Thursday, March 27, 2014

Track Walk: St. Petersburg 2014

And we are back! The Verizon IndyCar Series season is finally here and let's get to it. Scott Dixon defends his title with a new engine powering him and Ganassi Racing in 2014 as the team has made the switch to Chevrolet. Joining Dixon as a returning drivers from 2013 are Castroneves, Pagenaud, Power, Andretti, Wilson, Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Kimball, Kanaan, Bourdais, Newgarden, Sato, Rahal, Saavedra, Conway and Briscoe. Juan Pablo Montoya makes his IndyCar return, over thirteen years since his last start while Carlos Muñoz, Jack Hawksworth, Carlos Huertas and Mikhail Aleshin comprise of the 2014 rookie class.

Coverage:
Time: Coverage begins at 3:00 p.m. ET. Green flag at 3:27 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: ABC.
Announcers: Allen Bestwick, Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever in the booth with Rick DeBruhl, Jamie Little and Vince Welch working the pit lane.

Can Chevrolet Hold Off Honda?
Since returning to IndyCar in 2012, the American manufacture has gone 2-for-2 in the manufactures' championship but saw a much more difficult test in 2013. After winning 11 of 15 in 2012, Chevrolet won the manufactures' title in the final race at Fontana and edge Honda on victories 10-9. The manufactures have swapped Ganassi and Andretti while Chevrolet has lost full-time competitors from Panther and Dragon Racing.

Honda will run a twin-turbo engine after two seasons using the single turbo. At the preseason Barber test, Will Power led the way both days but the manufactures split the top ten evenly. Chevrolet's struggles have been on the street courses where Honda won 7 of 10 in 2013. At the Barber test, Honda's five drivers in the top ten were represented by four different teams while the five Chevrolet teams came from Penske and Ganassi.

Engine Rule Changes
A slight change in 2014 will be engine allotment. Each team will only have four allotted engines, down from five and they must last 2,500 miles.

There will no longer be 10-grid spot penalties for engine changes prior to the mileage threshold. Instead the manufactures will lose 10 points in the manufactures' championships for each engine failure. Unapproved engine changes will results in a team moving to the rear of the grid for the next race. Entrant-initated engine changes will result in a 10 point deduction in the driver and entrant standings.

St. Pete's Assortment of Winners
In the six St. Pete races since reunification, we have seen six different drivers.

Helio Castroneves is the only driver with multiple wins on the streets of St. Pete with three to his name. Penske Racing has dominated at St. Pete having won the race five out of ten runnings. Andretti Autosport became the second team with multiple wins when James Hinchcliffe picked up his first career victory last year. Hinchcliffe finished fourth in his only other St. Pete start.

Will Power has won four consecutive poles at St. Pete but has progressively finished worse since his win in 2010 with finishes of second, seventh and sixteenth. Ryan Briscoe returns to St. Pete after not running their in 2013. He finished fifth in his last St. Pete appearance in 2012. Graham Rahal has three top ten finishes at St. Pete but his best finish in his last three St. Pete starts was 12th in 2011.

Other Drivers Past St. Pete Results
Tony Kanaan has five podiums and eight top tens in nine St. Pete starts.

Justin Wilson has six top tens, in six St. Pete starts with two podiums coming in 2009 and 2010.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has two podiums in seven St. Pete starts. Unfortunately for Hunter-Reay those are his only two top tens at St. Pete as well.

Sébastien Bourdais started from pole on his IndyCar debut at St. Pete in 2003, however the Frenchman has never finished in the top ten in three St. Pete starts.

Mike Conway's best finish in four St. Pete starts is nineteenth and average St. Pete finish is twenty-first. His team owner and co-driver for the 2014 season Ed Carpenter's average finish in six St. Pete starts is 17.5 and finished fourteenth last year.

Marco Andretti's third place finish last year at St. Pete was only his second top ten in eight starts.

Takuma Sato has finished twenty-second in his two previous St. Pete starts in even years. In odd years, Sato has finished top ten each time, 5th in 2011 and 8th in 2013.

Juan Pablo Montoya has not raced on a street circuit in IndyCar since Surfers Paradise on October 15, 2000. Despite having two street courses victories (Long Beach and Vancouver, both in 1999), Montoya's average finish in six street course starts is 15.5.

Road to Indy
The three ladder series join IndyCar in opening their seasons on the streets of St. Petersburg.

U.S. F2000 and Pro Mazda will each run a doubleheader while Indy Lights will have one race.

R.C. Enerson won the 2014 U.S. F2000 Winterfest title over British driver Michael Epps. Recent Team USA Scholarship winner Jake Eidson finished third in Winterfest ahead of Frenchman Florian Latorre. Clarke Toppe rounded out the top five. Twenty-two drivers are entered for the U.S. F2000 season opener and joining the top five from Winterfest are Daniel Burkett, Aaron Telitz, Peter Portante, Austin Cindric, Adrian Starrantino, Henrik Furuseth, Jeroen Slaghekke and Victor Franzoni.

In the inaugural Pro Mazda Winterfest, Spencer Pigot won the title over defending U.S. F2000 champion Canadian Scott Hargrove. Andretti Autosport drivers Garrett Grist and Shelby Blackstock finished third and fourth with Brazilian Pipo Derani rounding out the top five. Twenty drivers are entered for the Pro Mazda season opener. Entered along with the drivers above are Neil Alberico, Kyle Kaiser, Vicky Piria, Dalton Kellett, Brandon Newey and Kyle Connery.

