The real racing season is finally here. The 24 hours of Daytona, 12 hours of Sebring, Daytona 500, and Australian Grand Prix are cool and all, but open wheels visit to St. Petersburg is something a bit more special. The season is upon us, and all bets are off. The street/airport track has always been a tough round of the schedule, allowing only one driver to rack up multiple wins on the 1.8 mile , 14 turn temporary course in its ten year history. In 2012, Helio Castroneves visited victory lane for the third time in an emotional win on a weekend that was almost foretold to be a Penske walk away. This year things are a bit different as the grid is much closer than the blind roll that was the inaugural race for the new equipment package.
Five Things to Watch
Turn One, Lap One – Whenever I think about the green dropping on the season, I inevitably have flashbacks to the many, many, many times indycar drivers have made absolute fools of themselves heading into T1 in sunny southern Florida . Make no mistake, it’s a tricky corner, but the six month offseason must be worse for some of the drivers than us. It seems, more often than not, there is some sort of season opening calamity before the championship hunt is even a single lap old. Admittedly, the DW12 has made strides to rectify the problem of interlocking wheels, but nothing will stop a driver from careening into the rear of the field. Even after a year of much better driving standards, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about our drivers totally embarrassing themselves and us this Sunday.
Man Handling – St. Pete is still more of a street circuit than an airport course and is a tough track to jump back into the car after six months of gym training. The paddock will be whooped after the 198 miles of high speed excitement. Drivers who have not done their work this offseason could fade near the end of the race. Although fast, the DW12 needs to be man handles in a silky smooth way to gain the most from the tires, brakes and horsepower. The handling characteristics of an indycar sit on a sort of island in single-seater racing. Because of this we have some of the fittest drivers in motorsports, but attrition will still play into one of the toughest opening rounds of a season in the motorsports world.
Parity – In terms of chances to win, 2012 seemed like it was anyone’s game. Teams came and went all year long, and it was not limited to just the lower half of the grid. Honestly, I don’t feel anyone can accurately pick anything for this first round until we see how it goes. Coming into most years, and even 2012, you still had an idea of who can do what, but after so many teams getting oh so close to fantastic finishes, anything is possible for 2013. The field is more streamlined and competitive than we have seen for many years. In years past, teams low on the grid were often forced to hire someone with a big check just to keep the program alive. Now, although the ride buying still exists, the pool of drivers is incredibly deep and not a single one does not deserve the position they are in. 2013 may just be the year of the little guy, kicking off in St. Pete with an unusual results shakeup.
Ten More Laps – INDYCAR management has decided to extend the race by ten laps to a total of 110 in a bid to decrease the likelihood of a fuel mileage race breaking out from the drop of the green flag. This is a fantastic idea. Save for the 500, I don’t think much of the fanbase has any kind of huge tie to race length, especially if it will force teams to run full power all afternoon. If everything goes as planned, we should have a straight up sprint to the finish. I don’t care what your views on street racing are, a true competition of speed is always a good thing.
Engines – We finally get to see what Honda and Chevy are going to do with their newfound power. If I was a manufacturer, I would keep power levels similar to last year to increase fuel mileage and reliability. Do you think they can turn it down enough to cover the ten extra lap gap and still make it a two stop race? I really hope not, and if Honda and Chevy chose different engine mapping philosophies for St. Pete; power verse economy, we could very well see a very one sided race. Lap time will drop all year long; it’s just a matter of how much. The track record at St. Pete is 1:00.928 set by Bourdais in 2003, last year’s pole time was 1:01.3721. With three seconds in hand during preseason testing at Barber, I think we can kiss the track record goodbye this weekend even if the engines are in economy mode.
Pole – Will Power – No one is better at turning a single hot lap than Power. Hey may have barely lost the championship the past three years, but he is the king of qualifying; especially on street circuits. Until someone can consistently topple Will, who scored 5 of 15 pole positions last year, Power will be the man to beat in Q3 week in and out.
Winner – Scott Dixon – The 12 year veteran of top level American open-wheel racing begins the renaissance of his career with a win in St. Pete. Dixon has won at least two races each year for the last six seasons but has only been able to clinch the championship once. The old adage goes: if it weren’t for bad luck, Dixon wouldn’t have any; his fate changes this weekend when he finally gets the good results at a track that he has
Epic Performance – Simona de Silvestro – For the first time in her short career, SdS can actually have a glimmer of hope heading into the opening round for the championship. If it isn’t Lotus holding her back, it was the poor organization of her previous team. Nothing has been easy for Simona. It will be nice to watch her reboot her career with KV Racing.
Biggest Loser – Dario Franchitti – The slide of Dario’s career that started in 2012 will not show any signs of slowing for 2013. Another frustrating year is ahead for the Scottish driver, and I truly feel we are witnessing the sunset phase of the most successful driver of the modern era. His year will kick off with a tough weekend in St. Petersburg.
Can we just run this thing already? Don’t worry, the green drops for the opening practice session of the 2013 campaign in a few short hours; it truly has been a long offseason. Everyone was quite spoiled by the busy testing and development schedule from last offseason and we really felt it this winter. Spring is in the air, ethanol is flowing and the tires are roasting, and it’s about time to crown the first race winner of the 2013 season.