Earlier this month - after 6 months of an entirely-too-long off-season, a LOT of movement among drivers, engineers and individual team members, uncertainty over the economy and just two, brief, Open Tests - the 2009 IndyCar Series season finally got started on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
One of the casualties of the economy was the annual Honda "Welcome Party" held at the St. Petersburg Pier. Actually, the party did go on this year, hosted by event promoter Andretti Green Promotions, but it was a much lower key affair, with a much smaller turnout than in years past. No men on bouncing stilts, or girls in cages...sniff.
But, thanks to a lot of work in the final weeks leading up to St. Pete, we had an encouraging 22-car field with late additions including Ryan Hunter-Reay in a second Vision Racing entry, Darren Manning with Dreyer & Reinbold, and Alex Tagliani re-united with Conquest Racing. In all, no fewer than 12 of the 18 veteran drivers in the field were with different teams from 2008. Along with four series rookies (Doornbos, Conway, Matos and Barrett), the majority of the field was wearing different firesuits this year.
Other good news to come down the pike in recent weeks included a LOT of television coverage (so long as you can get the Versus Network) including qualifying and pre-race shows, and NO "shortened for TV" races; several new sponsors and others seriously stepping-up their efforts; and news of an Indy 500 field that may have as many as 36+ legitimate car/driver combinations. With a bit of luck, the number may even approach 40, giving us the most exciting second weekend of Indy qualifying in a decade.
And yes, even "Twitter" has taken note of IndyCar racing, with several teams and Trackside Online now offering continuous live "tweets" as each race weekend action unfolds.
Friday dawned windy and wet after some early morning showers, the damp track leading Tony Kanaan and his guys to say "the heck with it" (or words to that effect...) and stay warm and dry back in the paddock, and saving at least one set of new "sticker" tires for later in the weekend.
It didn't take long for Dario Franchitti to re-assert himself after his nearly year-long "vacation" into the land of tin-tops and funny accents. Dario, who you may remember was very quick late last year in Australia and again at the Barber road course test a couple of weeks ago, led the morning session, a full half-second clear of teammate Scott Dixon.
No huge surprise there, but then, look at No. 3 on the morning hit parade: Justin Wilson in his Dale Coyne entry... Yessir, these are interesting times in IndyCar land, and there was more to come.
There was a lengthy gap between the two Friday practice sessions to allow for American Le Mans Series practice, and that allowed the track to completely dry and start to properly "rubber-in", as temporary street circuits are wont to do.
It also gave time for a healthy-sized crowd to appear, one that to my eyes looked to be up from previous years - another good sign and perhaps at least partially the result of St. Pete being the season-opener this year. Without a lead-in race at Homestead, any east-coast Florida fans would need to come here to get their race fix, and I think that just might have been the case.
The second practice began with a bang - the first of several - as Stanton Barrett spun and wiped his (car's) nose off on the barrier. No major damage was done, but it would require the first in a series of replacement nosecones.
On the return from that yellow, Vitor Meira collided with Dan Wheldon as both cars tried to get into the high-speed lane in the pits at the same time. Wheldon suffered a broken right-rear suspension and was done for the session, while Meira was able to continue after minor attention to his car. Meanwhile, Race Control parked Hideki Mutoh, claiming the AGR crew sparked the incident by waving Mutoh out in front of Meira.
Defending race champion Graham Rahal led the way, but Wilson demonstrated that his morning practice was no fluke by posting the second-quickest time. Franchitti continued to show strength in third with never-a-dull-moment E.J. Viso fourth for the HVM guys. Kanaan may have skipped the morning session altogether, but it didn't really matter as he rounded out the top five. Yep, this was shaping up to be an innnnnnteresting weekend.
Other miscellaneous notes from Friday:
Unemployed drivers walking the paddock included Oriol Servia, Bruno Junqueira, and AJ Foyt IV. Foyt was, as you might expect, watching from the Foyt Racing pits (everyone expects him to be driving a Foyt Racing entry at Indy). No Paul Tracy hanging out anywhere in St. Pete, but you can expect announcement of an Indy 500 program (and perhaps beyond) at Long Beach for luvable 'ole PT.
