FRESH AND FAMILIAR FACES LAUNCH THE NEW SEASON
With race winner James Hinchcliffe, second-place finisher Helio Castroneves and third-place man Marco Andretti spraying champagne on the St. Petersburg podium, the IZOD IndyCar Series had everything it could have asked for.
Hinchcliffe has quickly become one of the more recognizable faces to the casual fan and, along with the wide reach of his sponsor GoDaddy, the Canadian's win should help the series to attract more attention at the outset of the championship than any other driver on the grid.
“GoDaddy is a performance-oriented sponsor, and they want to win every time we race. That's how they market themselves and it's up to us to back it up on the track. Getting the GoDaddy.com Chevrolet to Victory Lane and its first win in IndyCar is just so special. Everybody at GoDaddy is so incredible and everybody did such a good job. I am exhausted, but just elated at the same time.”
Castroneves, a Florida resident, was just as popular on the podium and received a rousing cheer from the assembled crowd, and Andretti, who used the long off-season to work on his mental approach to the sport, gave the series another promotional opportunity.
With IndyCar having gone dark on the sporting radar since its season finale at Fontana last September, the blend of young stars and a personable veteran was just what the series needed.
Of all the things Team Penske's Will Power expected to happen on Sunday, having his race ruined by the flying car of JR Hildebrand wasn't on the list. Hildebrand, who admitted to being distracted by making electronic adjustments on his steering wheel during a caution period, launched over the right rear of Power's car, breaking his own suspension and flattening Power's tire, among other damage that was inflicted.
Power was able to continue after multiple trips to pit lane, but lost a shot at winning and three laps while repairs were made. He then compounded a miserable day by losing four spots he'd recovered after making contact and running long into the turn 1 runoff.
“I made a mistake there at the end and it cost us four more places,” he said. ”Tough day but we just have to move forward and look ahead to Barber.”
Power left the track with an unrepresentative 16th as the opening salvo on a day many expected him to produce a flag-to-flag victory. “Not a good day,” he told RACER, “but it's just one race and we have 18 to go.”
For anyone who thought Honda was sandbagging at St. Pete, the true picture emerged in qualifying and again in the race as Chevrolets dominated the on-track activity. Chevy dominated the podium, owned six of the top seven finishing positions and led all 110 lap of competition.
The advantage over Honda isn't huge, but at least through Round 1, the Bowtie Brigade is clearly enjoying a notable comfort margin. “Congratulations to James Hinchcliffe and the entire Andretti Autosport GoDaddy.com team on their win today on the Streets of St. Petersburg,” said GM VP performance vehicles and motorsports Jim Campbell.
“We are proud to be part of James' first win with the Chevrolet IndyCar V6. Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Simona de Silvestro and E.J. Viso all drove terrific races today helping deliver six of the top-seven finishing positions with Chevrolet power. Preparing for the 2013 IndyCar season has been a team effort with all the Chevrolet teams. It is a long season, but this is a solid way to start.”
PROGRESS FOR HONDA
Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon was the first home for Honda in fifth after making the long haul from 20th on the grid. Takuma Sato placed Honda on the front row on Saturday, but fell back with wing damage and settled for eighth. It was hardly a day of threatening performances, but the Honda Performance Development team demonstrated it had made some degree of progress throughout the weekend.
"Obviously, it was a disappointing start to our IndyCar season, but we will learn from this and everyone at Honda Performance Development will work, together with our teams, to get back to the top of the podium,” said HPD president Art St. Cyr. “Congratulations to Scott Dixon for an inspiring drive in today's race, and to Takuma Sato and the A.J. Foyt team for their weekend-long performance. They have certainly stepped up a level this season, and hat is encouraging.”
It's possible that Dixon could have moved even higher than fifth, but a broken turbo wastegate limited the Kiwi's charge in the final laps.
“What killed us was the left wastegate on the turbo broke, so I had no boost,” said the two-time series champion. “I was just getting killed on straight-line speed and they just all got past me on the final restarts.”
The source of Honda's slow start to the season can likely be attributed to taking a more conservative approach to the outright performance of its engines. It's believed Honda Japan made it clear that the reliability woes that stifled the manufacturer's chances in 2012 would not be tolerated in 2013, leading the HPD team to place a high priority on achieving durability to start the season – even if it means sacrificing maximum power.
More aggressive ECU calibrations generated more power for Honda at St. Pete, and with less than two weeks until Round 2 at Barber Motorsports Park, the dyno cells at HPD will surely be glowing red as they search for more speed.
THE NATHMAN RETURNS
Dragon Racing's Sebastian Saavedra had numerous highlights during his first weekend with the team, qualifying ninth standing out as the biggest source of satisfaction.
The young Colombian's speed wasn't entirely unexpected, but the fact that it was achieved with a “new” engineer who hadn't touched a modern Indy car in years was remarkable.
“I don't know how long it's been…maybe before you and I were born,” joked team owner Jay Penske when I asked him when Ed Nathman had last engineered a car. “It's certainly a non-traditional pick, but Ed brings the engineering and a lot of the management aspects that we want all in one package.”
Saavedra was delighted to have the CART veteran overseeing his Chevy-powered No. 6 entry.
“Ed's great!” he said. “I didn't know what to expect but he know what he wants and had really good ideas on which directions to take. It's an old guy and a young guy working together, but I'm learning so much from him already. It gives me a lot of confidence that we can do better when we have more time together.”