Long off-seasons tend to mean we have a lot more questions to answer when the green flag finally flies. The long wait between last year’s finale in Sonoma and this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg left teams, fans and media with a lot to mull over: Can Honda catch Chevy in spite of the aero-kit freeze? How would Ganassi and Foyt fare after changing manufacturers? Can anyone mount a challenge against Penske’s fearsome foursome? Is Sebastian Bourdais really poised for a resurgence to championship contention with…Dale Coyne Racing? All would be answered when the cars hit the track in Florida this week, or so we hoped.
After three practice sessions that saw Honda surprisingly dominate the speed charts, Will Power did what Will Power does and put his Chevy-powered Dallara on the pole, and the universe seemed to make sense again, at least in part. Power did find himself surrounded by Honda rivals in the Firestone Fast Six, as Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato earned starting spots at the front of the field. Power’s teammate and Penske newcomer, Josef Newgarden, qualified fourth.
Going into Sunday’s race, it appeared we already answered two of the biggest questions we had entering the weekend: Honda had, in fact, closed the gap with Chevy, and Ganassi didn’t need additional time to get acclimated to their new power-plant.
With the green flag Sunday, the 2017 campaign was under way. It didn’t take long for the season’s first incident, as Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball got together in what I would classify as a “racing incident,” or more specifically, a “first-few-corners-of-the-season-on-a-narrow-street-course incident.” The full-course yellow that followed proved fortuitous for Ryan Hunter-Reay, who hit pit road to resolve a mechanical issue as the field took the green flag.
When the action resumed, Hinchcliffe quickly cleared Power and set sail in P1. The most exciting driver to watch early on was Spencer Pigot, who is back in 2017 piloting the No. 20 on road and street courses for Ed Carpenter Racing. While a brake/exploding tire issue would eventually sour Pigot’s day, team boss Ed Carpenter had to be pleased with the on-track performance of his young driver.
A caution for debris split the first round of green flag pit stops, leaving Hinchcliffe and Dixon high-and-dry (Dixon would rebound for a strong third-place finish). The real benefactors of the yellow were, as always, the teams that stopped when the fuel window opened – Simon Pagenaud and Sebastian Bourdais being chief among those drivers. Bourdais proved the move to DCR was a good one as he ran down defending series champion Pagenaud to take the lead on lap 37. There was no looking back for the Honda driver at that point.
Bourdais dominated as the race ran caution-free from lap 30 until the checkers. The Frenchman’s run from last-to-first certainly deserves accolades, and while he was untouchable out in front, it was a timely yellow that gave him a significant boost in track position.
Also hitting the IndyCar-street-course-yellow-flag lottery: Ryan Hunter-Reay. The Andretti Autosport driver motored his way to a fourth-place finish after starting the day on pit road. Combined with a fifth-place run by new teammate Takuma Sato, the Andretti clan looks to be a factor in the championship run. Then again, maybe not …
Less-than-thrilled with some late-race moves by Sato, Hunter-Reay was pretty vocal on the IMS Radio Network broadcast in making his displeasure known. We’ll have to keep an eye out to see how Sato’s aggressive nature plays when he is sharing the track with three teammates and confrontations are less avoidable than they were when he was with smaller teams.
All-in-all, Honda’s street course resurgence and the always-welcome sight of Dale Coyne in victory lane have to be considered signs of a successful opening weekend for IndyCar brass and fans alike. IndyCar (in its current form, at least) has always championed parity and promoted an “any-given-race” mentality, and that’s exactly what we saw at St. Pete.
While we answered some of those big off-season questions, new ones were raised: Can Honda sustain its success? When will it all come together for Newgarden and Penske? Is Andretti Autosport a weekly contender again?
Bottom line: stay tuned. If this weekend’s results are any indication, it will be a wild run to the title.