Sunday, March 12, 2017

First Impressions: St. Petersburg 2017

1. I thought Scott Dixon winning Mid-Ohio from 22nd was one of the most remarkable races I had ever seen. This topped it but for many other reasons. It was the first race of 2017, no one expected Honda to have a prayer let alone Sébastien Bourdais with Dale Coyne Racing and from dead last, 21st on the grid. Did he catch a break with a timely caution? Yes but he had to pass Simon Pagenaud and then he drove away from him. Bourdais was constantly running in the low-62 second range. No one else was doing that. Oh, and he did it in his adopted hometown.

Imagine ten years ago, if you had told him on the victory podium in Mexico City after winning his 31st race and fourth championship and with a deal signed with Toro Rosso that in 2017 he would be leading the IndyCar championship with Dale Coyne Racing. He would have laughed. He was through with American open-wheel racing. He had wiped the floor with everybody and he was ready to challenge the best in Formula One.

I am in awe of this run and I should be in awe of the man. Sébastien Bourdais didn't pick up on the ass whooping when he returned to IndyCar in 2011 but he has always been in the fight. He finished ninth in a Lotus for crying out loud! No one else can say they did that. He is one of the best and this only adds to the Frenchman's legend.

2. Simon Pagenaud's title defense looked to have started as an uphill battle after he ended up 14th on the grid but he made up some ground and caught a break with that timely yellow flag. It put him in the lead but Bourdais didn't take long to pass and he never really was able to make a challenge on his fellow countryman. It was still a good race. He was the second best driver on track and just like his championship season, he starts with a second in St. Petersburg.

3. Scott Dixon was caught out by that caution for debris that benefitted the Frenchman. He was outside the top ten but then used his pace to pick off positions one by one and ended up third. If that caution didn't catch him out he might have taken the lead and ran away with this one. It was a good weekend for Dixon as a whole.

4. Ryan Hunter-Reay had the brakes fail entering turn ten during the warm-up and he had to make an emergency pit stop before the green flag for an acceleration issue and ended up fourth. Once again, benefitted from the debris caution but he had a pretty good car considering what it went through in the hours leading up to the race.

5. Takuma Sato nearly earned being the top Andretti qualifier and finisher in his debut weekend for the team but he was nipped at the line for fourth by Hunter-Reay by 0.0528 seconds. I guess he ran out of fuel or Hunter-Reay timed the pass to perfection. Their lap times on the final lap weren't that different. Either way, good weekend for Sato but I am not going to say he has been cured of his previous inconsistency. The season is still young.

6. Hélio Castroneves finished sixth and other than being mentioned because he had a piece of Graham Rahal's body work in the front wing after the lap one, turn three incident, I don't think Castroneves was mentioned once all day. That is the typical Castroneves day. Do nothing spectacular and finish in the top five or seven.

7. Marco Andretti had a good car all weekend and finished seventh. I think the key thing for him is staying calm and I think Bryan Herta on the pit stand will help that. He was fastest in first and third practice, had a poor qualifying run because the car wasn't set up right for the alternate tires but instead of getting mad about it, Andretti has to say it is alright and they will work from there. It was only week one but it was promising for him.

8. Josef Newgarden finished eighth in his debut weekend for Team Penske and he was caught out by that debris caution. He ran around the top ten all day and he was looking good before the caution shuffled him back. It was week one, he completed all the laps and he finished eighth. Not a bad way to start a season. It could have been much worse.

9. James Hinchcliffe got the lead at the start of this race and it looked like he was going to drive away from the field but that debris caution shuffled him back and he couldn't make up the same amount of ground as the like of Dixon. He looked good all weekend.

10. If you told Dale Coyne that Ed Jones was going to finish tenth on debut, I bet Coyne would have been thrilled just with that. Well, Jones did finish tenth and on most debuts that would be the lead story in the team press release but this will be overshadowed a bit. However, Jones looked good, he got to run at the front and he lost time during pit stops but this was his first race featuring pit stops. He should be happy.

11. Alexander Rossi got caught out by the debris caution and couldn't get going and finished 11th. Tony Kanaan was half of the debris caution and he was stuck in the middle of the pack all day. JR Hildebrand's return to full-time competition looked good at the start but the debris caution ruined that. Mikhail Aleshin was at the back all day and was half of the debris caution. Conor Daly's highlight was cutting turn three and giving back a position. Max Chilton was looking to finished second best of the four Ganassi cars but had to make a late pit stop for fuel and that dropped him to 16th.

12. Graham Rahal spun in turn three after contact with Charlie Kimball, who then got into Carlos Muñoz. Rahal fell a lap down and never could recover. Not the start of the season he wanted but he still has the pace and he has to put it behind him. Unfortunately for Kimball this doesn't help his reputation with the rest of the field. This is a bad break for Muñoz. He starts 11th for his Foyt debut and he is collateral damage and ends up 21st.

13. Will Power was slightly off-strategy and while it appeared it might get him on the podium and if not that at least a top five, he started saving fuel, dropping ten seconds off the pace and he tumbled down the order before being black flagged. I suspect there was another issue there but look at this way, Power has more points than he did after St. Petersburg last year and he was the only driver who could usurp Pagenaud at Sonoma.

14. Spencer Pigot was the darling of the first third of the race as he jumped into the top ten and then passed the likes of Pagenaud, Kanaan and Rossi on his way to the top five and when he had to pit under caution from fifth, his left rear brake pad exploded pretty much killing his day. I wish he had a shot to fight it out. I think he would have gotten a top ten.

15. The ABC broadcast finds a way to get worse. What is with the new caution probability? The booth set us up for a caution that never came. It's like if baseball broadcasts used probability of the next at-bat being a home run and kept saying, we are due for a home run. That's not how you broadcast any sport. No neutral viewer should ever be rooting for a caution. Bestwick is being dragged down by Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear. Replace Goodyear with Jon Beekhuis and pay Dario Franchitti whatever he wants to replace Goodyear.

16. A few quick things, if brakes are the worst problem IndyCar has then we have come a long way from car owners overthrowing the CEO, race control going green on an oval in the rain and the defending rule that infamously took over a race at Edmonton. It needs to be corrected and if what Brembo says is true that they haven't been involved in the latest developments than IndyCar needs to correct that.

17. The changes to turn three were that bad, other than it caused the only caution of substance all race. I thought it was a knee jerk reaction on Friday and I say by it. It is much tighter and hopefully they can correct it for 2017. With that said, St. Petersburg is still a top-notch street circuit. I wish something could be done to turn turns four and ten into better passing zones but that is easier said than done. Maybe one of these years I will head to St. Petersburg to escape the single-digit wind chill and impending nor'easter.

18. Now there are three weeks off before Long Beach. It isn't ideal but it's not so bad because there are three races in April.