It's great to have Bryan Herta around again on a regular basis, combining his '08 duties as road-racing driver coach for Vision Racing with running his own Indy Lights team, with Dan Herrington as the driver. In addition, the effervescent, evergreen Robert Moreno was hanging around as well, coaching Stanton Barrett and looking for a sports-car or touring-car ride. "Pupo" can still pedal a race car, so hopefully, he can find something worthy of his talents.
A couple of new sponsorship deals were also unveiled Friday at St. Pete. Charter Cable was on the sidepod of Darren Manning's DRR car in what was probably just a one-race deal. But an apparently much more significant sponsorship found the U.S. Marines logo - and red-and-black Marine Corps colors - on the Luczo Dragon entry of 2008 Indy Lights champ Rafa Matos. No sign of last year's sponsor, Symantec, but interestingly, competitor McAfee was now displayed on the nose...
The IndyCar Series had a full merchandise sales force here for the weekend with a couple different trailers, as well as the big tent "store". Inside the store, you could buy 1/64 scale Hot Wheels cars in the liveries of Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter, Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon and/or Dario Franchitti. Most of those same drivers had cars available in 1/24-scale with the Hot Wheels logos on the box, and all of this should be available at Long Beach, as well.
Friday wrapped with Indy Lights qualifying for the first of its two races on the weekend. J.R. Hildebrand grabbed the pole, with Atlantic graduate Junior Strous alongside. Both would feature prominently in the pair of Lights races over the weekend.
By Saturday morning, all signs of the previous morning's showers were long gone, and postcard Florida weather would reign for the rest of the weekend. Once again, the IndyCar folks would wrap up their day early, followed by the ALMS race and then the first Lights race of the weekend to close things out.
In the morning practice, Barrett spun and lost his second nosecone of the weekend. That was also the LAST nose Greg Beck's Team 3G guys owned, so they borrowed one from Conquest. Talk about the poor robbing from the (almost as) poor...
Not much else of major import took place in the session, as Penske's Will Power led the field, followed by Franchitti, Dixon, Marco Andretti (a minor surprise) and Robert "Bobby D" Doornbos. The rest of the usual suspects were more-or-less in the usual places - at least 'till qualifying.
Before recapping IndyCar qualifying, let's see if I can adequately explain how the whole Firestone "alternate tire" deal works this year. Borrowed from Champ Car - and added this year to Formula One competition, as well - Firestone is now supplying teams with two separate tire compounds for each street/road course race weekend: Six sets of a baseline "primary" tire and three sets of a softer, grippier - but shorter-lived - "alternate", as indicated by its red-painted sidewalls.
The catch is that you HAVE to run both types of tires in the race - at least a couple of laps under green flag conditions for each. And, just as in the F-1 event at Australia, the different tires set up some interesting situations in the St. Pete race. But more on that later.
I'm not sure if Saturday's attendance was up appreciably from last year, but the paddock was definitely crowded - always a good thing.
The top six drivers among the first qualifying group were Power, Alex Tagliani (good for Conquest!), Wilson, Franchitti, Kanaan, and Rafa Matos, having a strong first outing for Luczo Dragon. Doornbos' up-and-down weekend continued on a down note when he failed to advance out of the first round. Tagliani got faster after bolting on a set of red tires, while Danica Patrick used two sets of the softer tires but still missed advancing. Meanwhile, Wilson didn't use any reds in the first round. Are we sure this is the same Dale Coyne team???
The entire second group seemed to head out on "reds". Each of the drivers in that group used at least one set of the alternates, with some drivers using two. The fastest six were Rahal, Dixon, Mike Conway, Ryan Briscoe, Darren Manning, and Dan Wheldon. Surprisingly, E.J. Viso and Marco Andretti both missed advancing.
The story to that point MIGHT have been both of the Dreyer & Reinbold cars making Round Two, but its twist came when Conway clouted the barriers in the final moments of the session. The good news: He would keep his best times, since the checkers came out, rather than of a red flag. The (obvious) bad news: The damage was too severe for the rookie to continue into Round 2.
