Thursday, March 26, 2015

Track Walk: St. Petersburg 2015

After Seven Months of Waiting, IndyCar Returns to Competition

The first round of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season will be the 12th Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Will Power enters as not only the defending IndyCar champion but as the defending winner of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Last year was the Australians second win on the Floridian street course and Team Penske's sixth St. Petersburg victory.

Time: Coverage begins at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday March 29th. Green flag at 3:30 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: ABC.
Announcers: Allen Bestwick, Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever in the booth with Rick DeBruhl, Dr. Jerry Punch and Jon Beekhius working the pit lane.

Will Chevrolet Stay on Top?
Chevrolet has won all three manufactures' championships in the DW12-era and enters 2015 having won six consecutive races and eight consecutive pole positions. 

At Barber preseason testing, the Chevrolet came out handily on top of Honda. Will Power was fastest over the two days at a 67.3118. Scott Dixon was second fastest within a tenth of Power. Rookie Stefano Coletti was third fastest driving for KV Racing Technology, 0.2106 seconds behind Power. Team Penske's Hélio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud rounded out the top five with the Brazilian 0.025 seconds ahead of the Frenchman. Sébastien Bourdais made it a Chevrolet sweep of the top six, 0.2711 seconds off Power. 

Graham Rahal was the top Honda at the test in seventh, 0.3085 seconds behind Power. The Chevrolets of Charlie Kimball and Juan Pablo Montoya were eighth and ninth respectively as Takuma Sato rounded out the top ten, 0.352 seconds back. 

Only four Chevrolets were outside the top ten. Josef Newgarden was 11th, Tony Kanaan was 13th, new CFH driver Luca Filippi was 19th and Sage Karam was 22nd. Karam only completed three laps over after an accident ended his test early on day one. 

Ryan Hunter-Reay is responsible for the most recent Honda victory at Iowa last July. He was the top Andretti Autosport driver at the Barber test at 14th, 0.5376 seconds back of Power. The defending Indianapolis 500 winner was one of the three drivers to complete under 100 laps at the test. Hunter-Reay completed 87 laps, the second-fewest ahead of only Karam. Bourdais ran only 98 laps over the two days. Carlos Muñoz was 16th, 0.1046 seconds behind his teammate with Marco Andretti 21st over the two days, 0.4163 seconds back of Hunter-Reay and 0.9539 seconds back of Power.  

Keeping in mind the art of sandbagging, the results of the Barber test could become completely worthless after the first practice session this weekend. However, the Barber test is the only indicator we have heading to St. Petersburg and it appears the Bowtie Brigade is set to extend their pole position winning streak to nine and race winning streak to seven.

Debutants and Returnees
Two drivers will make their IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg while five drivers will be making their first IndyCar start after an extended period away from the series.

The defending Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves will make his IndyCar debut aged 21. In doing so, Chaves will become the sixth Colombian to make an IndyCar start. Chaves has made four starts at St. Petersburg in Road to Indy series. He finished third and fourth in the 2012 Pro Mazda opening weekend and in 2013, Chaves started fourth and lead nine of the first ten laps before contact with fellow Colombian Carlos Muñoz ended his race. Chaves started on pole for last year's Lights race and finished second to Zach Veach.

Stefano Coletti will become the second Monegasque driver to make an IndyCar start this weekend. The first was Louis Chiron in the 1929 Indianapolis 500. Chiron started 14th and finished seventh, completing all 200 laps. Coletti is 25-years old and has spent the last four seasons in GP2. He scored seven victories in GP2 and also won a race in the now-defunct GP2 Asia Series.

Luca Filippi returns to IndyCar as he will share the #20 Fuzzy Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet with Ed Carpenter, replacing Mike Conway, who has moved to Toyota's LMP1 program full-time in 2015. Filippi made four starts last year, all with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He competed in the doubleheaders at Houston and Toronto with his best finish being 15th in Houston 2. This will be Filippi's first start at St. Petersburg and should he take the green flag, Filippi will become the first Italian to start the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Sage Karam will make his second career IndyCar start. Last year, Karam finished ninth on debut in the Indianapolis 500 after starting 31st. Karam's best finish in four Road to Indy starts at St. Petersburg is third in Lights in 2013.

