Back in a familiar place, the Verizon IndyCar Series season is ready to kick off the 2018 slate with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. This year marks the 15th time that IndyCar has competed on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary circuit that weaves through the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida and down the Albert Whitted Airport runway. The entry list for this year’s event features 24 drivers from 12 different teams, a sign of growth for America’s premier open-wheel formula series.
The action kicks off Friday, March 9 with not only the stars of IndyCar hitting the track for two 45-minute practice sessions, but each rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder will be represented as Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 will all be on hand for practice and qualification sessions throughout the day.
On Saturday, March 10, each Mazda Road to Indy series will be on-track for morning practice and qualifications, with IndyCar final practice scheduled for 11:00 a.m. Eastern time. Following final practice, the action heats up with Pro Mazda’s first race at 12:10 p.m. Eastern, followed by the first Indy Lights contest at 1:05 p.m. IndyCar Series qualifications commence at 2:20 p.m. Eastern, wrapping up the day’s open-wheel competition.
Before you start your day on Sunday, March 11, remember to move your clocks forward one hour to account for daylight savings time! Kicking off the day is IndyCar Series warm-up at 8:45 a.m. Eastern, with Indy Lights squeezing in their second round of the championship at 10:45 a.m Eastern.
At 12:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC will begin their telecast of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with the command to start engines scheduled for 12:33 p.m Eastern and the green flag shortly thereafter at 12:40 p.m. Once the 110-lap IndyCar season-opener is complete, Pro Mazda will hit the track for their second race of the weekend at 4:30 p.m. Eastern, and USF2000 wraps up the festivities with a race at 5:25 p.m.
First and foremost, it is great to finally get the new Dallara IR-18 aero kit on-track for a race weekend. The culmination of an over two-year project finally meets the pavement in St. Petersburg on Friday, signaling the mark of a new era in INDYCAR.
Additionally, the start of the 2018 season signals the title defense for Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden. The Tennessee native will look to build on his four race wins in 2017 while attempting to bring home back-to-back titles for Roger Penske, which would be the first time since Gil de Ferran won back-to-back CART championships in 2000 and 2001 for the captain.
“I still have to pinch myself when I think about going to St. Pete as the Verizon IndyCar Series champion,” said Newgarden. “Any driver that gets an opportunity, like the one I got with Team Penske, will tell you they expect to win right away. I certainly did as well, but I think we were all surprised at how quickly we gelled together and made it happen.
“But that is last year. The drive for the 2018 championship starts at St. Pete, and it’s a track where I’ve never won before. That is our only thought this weekend: going to Victory Lane.”
Hot on his heels this season is sure to be teammate Will Power, who is the only active driver to have won at St. Petersburg twice (2010 and 2014). His month of May teammate in Helio Castroneves has won the race three times (2006, 2007 and 2012), but the popular Brazilian will be on the sidelines for this St. Pete round as the event’s grand marshal.
Continuing with the Team Penske theme, the unit has dominated qualifications for this race in recent memory. Penske drivers have won the pole position for an astounding eight of the last 11 IndyCar rounds contested at St. Petersburg. Even more impressive, Will Power himself has won seven of the last eight pole positions at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and set the track record in 2016. Drivers Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato are former polesitters that are in the field for this weekend’s race.
Another theme of the weekend is rookies – and rookies galore! Seven drivers are on the entry list for this weekend’s event designated as Verizon IndyCar Series rookies, with four of those seven making their first career start in Florida this weekend (Rene Binder, Jordan King, Matheus Leist and Robert Wickens). One of the more intriguing rookie classes of recent memory, look for some excitement coming from these young guns during practice, qualifications and the race.
Leist impressed many in attendance at the Febraury “Prix View” test at ISM Raceway. Driving for A.J. Foyt Racing as half of a Brazilian duo, the charismatic hot shoe thinks St. Petersburg offers an opportunity. “(I’m) pretty excited for my first race in INDYCAR,” Leist said. “St Pete is a track I really like. It gives me a lot of adrenaline. I’m really looking forward to the challenge. We did some good preseason testing, so I’m pretty confident for the season. I think the whole team is in good shape for the challenge. Hopefully, we’ll do well!”
While his championship chase in 2017 was ruined by a dramatic crash at Indianapolis that left him in the hospital with broken bones, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais is aiming to pick up right where he left off by defending his race win at St. Petersburg from 2017. A St. Pete resident, Bourdais feels their Honda program is even stronger than before and that the championship is ripe for the picking.
“It took 15 years, and now I am the defending champion and that feels good. I don’t feel any additional pressure to do well, but it’s nice to be able to sleep in my own bed and have friends and family at the track,” Bourdais remarked while talking about St. Petersburg. When sizing up his championship outlook, he had this to offer: “This is a small team, but we have proven we can take poles and win races. However, I think we are now putting together what hopefully is a consistent program that can compete at the highest level and contend for a championship.”
Finally, a popular pick to win not only on Sunday but by the championship’s end in Sonoma, Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi is poised to take the next step in his development as an open-wheel veteran this year. Now driving the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda, the California native takes stock in bringing back the same crew he won with last season.
“Our fight for the championship starts in St. Pete, and I’m really happy to finally get the season started,” Rossi proclaimed. “We have continuity that we haven’t necessarily had going into the season opener, with my engineer, crew and strategist all being the same. We have grown to work well together and I think our chemistry will set us apart and help us rise to the top. Hopefully, we’ll have the NAPA AUTO PARTS car on the top step of the podium Sunday afternoon.”
Where to Watch and Listen
ESPN on ABC will kick off the 2018 season once again, bringing back Allen Bestwick as the lead announcer for his fourth consecutive year. Alongside Bestwick are analysts Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever Jr., with pit reporters Rick DeBruhl and Jon Beekhuis on-hand to round out the telecast. The race will go on-air at 12:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC, with the green flag expected to drop at 12:40 p.m.
Mark Jaynes returns to lead the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with analyst Anders Krohn making a debut in his new role. Jake Query and Nick Yeoman will be nestled into the turns at the St. Petersburg street circuit, with Dave Furst, Rob Howden and Ryan Myrehn reporting live from the pit lane. You can listed to all Verizon IndyCar Series practice, qualification and race sessions live on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, Sirius channel 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, IndycarRadio.com, RaceControl.IndyCar.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.
Fans can watch each Verizon IndyCar Series practice and qualification session live on the INDYCAR YouTube channel as well as at RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Select Mazda Road to Indy practice, qualification and race sessions can also be found at the Race Control website, including timing and scoring. To watch the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg online, visit Watch ESPN.
Race Weekend: Friday, March 9 – Sunday, March 11
Track: Streets of St. Petersburg, 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit (clockwise) through downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, including a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.
Entry list: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (PDF)
Race Distance: 110 laps / 198 miles
Push-to-Pass Parameters: 150 seconds of total time with a maximum single duration of 15 seconds.
Firestone Tire Allotment: Seven sets primary, four sets alternate
Event Website: www.gpstpete.com
2017 Race Winner: Sebastien Bourdais (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda)
2017 Verizon P1 Award Winner: Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet), 1 minute, 1.0640 seconds, 106.118 mph
Qualifying Lap Record: Will Power, 1:00.0658; 107.882 mph, March 12, 2016 (Set in Round 2 of qualifying).
Images courtesy of ESPN and Fast Facts courtesy of INDYCAR Media.