THE shock of second-round qualifying was Dixon only placing eighth and not advancing to the final shootout. The six to advance were Franchitti, Kanaan, Rahal, Wilson, Power, and Briscoe. Think about that a minute ... a Coyne car MAKING the top six, with a Ganassi car (and three of four AGR cars) missing out. Alex Tagliani was crushingly seventh, while Matos and Manning also missed moving on. These are the times that make road-course qualifying fun.
And the fun continued, in what has by now become routinely exciting final-round qualifying. The pole went to defending race champ Rahal, with former-teammate-and-still-buddy Wilson on the outside. Kanaan and Briscoe were reasonably satisfied with the second row, but the looks on the faces of both Dario and Will Power said it all: they felt something got left on the table.
Side note: As I write this paragraph, I just saw an ad for Versus coverage of the Long Beach race on BBC America! (during the "Top Gear" show, of course). Cool. It's going to take some time (think ESPN in the '80s) but so far at least, Versus is doing everything right. And as I always like to harp, it's the FAN BASE that builds television ratings, NOT the other way around (as a lot of TV folk like to believe...)
Wilson was rather up-front that his team will continue to struggle on the ovals, as Einstein's formula of limited funding = limited (or no) aero development still holds true. So, the team is truly focusing on doing well on the road courses. They were even practicing pit stops on Saturday evening, after the ALMS and Lights races, and I've NEVER seen Coyne run pit stop practice before. Ever.
I don't think we can underestimate the impact of Bill Pappas as Wilson's engineer with Coyne this year. Some of you probably remember Bill as Gil de Ferran's engineer at Walker Racing back in the mid-to-late '90s. He also spent several years at Ganassi's IndyCar team before heading off to NASCAR for a bit. But now he's back where he belongs, in open-wheel. Bill's always been an intelligent and highly competitive sort, and he'll do everything he can to get the team to raise its game.
Meanwhile, there was an ALMS race. And before that, there was The Incident, as a de Ferran Motorsports golf cart en route to the pit lane for the ALMS warm-up made a too-sharp turn and managed to dump out two of its passengers: Team marketing mistress Amanda Trotter, and one Robert S. Clarke...
Amanda got away with some road rash on her forearms and your basic bumps-and-bruises. But Robert landed head-first and gashed open the back side of his head in substantial (8-10 stitches) fashion - with a concussion thrown in for good measure. That earned the former HPD President a trip to the local crash house for stitches and a CT scan, but he was released (just) in time to make the afternoon's race.
Things didn't go much better for de Ferran in the race, as an electrical failure of some kind (it was still being researched the following morning) put the car out early, handing the overall and LMP1 win to the Patron Highcroft Acura. In P2, Lowe's Fernandez Racing is now a perfect 2-for-2-for-2, with two poles and two class wins in two races, having left the works Dyson Mazda Lolas in their wake at both Sebring and St. Pete. So, a good day overall for the boys in (Acura) blue.
Lights Racing, Heavy Contacts
There also was a Lights race on Saturday, and pole qualifier JR Hildebrand checked out in the early laps, building up a five-plus second lead before the inevitable first full-course caution.
On the restart, Hildebrand discovered he had a low-rpm misfire and got eaten alive coming out of the final hairpin (something that would happen on subsequent restarts both this day and Sunday). Well-funded (Dutch Shell Oil $$$) Atlantic grad Junior Strous jumped into the lead, followed by another Atlantic grad, Jonathan Summerton.
Hildebrand and Ana Beatriz (protg' of Andre' Ribeiro) battled for third through the remainder of the race, with JR finishing in front, "Bea" fourth and former series champ Jay Howard returning with his own team to round out the top five among an impressive, 27-car field.
The second Lights race was on Sunday, following the IndyCar warmup. Hildebrand got a great start - too great, according to Race Control - and went from third to first going into Turn One, but then had to give the position back, putting his AGR teammate, Sebastian Saavedra, in the lead.
