Thursday, March 21, 2013

Track Walk: St. Petersburg 2013

And we are back! Finally, St. Pete is here and Ryan Hunter-Reay will have his first chance to defend his Izod IndyCar championship. The returning cast of characters is deep. Power, Franchitti, Castroneves, Dixon, Bourdais, Kanaan, Rahal, Andretti, Pagenaud, Serviá, Wilson, Hildebrand, Newgarden de Silvestro, Carpenter, Hinchcliffe, Viso, Sato, Kimball, Tagliani and Jakes all return from 2012, with Ana Beatriz and Sébastian Saavedra returning after running limited schedules. Tristan Vautier has been promoted to the show after winning the Lights title. And one AJ Allmendinger returns, but that story is for Barber. Let's do St. Pete first!

Where To Begin?
Well, Chevrolet won 11 of 15 races last year, as they look to repeat as manufacture's championship in 2013. The driver roster has two changes, with Ryan Briscoe and Rubens Barrichello out and de Silvestro and Saavedra in. Honda adds one to their stable of drivers with Vautier becoming the second driver at Schmidt Peterson Racing.

The 2013 field is composed of five past champions, 13 past race winners, of which 3 have won the Indianapolis 500.

The Race Itself
St. Pete will be 10 laps longer in 2013, up to 110 laps. This change was made in hopes of reducing a chance of a fuel strategy race. Penske has won five races at the track, the only team with multiple wins on the bay front street circuit. Will Power has won the last three pole positions at the track, yet has only won the race once, in 2010. The weather forecast for the weekend calls for temperature in the 70s all three days, with the chance of rain increasing throughout the weekend. Race day calls for scattered thunderstorms with a chance of rain at 60%. In 2008, Graham Rahal won a wet race at St. Pete in an upset victory after the merger of IndyCar and ChampCar. 2010 the race was pushed back to a Monday after rain made it impossible to run on Sunday. Let's hope that is not the case this year.

Starting on A Good Note
Though everyone would like to start with a victory, in the 29 combined season in American open-wheel racing since the split in 1996, only on 12 occasions has the winner of the season opener won the championship. We have had a different winner in the season opener each year since the 2007 IndyCar season, with all the winners coming from either Penske or Ganassi. Could that streak continue in 2013? An Andretti car has not won the season opener since Dan Wheldon won Homestead in 2005. Another sign you want to start on a good note: Since reunification, the worse a champion has finished in a season opener is 7th.

Could We Be Looking At A New Track Record?
Times were fast at the Barber test. Really fast. The official track record at Barber is a 1:10.1060 by Will Power in 2010. Helio Castroneves won the pole in the DW12 with a time of 1:10.4768. Power was fastest at the test last week with a time of 1:07.1329. Not bad at all.

The track record at St. Pete was set in 2003 by Sébastien Bourdais, a time of 1:00.928. Could we see a sub 1:00 lap at St. Pete? Nobody would be against that.

With those quicker times, one has to wonder how much have the engines developed since last year? Will we see fewer blow up? Will fewer teams get caught out by the 10 grid spot penalties? Just another thing to keep an eye on in 2013.

Who Is Looking For An Improvement in 2013?
Simona de Silvestro is out of the purgatory that was Lotus and finally has the equipment behind her to get some results and she was in the top half of the field at the Barber test.

James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud are the two drivers favored to get their first career wins this season.

Marco Andretti had a down season in 2012. One top-five, three top-tens, he did get a pole but he finished 16th in points, by far a career worse after three consecutive seasons finishing 8th in points.

E.J. Viso definitely has the equipment behind him now to get better results but he has to get over his crash prone ways.

Takuma Sato could have realistically won six races in 2012. Foyt Racing might not be Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan but he could still pull a victory out of the bag.

Graham Rahal came close but was not able to pull over a win with Ganassi. Granted he is still only 24 years old, driving for his father's team will give him just as good of a chance to pull off that elusive second career victory.

History says pick a Penske to win at St. Pete or a Ganassi since it is a season opener. However, history also says we will have a different winner than other season openers. The only driver from those two teams yet to win a season opener is Charlie Kimball. Sorry Charlie, I just don't see you winning at St. Pete (Watch, I will be wrong). I do see James Hinchcliffe winning though. Second fastest at the Barber test, with the championship winning team but Hinchcliffe has quietly been overlooked. Power should be up front as well. The best finishing Honda will be Justin Wilson. Sleeper: James Jakes.