Indy Lights will feature a dozen drivers. Sam Schmidt Motorsports are the defending champions and will run four cars. Two notable drivers are coming over from Europe. Former Team Lotus (now Caterham) test driver and 2012 GP2 runner-up to Luca Filippi, Brazilian Luiz Razia will make his Indy Lights debut for Schmidt. Brit Jack Harvey will join Razia at Schmidt after finishing fifth in the 2013 GP3 Series championship. Juan Pablo Garcia moves from Team Moore Racing to Schmidt and Juan Piedrahita will move up to Indy Lights after four seasons in Pro Mazda.

The runner-up in the 2013 championship Gabby Chaves returns but driving for Belardi Auto Racing after leaving Sam Schmidt's team. He will be joined by 2012 French F4 champion, Frenchman Alexandre Baron. Baron won two U.S. F2000 races late in 2013.

Zach Veach returns to Andretti Autosport for his second season in Indy Lights and will be joined by defending Pro Mazda champion, Australian-America Matthew Brabham. The grandson of triple World Drivers' Champion Jack Brabham and son of 1993 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Geoff Brabham has won back-to-back titles in the ladder system and looks to become the first to win the championship in each ladder series in successive seasons.

Other graduates from Pro Mazda are Scott Anderson, Lloyd Read and Zack Meyer. 2013 AutoGP champion Vittorio Ghirelli will join Meyer at Team Moore Racing in 2014.

Pirelli World Challenge
Joining IndyCar and the Mazda Road to Indy at St. Petersburg is the Pirelli World Challenge which opens their 2014 season with two races. Fifty-two cars are entered this weekend with 24 in GT/GT-A and 28 in GTS. Johnny O'Connell is the defending GT champion driving for Cadillac with Andy Pilgrim as his teammate. James Sofranos returns driving an Audi R8 GT3 after losing the title in the final race. Other notable GT entries are Mike Skeen (Nissan GTR), Alex Figge (McLaren MP4-12C GT3), Tomáš Enge (Lamborghini Gallardo FL2), Anthony Lazzaro (Ferrari 458 Italia GT3) and Dane Cameron (BMW Z4).

The GT-A class is for gentleman drivers. Notable GT-A drivers are Albert von Thurn und Taxis (Lamborghini Gallardo FL2), Bret Curtis (Audi R8 GT3) and Tim Pappas (Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS GT3).

Lawson Aschenbach is the defending GTS champion driving a Chevrolet Camaro. Jack Baldwin finished second in GTS in 2014 driving a Porsche Cayman. Nic Jönsson and Mark Wilkens return driving Kia Optimas. Other notable GTS drivers are Andy Lee (Chevrolet Camaro), Nick Esaysian (Aston Martin GT4) and Jack Roush, Jr. (Ford Mustang Boss 320R).

Race one for PWC at St. Petersburg will take place Saturday March 29th at 3:25 p.m. ET with race two at 11:25 a.m. ET before the IndyCar race on Sunday March 30th.

Fast Facts
Facts are inevitably brought up at every race weekend. With that said, new to the For The Love of Indy will be a dedicated fact page called the "Telemetry Center." On this page, you can find out how many podiums a driver has, how Fast Six appearances a driver has, how many laps a driver has lead, where does a driver rank among active drivers when it comes to pole positions in a career and more.

There will still be fact sections specific to race weekends but the "Telemetry Center" is where you can go to find facts on the season as a whole.

On to facts specific to St. Petersburg:

St. Pete track record is 1:00.928 set by Sébastien Bourdais in 2003.

This is the first IndyCar race on March 30th since George Follmer won at Phoenix in 1969. The only other race to occur on March 30th was at Trenton in 1958 and was won by Len Sutton. Like St. Pete, both those races were season openers.

An American driver has not won the season opener since Sam Hornish, Jr. won at Homestead in 2004.

Every St. Pete race has had more than 10 laps under full-course caution. The fewest caution laps in a St. Pete race was 11 laps in 2006

Every St. Pete winner has come from one of five positions.

The pole sitter has won twice (Castroneves in 2007 and Power in 2010).

Twice has the winner started 2nd (Paul Tracy in 2003, Dario Franchitti in 2011).

Twice has the winner started 4th (Briscoe in 2009, Hinchcliffe in 2013).

Twice has the winner started 5th (Castroneves 2006 and 2012)

The furthest back a winner has come from is 9th (Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Graham Rahal in 2008).

Carlos Huertas will make his IndyCar debut at St. Pete driving for Dale Coyne Racing. He will become the fifth Colombian to start an IndyCar race. Four will participate at St. Pete (Huertas, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastián Saavedra and Carlos Muñoz). The lone Colombian not competing? 1992 Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Roberto Guerrero.

Prediction:
I'm taking Justin Wilson for the opening round of the championship. The top Chevrolet will be Tony Kanaan. Takuma Sato will break the trend of finishing twenty-second at St. Pete in even years but won't be in the top ten. Mike Conway gets a top ten. Carlos Huertas will not finish in the top fifteen. Juan Pablo Montoya will start the weekend well but will fall back during the race. Andretti Autosport will put three cars in the top ten. Sleeper: Ryan Briscoe.