Two drivers return after last racing at Fontana 2013. Simona de Silvestro is signed to drive for Andretti Autosport this weekend. The Swiss driver spent 2014 pursuing her Formula One dream with Sauber F1. De Silvestro has made four starts at St. Petersburg and has finished fourth and sixth in her two starts in odd-numbered years. James Jakes makes his IndyCar return with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports after not competing in motorsports at all in 2014. His best St. Petersburg finish is 15th in three starts. He finished 15th in his two starts in odd-numbered years. Fun fact: James Jakes, Stefano Coletti and Josef Newgarden all competed against one another in the 2010 GP3 season.

Francesco Dracone is paying Dale Coyne to compete in the first four races of 2015. The Italian made two IndyCar starts in 2010 driving for Conquest Racing. He finished 22nd and 20th at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma respectively. Dracone has spent the last four years in Auto GP where his best finish is sixth in 42 starts. Dracone could join his fellow Italian Filippi as the first Italians to start the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Road to Indy
A total of 49 cars are entered across the three Road to Indy series this weekend.

St. Petersburg marks the beginning of a new era for Indy Lights as thirteen cars are entered for the debut of the IL-15 Dallara chassis and the debut of the Mazda badged AER engine.

Four drivers return who competed in Indy Lights in 2014. Jack Harvey finished with 547 points last year, equal to Gabby Chaves but lost the title on a tiebreaker. Both Harvey and Chaves finished tied with four victories but Chaves won the title with five second-place finishes to Harvey's one. The British driver Harvey returns to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and will drive the #42 Mazda. He has three new teammates this season, all Americans. Scott Anderson returns for a sophomore season in Indy Lights in the #77 Mazda. Anderson finished eighth in the championship and his best finish was fourth at Milwaukee. R.C. Enerson makes the leap to Lights after finishing runner-up in the 2014 U.S. F2000 championship to Florian Latorre. Enerson led the U.S. F2000 championship entering the final race but had an off track excursion cost him the title. The Florida-native Enerson won five races last year and will drive the #7 Mazda. Former GP3 driver and another Floridian Ethan Ringel rounds out the SPM line-up in the #71 Mazda. Rangel attempted to make his Lights debut at St. Petersburg in 2013 driving for Team Moore Racing but failed to take the green flag due to mechanical issues.

Matthew Brabham will run the #83 Andretti Autosport Mazda. The Floridian finished fourth in the 2014 Lights championship and won his first race on the IMS road course. Brabham also finished second in the Freedom 100 and Milwaukee. Brabham is currently only scheduled to run St. Petersburg. Shelby Blackstock has been promoted to Lights after two years in Pro Mazda. The Tennessean will drive the #51 Mazda.

The final returning driver is Juan Piedrahita as the Colombian replaces his follow countryman Gabby Chaves at Belardi Auto Racing. Piedrahita will drive the #5 Mazda and is winless in 66 starts across the three Road to Indy series. Puerto Rican Félix Serrallés will join Piedrahita at Belardi and will drive the #4 Mazda. Serrallés spent the last four years in Europe. He finished third in the 2012 British Formula Three championship behind Jack Harvey and Malaysian Jazeman Jaafar, who currently competes in Formula Renault 3.5. Serrallés raced in European Formula Three the last two years and his best finish was second on two occasions. He did make four starts in the 2010 U.S. F2000 championship.

New to the series is Carlin, the team that has won British Formula Three titles with the likes of Takuma Sato, Jaime Alguersuari, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Éric Vergne, Formula Renault 3.5 titles with Mikhail Aleshin and Robert Wickens and the most recent GP3 title with Alex Lynn. Other drivers who have raced for Carlin include Sebastian Vettel, Kevin Magnussen, Carlos Huertas, Robert Kubica, Will Power and Carlos Sainz, Jr. Emirati Ed Jones drove for Carlin in European Formula Three last year and will move to Lights with them. Jones will drive the #11 Mazda and he will be joined by Nissan LMP1 driver and former Marussia F1 driver Max Chilton, who will drive the #14 Mazda.

