Thursday, March 9, 2017

Track Walk: St. Petersburg 2017

IndyCar starts another season from St. Petersburg
The 14th Grand Prix of St. Petersburg marks the opening round to the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Simon Pagenaud enters as the defending champion and the Frenchman looks to become the first driver to successfully defend the title since Dario Franchitti won three consecutive championships from 2009-11. Will Power returns at Team Penske after finishing second to his teammate Pagenaud. With Hélio Castroneves also returning to Team Penske and the signing of Josef Newgarden, Team Penske employs the top four from the 2016 championship. Nineteen of the 21 drivers entered for St. Petersburg were entered in last year's race as well.

For those in the United States and Canada, do not forget Daylight Saving Time begins this Sunday and to set your clocks forward by one hour.

Time: Coverage begins at 12:00 p.m. ET on Sunday March 13th. Green flag at 12:30 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.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice- 11:15 a.m. ET (45-minute session).
Second Practice- 3:00 p.m. ET (45-minute session).
Third Practice- 10:50 a.m. ET (45-minute session).
Qualifying- 2:55 p.m. ET.
Warm-Up- 9:00 a.m. ET (30-miunte session).
Race- 12:30 p.m. ET (110 laps)

Penske Enters On Top
Team Penske dominated the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, winning ten of 16 races and taking the top three positions in the championship and now the team heads to one of the team's best tracks. Penske has won eight of 13 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and it is only one of two teams to have won the race multiple times.

Juan Pablo Montoya has won the last two years at St. Petersburg but the Colombian is stepping away from full-time competition in IndyCar this season. Hélio Castroneves has won three times at St. Petersburg, more than any other driver, and Will Power is the only other driver to have won multiple times on the Floridian street course. Castroneves has five consecutive top five finishes at St. Petersburg. Out of nine appearances at St. Petersburg, Power has won pole position six times including the last two years. Power was unable to start last year's race because of concussion-like symptoms and an inner-ear problem.

Simon Pagenaud scored his career-best finish at St. Petersburg last year when he finished second to Montoya after leading a race-high 48 laps. The Frenchman has finished in the top five the last three years at St. Petersburg and he has four top ten finishes in five starts. Pagenaud has started on the front row the last two years after failing to make it out of the first round of qualifying in his first three St. Petersburg appearance.

Josef Newgarden makes his Penske debut this weekend. The Tennessean has made 83 starts in his first five IndyCar season and he has won three races, stood on the podium ten times and has 17 top five finishes and 34 top ten finishes. However, St. Petersburg has not been one of Newgarden's better tracks. His best finish in five starts is ninth, he has only started in the top ten once and he has never led a lap at the track. Newgarden's first Indy Lights victory did come at St. Petersburg in 2011. Newgarden looks to become the first driver to win in his Penske debut since Sam Hornish, Jr. did it at Homestead in 2004.

Ganassi Back at Honda
While Penske picked up the biggest free agent in the offseason, Chip Ganassi Racing switched from Chevrolet back to Honda after three seasons with the American manufacture. Ganassi won eight races, had 25 podiums and won the championship in 2015 with Chevrolet. However, the team only won four pole positions in those three seasons.

Ganassi contested the first two seasons of the DW12-era with Honda and won eight races in those two seasons, including the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon led a Ganassi 1-2-3 finish at Pocono in 2013 ahead of Charlie Kimball and Franchitti. Dixon won the 2013 championship with Honda. The team also won ten pole positions in those two seasons with Honda.

Ganassi's lone St. Petersburg victory came in 2011, the final season with Honda as the sole engine supplier in IndyCar with Franchitti being the winning driver. St. Petersburg is one of five tracks currently on the IndyCar schedule were Scott Dixon has yet to win a race with the others being Barber, the IMS road course, Road America and Gateway. Dixon has three runner-up finishes at St. Petersburg.

Tony Kanaan has the best average finish for a non-St. Petersburg winner at 6.3 with 11 top ten finishes in 12 starts at the track. Charlie Kimball picked up his second career top ten finish at St. Petersburg last year but Kimball has finished 20th or worse in three of this six St. Petersburg starts. Max Chilton made his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg last year and he finished 17th, one lap down.

