevrolet teams locked out seven of the top 10 spots in the race after also taking five of the six Fast Six slots.

Debris cautions littered the race and plagued their debut; contact between Gabby Chaves and Marco Andretti sent a bit of Honda bodywork over the catch fencing into the grandstand area as well.

This year, testing at Sebring, while it didn’t have official times, had unofficial times with Hondas within a few tenths. Granted, a few tenths off now is still quite a bit off and can cost a bunch of positions in qualifying. But the gap seems slightly closer – if Chevrolet remains ahead.

The road to pole goes through Will Power

Third, can anyone knock Power off the pole – or Verizon P1 Award – here? Power has an unhealthy lock on qualifying at St. Petersburg. It’s ridiculous.

His first race with Team Penske was as Castroneves’ fill-in in 2009 at St. Petersburg, prior to the launch of a partial season program in what became the full-time No. 12 Verizon Team Penske entry.

And every year but one at St. Petersburg since, he’s been on the pole. That’s 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 for five of the last six – with 2014 as the lone exception when Sato dethroned him in the rain.

Of course, Power’s only been able to convert one of those poles into wins, and that was in 2010. Ironically, perhaps, he won the 2014 season opener after starting fourth.

He’ll be keen to avenge not only last season’s loss to Montoya this year, but the fact he posted only one win last year on the whole. 

Montoya won last year and Tony Kanaan completed the podium.

The final word

Leave it to Graham Rahal, who was the best Honda for most of last season, to explain how St. Petersburg is always so unpredictable:

“St. Pete always has the curse of being the first race of the year,” he told NBC Sports.

“Everyone becomes superheroes.

“There’s guys who are experienced elsewhere like (Max) Chilton and (Alexander) Rossi. But to drive this car, which is like driving an animal for two-hour races, there’s guys who want to prove themselves.

“It could be action-packed and nuts.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

Friday, March 11

10:50-12:05 Practice 1
3:40-4:55   Practice 2

Saturday, March 12

11:55-12:40  Practice 3
3:40-4:55    Qualifying & Firestone Fast Six

Sunday, March 13

9-9:30      Warm-up
12:45/12:52 Drivers Start Your Engine/Green Flag (ABC, 12:30)

All times ET.

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Juan Pablo Montoya
2. Will Power (pole)
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Simon Pagenaud
6. Sebastien Bourdais
7. Ryan Hunter-Reay
8. Jack Hawksworth
9. Luca Filippi
10. Marco Andretti

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Takuma Sato
6. Sebastien Bourdais

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

Leave a comment

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 “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).