JR passed Strous for second, but then the misfire (apparently an alternator/battery issue) returned as the full-course cautions (the yellow waved early and often in this one) came back. On a Lap 27 restart, Strous got back past Hildebrand and Beatriz tried to follow. Hildebrand and Beatriz made heavy contact, leaving both cars out.
On the Lap 33 restart, Strous got past Saavedra and went on for his second win of the weekend and a big points lead. Saavedra, James Hinchcliffe, Summerton and Dan Herrington (in a car fielded by Bryan Herta) rounded out the top five.
This is shaping up to be a great Lights season. There's A LOT of talent in the field, perhaps the most I've seen in Lights. So be sure to catch it on Versus this year.
Sunday was by far the hottest day of the weekend, a good 10 degrees warmer and 10 percent (or higher) more humid. No big surprise, then, that many drivers seemed to struggle for grip in the morning warmup. Lots of excursions into runoff areas, or "wide" exits off of corners. Still, the only significant incident was Meira spinning under braking for Turn 4 and backing his Foyt car into the tire wall. He got away with just rear-wing damage.
Interestingly, several IndyCar teams (HVM, Newman Haas Lanigan, Coyne) had all three sets of their red tires mounted up - the two sets of reds that they would have used during practice and qualifying, and the new sticker set they would be required to use for at least two green flag laps in the race.
Remember, a team can start on "scuffed" red tires, but that does not fulfill the alternate-tire requirement. All cars have to run two laps on the stickers, regardless (except in the case of rain). And remember - teams have only nine sets of tires for the weekend, down from 10 sets last year. Six of those are the harder "blacks," and the remaining three "reds".
It probably isn't a big strategy point, but we note that some teams only have a limited set of wheels. They couldn't mount every available set of tires even if they wanted - then just pick during the race. They pretty much have to decide what they'll use ahead of time, unless they want to be sending a crew member back to the Firestone compound mid-race to get tires mounted - which is common during the Indy 500, but definitely not common for shorter races.
Did you all watch the race? If not, you missed a great show on Versus. I usually manage to catch portions of the telecast from the pit lane monitors and/or big screens, and "Tivo" the races while I'm on the road to give them a detailed viewing after I get home (do I have a great job, or what?). I've been a frequent and vocal critic of ESPN/ABC's coverage in the past, so I've got to give great props to Versus and Terry Lingner's production team on an excellent debut performance.
First and foremost: the camera angles were excellent. While there were plenty of overhead and long-lens shots, there also were a number of cameras placed low, which really, really, REALLY helps emphasize the cornering ability of IndyCars, the rapid direction changes the cars are capable of, and their ability to accelerate and brake.
It's amazing what taking many of the typical/lazy/boring "shots from on-high" and throwing them in the nearest dumpster can do to improve a telecast.
The guys in the director's truck were quick to catch incidents and get them on replay, if not live, and the announcing crew was a definite improvement upon years gone by. Robbie Buhl was a pleasant surprise, and worked well with Jon Beekhuis. Play-by-play guy Bob Jenkins was his usual steady self and the new pit reporters actually sounded like they knew what was going on.
Plus, even though the race ran "long" at 2 hours and 12 minutes, there was no "timed race" early checker. The race ran the full 100 laps and Versus stayed with it, adding 30 minutes to the overall broadcast time with post-race interviews, etc.
I give them all an "A-" for this show and I'm looking forward to seeing what they do at Long Beach.
For those of you who didn't see it, here's a brief race recap courtesy of Tracksideonline.com:
Ryan Briscoe spoiled two Cinderella stories when he passed Justin Wilson on a late restart and held off Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It looked as though Wilson, trying to give Dale Coyne his first open-wheel win since starting in 1986, was going to win after jumping Briscoe during the last round of pit stops. But Briscoe made the pass on a Lap 86 restart, with Hunter-Reay passing Wilson later in the lap. Hunter-Reay gave it his best on two late restarts but had nothing for Briscoe.