Trying To Breakthrough
Andretti Autosport is the only team besides Team Penske to have multiple victories at St. Petersburg with Dan Wheldon winning in 2005 and James Hinchcliffe in 2013. Last year, Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third and the team has put a car on the podium four of the last five years at St. Petersburg. Alexander Rossi is still looking for his first top five finish on a street course in his IndyCar career while two of Marco Andretti's three top ten finishes in 2016 came on street circuits. Takuma Sato makes his Andretti Autosport debut on the track where he won pole position at in 2014.

While Ganassi moved to Honda, A.J. Foyt Racing switches to Chevrolet after contesting all five seasons in the DW12-era with the Japanese manufacture. The team has signed Carlos Muñoz from Andretti Autosport and Conor Daly from Dale Coyne Racing. The team has finished in the top ten in four consecutive St. Petersburg races. This will be A.J. Foyt Racing's first race with Chevrolet since the 2005 season finale at Fontana, where A.J. Foyt IV finished 21st.

Graham Rahal finished fifth in the championship last year and St. Petersburg is the site of Rahal's first career victory but since his first three appearances in St. Petersburg, the Ohioan has yet to have good results at the track. He won at the track in 2008 and followed that up with his first career pole position in 2009 and a seventh-place finish in that race and then a ninth-place finish in 2010 but Rahal has finished outside the top ten in six consecutive St. Petersburg races.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has brought back James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin for the 2017 season. Last year, Aleshin started off the IndyCar season with a fifth-place finish at St. Petersburg, matching the team's best result at the 1.8-mile street course. Like Rahal, St. Petersburg is the site of Hinchcliffe's first career victory but he has finished 19th, 16th and 19th in the three races since that victory and he has not led a lap at the track since that day in 2013.

The Debutant and The Returnees
The lone rookie on the St. Petersburg grid will be defending Indy Lights champion Ed Jones. The Emirati driver will drive the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Jones will become the first driver born in the United Arab Emirates to start an IndyCar race. Jones won five Indy Lights races in his two seasons in the junior series, including winning his first three races in the series in 2015, two of which were at St. Petersburg. He finished third in the championship as a rookie in 2015 before winning the title.

Joining Jones at Dale Coyne Racing in the #18 Honda will be Sébastien Bourdais, who raced for Dale Coyne Racing part-time in the 2011 season. The Frenchman has won at least one race in three consecutive seasons. He had four sixth-place finishes with Coyne in 2011 and scored fastest lap at Edmonton this year. Bourdais ended 2016 with four consecutive top ten finishes and he looks to extend that streak to five consecutive races, which would be his longest streak since his final year in Champ Car in 2007. Bourdais has only one top ten finish in six St. Petersburg starts, a sixth in 2015.

J.R. Hildebrand returns to full-time IndyCar competition for the first time since 2012, as Hildebrand will replace Josef Newgarden in the #21 Chevrolet at Ed Carpenter Racing. Hildebrand has finished 11th, 19th and 19th in his three previous St. Petersburg starts with his most recent appearance on the gulf coast street course coming in 2013. Spencer Pigot returns for a second season as Ed Carpenter Racing's road/street course driver in the #20 Chevrolet. Pigot made his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg last year and finished 14th driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Road to Indy
Fifteen cars are entered for the 2017 Indy Lights season opener at St. Petersburg with seven returning drivers and eight rookies.

Carlin won the championship last season with Ed Jones and the team has entered four cars. Neil Alberico returns while Zachary Claman De Melo is moving over from Juncos Racing. Brazilian Matheus Liest won the BRDC British Formula 3 championship last season and Garth Rickards moves up from U.S. F2000.

Santiago Urrutia finished second to Jones and moves to Belardi Auto Racing after Schmidt Peterson Motorsports withdrew from Indy Lights. The Uruguayan will be joined by defending Pro Mazda champion Aaron Telitz and Shelby Blackstock, who moves over from Andretti Autosport.