Three drivers move up from Pro Mazda. Juncos Racing moves entirely up from Pro Mazda and brings both their 2014 drivers with them. Defending Pro Mazda champion Spencer Pigot will drive the #12 Mazda with Kyle Kaiser in the #18 Mazda. Pigot won six races in 2014 while Kaiser took one victory and finished sixth in the championship. Runner-up to Pigot last year in Pro Mazda was Scott Hargrove and the Canadian will move to Lights to drive the #8 Mazda for 8 Star Motorsport. Hargrove won four races in 2014 and lost the title in the final race after suffering a mechanical failure while leading.

Indy Lights will run two races at St. Petersburg. Race one will be at 2:25 p.m. ET on Saturday and race two will be at 12:45 p.m. ET Sunday.

Eighteen cars are entered for the opening round of the Pro Mazda season. Neil Alberico finished third last year and returns to the #3 Cape Motorsports w/ Wayne Taylor Racing entry. Canadian Danuel Burkett will be his teammate in the #2 and defending U.S. F2000 Florian Latorre will drive the #10 entry.

Juncos Racing won the title last year with Spencer Pigot and will field four drivers, three different from 2014. Canadian Garett Grist moves to the #5 entry from Andretti Autosport. Grist won two races last season. Frenchman Timothé Buret will drive the #6. Buret finished second in the 2014 Endurance Proto 2.0L series. José Gutierrez is the only hold over at Juncos as he will return to the #7. The Mexican won the final race of the 2014 season at Sonoma. Will Owen will be promoted from U.S. F2000 and will drive the #23. Owen won on the IMS road course last year.

Andretti Autosport has entered two cars. Malaysian Weiron Tan finished second at Winterfest and will drive the #22. Canadian Dalton Kellett will be in the #28 for Andretti Autosport. Team Pelfrey will have two new drivers. Former GP3 driver, Uruguayan Santiago Urrutia will be in the #81 and Pato O'Ward will drive the #82.

JDC Motorsports has four cars entered. British driver Raoul Owens will drive the #19, Nevadan Parker Nicklin will be in the #26, Michael Johnson returns in the #54 and Kyle Connery round out the JDC line-up in the #91.

World Speed Motorsports has entered two cars. Bobby Eberle is the lone Expert class entry and will drive the #13 entry. British driver Alessandro Latif returns to single-seaters after running in Blancpain Sprint Series in 2014 in the #14 World Speed Motorsports entry. Jay Horak rounds out the entry list in the #37 M1 Racing entry.

Race one for Pro Mazda will be at 1:30 p.m. ET on Saturday with race two at 9:50 a.m. ET on Sunday.

In U.S. F2000 18 cars are entered with 2015 Winterfest champion Nico Jamin leading the charge driving the #2 Cape Motorsports w/ Wayne Taylor Racing entry. His teammate will be Aaron Telitz in the #3. Telitz won at Indianapolis Raceway Park last season and finished fourth in the championship. Winterfest runner-up Victor Franzoni will drive the #17 for Afterburner Autosport. Third-place from Winterfest and third from last year's championship was Jake Eidson and he will be driving the #22 for Pabst Racing Services. His teammate will be Chinese driver Yufeng Luo in the #23.

Team Pelfrey has four cars entered in U.S. F2000. Norwegian Ayla Agren will be in the #81 with Australian Luke Gabin in the #82. Pennsylvanian Garth Rickards and Russian Nikita Lastochkin round out the Pelfrey line-up in the #83 and #84 respectively.

John Cummiskey Racing has two Australians entered. Anthony Martin finished fourth at Winterfest and will drive the #33. Jordan Lloyd will drive the #94 Cummiskey entry. Lloyd hails from Toowoomba, the same hometown as Will Power.

Other notable U.S. F2000 entries are Max Hanratty, Andrew List, Augie Lerch, German Keyvan Andres Soori, Santiago Lozano and Canadians Parker Thompson and James Dayson.

U.S. F2000 will run two races at St. Petersburg. The first race is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. ET on Saturday and race two for 8:55 a.m. ET on Sunday. 

Pirelli World Challenge
St. Petersburg marks the second round of the 2015 Pirelli World Challenge season. Thirty-four GT cars will be joined by nine GT Cup entries while GTS has 20 cars entered.

