PREVIEW: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Associated Press
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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