Andretti Autosport will run four cars with Nico Jamin moving up from Pro Mazda and Colton Herta coming over from the Euroformula Open Championship. Defending Atlantic champion Ryan Norman will be the team's third rookie with Dalton Kellett the only veteran on the team.

Kyle Kaiser won two races in 2016 and returns for his third season in Lights with Juncos Racing. Argentine Nicolas Dapero joins Kaiser at Juncos Racing from Pro Mazda. Juan Piedrahita is back at Team Pelfrey and his teammate for St. Petersburg is Pato O'Ward. The defending Pro Mazda vice-champion O'Ward is only confirmed for one round.

The first race of the Indy Lights weekend will take place at 5:10 p.m. ET on Saturday March 11 with race two scheduled for 9:45 a.m. ET on Sunday March 12th.

Team Pelfrey finished 1-2 in the Pro Mazda championship last year and this year the team has three cars entered. TJ Fischer returns with Nikita Lastochkin and Carlos Cunha entering the series. World Speed Motorsports also has three cars entered with defending National Class champion Bobby Eberle moving up to the big class and he will be joined by rookies Sting Ray Robb and Philippe Denes.

Anthony Martin moves up after winning the U.S. F2000 title and we will drive for Cape Motorsports. Victor Franzoni graduates to Pro Mazda with Juncos Racing. Franzoni won five U.S. F2000 races in two and a half seasons. Jeff Green will be Franzoni's teammate. Max Hanratty also moves up with ArmsUp Motorsports after a handful of U.S. F2000 starts. Matt Machiko enters the series with his own team, Machiko Motorsports Development. Brendan Puderbach, Kevin Davis and Charles Finelli are the three National Class entries.

Pro Mazda will race at 11:50 a.m. ET on Saturday March 11th and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday March 12th.

The U.S. F2000 grid features both Team USA Scholarship winners Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood. Askew will drive one of the two Cape Motorsports entries while Kirkwood is with the new team Benik. Askew's teammate at Cape Motorsports is Indian Ricky Donison. Cape Motorsports has won six consecutive U.S. F2000 championships.

Parker Thompson finished runner-up in last year's U.S. F2000 championship and he has moved to Exclusive Motorsports where his teammates will be Luke Gabin, another U.S. F2000 returnee, and rookie Dev Grove. Team Pelfrey will run three cars for sophomores Robert Megennis and Åyla Argen and rookie Kaylen Frederick. Pabst Racing has three cars for Dutchman Rinus VeeKay, Guyanese Calvin Ming and Brazilian Lucas Kohl. Newman Wachs Racing returns to competition with Dakota Dickerson and Andre Castro.

Both U.S. F2000 races will take place on Saturday March 11th at 8:40 a.m. ET and 2:00 p.m. ET.

For more on the Road to Indy Series, check out the season preview.

Pirelli World Challenge
Not only does St. Petersburg mark the opening round for IndyCar and the Road to Indy series but the Pirelli World Challenge season commences as well for the GT and GTS fields.

Twenty-three GT cars and two GT Cup cars will compete this weekend. Álvaro Parente is the defending GT champion and the K-PAX Racing McLaren driver has two new teammates in Bryan Sellers and Mike Hedlund. Patrick Long looks to bounce back after losing the championship on the final lap of last season to Parente and Long continues with Wright Motorsports Porsche. Long won his first two PWC races at St. Petersburg in 2011.

Cadillac returns with both Johnny O'Connell and Michael Cooper. Ryan Eversley got his first PWC victory at St. Petersburg in 2015 and he will lead the introduction of the Acura NSX GT3 into the series with Peter Kox. Ryan Dalziel returns to the series in a Mercedes with CRP Racing. James Davison will be at TRG-Aston Martin for the season opener with any further races to be determined. Jon Fogarty and Gainsco/Bob Stalling Racing have switched from McLaren to Porsche. Adderly Fong is back with Team Absolute Bentley but he has a new teammate in 18-year-old Yufeng Luo.

New to the PWC GT grid for 2017 will be Magnus Racing Audi and its two driver Pierre Kaffer and John Potter. Alex Riberas joins the series with R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari.