K-PAX Racing McLaren's Kevin Éstre enters as the GT championship leader after dominating race two from Austin in very wet conditions. Ryan Dalziel is second in the championship after a pair of second place finishes at Austin. The Scotsman trails Éstre by 6 points in the EFFORT Racing Porsche. Austin race one winner Olivier Beretta is 15 points behind Dalziel and returns in the R.Ferri Motorsport Ferrari. Lamborghini's Nicky Catsburg and Cadillac's Johnny O'Connell round out the top five in the championship.

EFFORT Racing's Michael Lewis had a great debut weekend at Austin and is the top amateur entry but will be lose the GT-A classification depending on his result at St. Petersburg. CRP Racing Audi's Mike Skeen and Nissan GT Academy's James Davison return after solid weekends at Austin. The Dyson Racing Bentleys of Chris Dyson and Butch Leitzinger look to rebound after failing to crack the top fifteen at Austin. Cadillac's Andy Pilgrim is also looking for his first top fifteen finish of the season.

Colin Thompson leads the GT Cup championship standings after sweeping Austin. Sloan Urry and Alec Udell are second and third after finishing second and third in each race. Phil Fogg, Jr. and Lorenzo Trefethem round out the top five in GT Cup.

GTS championship leader Kris Wilson won race one and each pole at Austin and returns in the #07 Aston Martin. Michael Cooper won race two at Austin and is second in the championship in the #10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro. Cooper is seven points clear of Andrew Aquailante, who finished on the podium in each Austin race in the #32 Phoenix American Motorsports Ford Mustang. Kia's Ben Clucas is fourth in the championship and finished second in race two of his debut weekend. Dean Martin rounds out the top five in the #50 Rehagen Racing Ford.

Both classes will run doubleheaders this weekend. GTS is the first PWC race of the weekend on Friday at 10:15 a.m. ET. The second GTS race is Saturday at 5:45 p.m. ET.

GT/GTA/GT Cup race one will be 11:10 a.m. ET on Saturday with race two 10:45 a.m. ET Sunday.

Last year, rain forced the cancellation of the Saturday race. Sunday was nothing but sunny skies as Tomáš Enge won for Reiter Engineering Lamborghini in GT while Lawson Aschenbach won in GTS on his way to his second consecutive GTS title.

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

This is the first race to occur on March 29th since the 2010 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was won by Will Power. The race was postponed one day due to torrential rain. The only other race to occur on March 29th was Homestead 2008, the first race after reunification. Scott Dixon won that day on his way to his first Indianapolis 500 victory and second IndyCar championship that season.

Last year's Grand Prix of the St. Petersburg feature the fewest amount of caution laps in the history of the event. Ten of 110 laps were run behind the safety car.

Of the 19 drivers on the entry list to have previously raced at St. Petersburg, six have yet to score top ten finish at St. Petersburg: Sébastien Bourdais (best finish: 11th), Juan Pablo Montoya (15th), James Jakes (15th), Carlos Muñoz (17th), Carlos Huertas (18th) and Jack Hawksworth (21st).

Chevrolet is unbeaten at St. Petersburg since returning to IndyCar in 2012. 

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

Three times has the winner started 4th (Briscoe in 2009, Hinchcliffe in 2013 and Power in 2014).

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 5th (Castroneves 2006 and 2012)

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

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

This year's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg falls on Palm Sunday. This will be the 32nd race since 1946 to fall on Palm Sunday and fourth time the Palm Sunday race will take place at St. Petersburg. A.J. Foyt has the most Palm Sunday race victories with three. Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti, Sam Hornish, Jr., Paul Tracy, Hélio Castroneves and Mike Conway are the only other drivers with multiple Palm Sunday victories. Sébastien Bourdais, Will Power and James Hinchcliffe are the other active drivers to have won on Palm Sunday.

Five times has a driver scored their first career victory on Palm Sunday: Len Sutton 1958, Roberto Guerrero 1987, Jim Guthrie 1997, Mike Conway 2011 and James Hinchcliffe 2013. 

Twice has a driver scored their final career victory on Palm Sunday: Mario Andretti 1993 and Jim Guthrie 1997.

Josef Newgarden gets his maiden victory at St. Petersburg. Will Power will be the top Penske driver just ahead of Simon Pagenaud. Ryan Hunter-Reay will be the top Honda driver. Stefano Coletti will be the top rookie and scores a top ten on debut. A new track record will be set in qualifying. Sleeper: Jack Hawksworth.