ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay all had reasons to be happy following Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
For Montoya, driver of the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, there was relief his car was better than what it showed in the morning warmup – when he ended in the tire barriers at Turn 7 to end the session.
“The car had a lot of speed today. It’s funny, because if you look at this morning in warmup, we’re like P11 or 14 or something. I was like, Wow, doesn’t feel that bad,” he said in the post-race press conference.
“It’s hard when the warmup is so early because the track conditions are very different to what you’re going to race, so you have to keep that in mind. I thought we did a fairly good job with that. We knew exactly where we needed to change. I was happy with the car, to be honest.”
Montoya rallied despite a steering issue, still proving he can manhandle a car, to win his second straight St. Petersburg race and end a run of five different winners in the last five years.
“We started the race really good. Halfway through the race, the steering dropped to the left. Every time I braked, went straight. Something broke there, but that’s okay,” he explained.
“I mean, affected the car a little bit, but it wasn’t too bad until I passed (Jack) Hawksworth. When I passed Hawksworth, it got really bad. Something let go completely. Before, there was a little bit of play, but not bad.
“I backed off. I had a five-second lead, so just take it easy and bring it to the end.”
He brought it to the end 2.3306 seconds ahead of Simon Pagenaud, who scored a Penske-best second place finish in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet and led a race-high 48 laps.
But when Montoya got Pagenaud for second behind then-leader Conor Daly on Lap 57, just before the Turn 4 traffic jam, it was the net pass for the lead.
“I mean, Montoya is an old dog,” Pagenaud said. “He found a little good trick on me. Fortunately I had a lot of wheel spin compared to last year. I decided to be aggressive on the restarts. Maybe I was too close to T.K. I think it took quite a bit of aerodynamics out of my car. Had a lot of wheel spin, didn’t go forward. Great job on him to get me.
“It’s a big advantage to be up front. Once you’re up front, with the turbulence behind, it’s very difficult, hard to keep the tires in good shape. If there was going to be another restart, it would have been difficult to get it back.”
Since passing was difficult, it made Ryan Hunter-Reay’s dynamic move for third in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport all the better.
He got Helio Castroneves for third on Lap 108 of 110 in Turn 4, denying Team Penske a podium sweep.
“We got everything out of it today. There was nothing left in the car. Had some good battles out there today,” Hunter-Reay said. “Helio really dive-bombed me there at one point and hit (Scott) Dixon, almost turned him around. It was really nice to get by him at the end for the podium. That was a small, tiny little victory for us.
“Just to be on the podium with the Penske boys today is a big accomplishment because they’ve been the class of the field here for many years.”
Penske’s absent driver – Will Power – was the biggest story of the day prior to the race though. Ruled out, diagnosed with a mild concussion, Power was sidelined and Oriol Servia made his usual available-at-super-short-notice best efforts to replace him.
Servia ended 18th after a fraught race in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, and was among those caught up in the Turn 4 fracas.
Hunter-Reay – the non-Penske podium driver – made sure to note that the field is thinking of Power, who was sidelined despite winning the pole on Saturday.
“Thoughts are with Will. He must be in a pretty bad place not to be in the racecar for a race,” he said. “We’re thinking about him. That’s definitely not the way you want to see it happen.”