Last year, Michael Lewis swept the St. Petersburg weekend with EFFORT Racing Porsche. Parente and Davison finished second in the respective races while Cadillac teammates O'Connell and Cooper each finished third.

The first GT race will take place at 9:35 a.m. ET on Saturday March 11th with race two taking place at Sunday at 3:15 p.m. ET.

Twenty cars are entered for the GTS class. ANSA Motorsports won the GTS championship last year with Brett Sandberg but the New Jerseyan has left the series as he prepares for Blancpain Endurance Series competition. The team has entered two KTMs for the season opener for Frankie Montecalvo and Bill Ziegler. Mantella Autosports has the other two KTMs on the grid for Martin Barkey and Anthony Mantella.

Nate Stacy has moved to Flying Lizard Motorsports to drive a Porsche alongside Rodrigo Bapatista. Lawson Aschenbach and Tony Gaples will debut the new Chevrolet Camaro GT4 this weekend with Blackdog Speed Shop. Parker Chase and Harry Gottsacker return in the Performance Motorsports Group Ginettas. Jade Buford leads the Racers Edge Motorsports SIN effort with Jason Bell as his teammate. Andrew Aquilante returns to the series in the Phoenix Performance Ford Mustang.

McLaren and Panoz are new manufactures in the GTS class. George Kurtz and Mark Klenin each will drive a McLaren 570s GT4 for GMG Racing and Klenin Performance Racing respectively. Ian James debuts the factory-backed Panoz Avezzano effort.

Jack Roush, Jr. swept the GTS races at St. Petersburg last year with Sandberg finishing second in each race. Stacy finished third in race one with Chase taking the final podium spot in race two.

GTS race one will be at 12:15 p.m. ET on Friday March 10th with race two scheduled for 12:55 p.m. ET on Saturday March 11th.

For a more in-depth look in the PWC grid, check out the PWC season preview.

Fast Facts
This year's race will be the first ever IndyCar race held on March 12th, which also is Johnny Rutherford's and John Andretti's birthday.

Chevrolet has won five consecutive times at St. Petersburg.

Four consecutive Grand Prix of St. Petersburg have been won from fourth position on the grid and fourth on the grid has produced five total St. Petersburg winners, more than any other position. The average starting position for a St. Petersburg winner is 4.153.

The pole sitter has won at St. Petersburg twice (Castroneves 2007 and Power 2010).

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

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

The worst starting position for a St. Petersburg winner is ninth (Wheldon 2005 and Graham Rahal 2008).

Will Power broke the track record last year in round two of qualifying with a lap of 1:00.0658.

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

The average and median amount of lead changes at St. Petersburg is six. The fewest lead changes in a St. Petersburg race was two in 2003 and the most was ten in 2010.

The average amount of cautions at St. Petersburg is 4.307 for an average 19.769 laps. The median amount of cautions is five for a median of 20 laps.

The fewest amount of cautions in a St. Petersburg race is two for ten laps. Seven cautions is the most to occur at St. Petersburg and that happened in 2009. The most caution laps was 29 laps during six caution periods in 2008 and four caution periods in 2013.

Seven St. Petersburg races have featured twenty caution laps or more.

Possible Milestones:
Hélio Castroneves needs to lead 5 laps to reach the 5,600 laps led milestone.

Scott Dixon needs to lead 101 laps to reach the 5,000 laps led milestone.

Tony Kanaan needs to lead 4 laps to reach the 4,000 laps led milestone.

Sébastien Bourdais needs to lead 43 laps to reach the 2,500 laps led milestone.

Marco Andretti needs to lead 10 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Josef Newgarden needs to lead 21 laps to reach the 700 laps led milestone.

Josef Newgarden wins on his Penske debut, Penske sweeps the top four positions in qualifying but Newgarden does not start fourth and Penske does not sweep the podium. J.R. Hildebrand finishes in the top five in his first race in the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. At least three Hondas start in the top ten and at least three Honda teams are represented in the top ten on the grid. I think we see a record-low caution laps for a Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Sleeper: Conor Daly.