The start of the race was marred by an accident involving polesitter Graham Rahal, who was spun by Tony Kanaan on a wild start. Rahal spun into the grass, where an avoiding Alex Tagliani ran over his nose cone. Rahal was able to resume, unlike Mike Conway, who suffered a broken suspension on the same lap at Turn 2 after contact with teammate Darren Manning.
Lap 33 featured two accidents at the same time. Raphael Matos and Danica Patrick crashed at Turns 11/12 after an optimistic move by Matos sent both into the tires hard. Back at Turn 4, Hideki Mutoh collided with Mario Moraes, leaving Moraes out with a broken suspension.
Lap 86 - the same lap where Briscoe took the lead - included a multi-car accident at Turn 4 that involved Dan Wheldon, Hideki Mutoh, Will Power, Marco Andretti, and Robert Doornbos. All drivers in the accident were uninjured.
2008 IndyCar and Indy 500 champion Scott Dixon dropped out on Lap 81 after contact with Hideki Mutoh broke his left front suspension, leaving him to crash into the Turn 3 tires. Dixon climbed from the car uninjured.
For the rookies, it was a day to forget. DRR's Mike Conway's day was over before he got to Turn 2 as he made contact with teammate Darren Manning that broke his right rear suspension. Matos ended both his and Danica's day with a very optimistic move at Turn 11 on Lap 32 that sent both of them hard into the tires.
Robert Doornbos looked reasonably fast, but eventually collided with Dan Wheldon late in the race and sustained suspension damage. He was able to fix it and get back on track late.
As far as Stanton Barrett, we can say he seemed to get better as the weekend progressed. He did cause one full course yellow, but survived and finished 12th as the last car running.
Reading the post-race IndyCar quote sheets provided by teams and the IRL can always be fun, as you see the different perspectives on some of the incidents that took place in the race. For instance, here are quotes regarding the collision between Vitor Meira and Alex Tagliani.
Meira: "I almost went out when [Alex] Tagliani blocked me. We had to replace the nose, which put us to the rear. It is so hard to recover from that."
Tagliani: "We had bad luck today. It was unfortunate at the start. I tried to avoid a free-for-all. I had to get on the inside of the track to avoid wrecking with Graham [Rahal], who was spinning in front of everyone. That cost us a couple of positions, and then I got a puncture because [Vitor] Meira punted me from behind on the back straightaway. I don't know what he was thinking. That cost us our race right there."
He said, she said. Chapter XXXLVII...
In all, the on-track action was pretty good for a street circuit. It was difficult to pass, but passes DID get done. There were good and bad points with the multiple compound tires. It aided passing at times, but also inhibited it later in the race when there were many marbles, resulting from the softer "Reds".
We noticed (and so did Firestone) that some teams had setups that liked the alternate tires better than others. The good news is that some teams likely learned a lot about the variance between the primary and alternate tires. The bad news is Firestone's tires for Long Beach will use a different compound, with a larger difference between the hard and soft tires.
As for what to look for at Long Beach, expect the Champ Car teams and drivers to shine early due to their experience here. Also, I expect Dario to run strongly based on his St. Pete run, experience at "the Beach" and his outstanding performance in the 2007 ALMS race here.
One final note for all you "grassy knoll" conspiracy theorists:
Note that Raphael Matos showed up at the first two tests of the year in the #12 car - before switching to the #2 for the race weekend. Kind of odd, but not a big deal on its own. I mean, E.J. Viso switched from the #33 to #13 DURING the Homestead test, and has kept that number since.
BUT now note that Roger Penske runs a #12 car in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series with Verizon sponsorship. AND Penske's Grand-Am team recently announced its sponsor for the remainder of their season. It's Verizon. That car number? 12.
So, the rumor we've heard is that Roger Penske now has the #12 reserved in the IndyCar Series. Why? A third car - maybe for Power if Helio is cleared of his tax charges - with Verizon backing?
If true, it just shows again how Penske is always thinking a few steps ahead of the rest of us. (And it also helps to have your son's team running a number you want. Remember, Matos' Luczo Dragon team is co-owned by Jay Penske, son of "The Captain").
Just a little sumthin' for you guys to think about. Hope to see you all at Long Beach!