The 2013 season finally kicked off this weekend, and after a hotly contested race with multiple passing locations James Hinchcliffe took his maiden trip to victory lane. As far as street courses go, we were treated to another awesome race delivered by the still cryptic DW12. Speed did not come easily for anyone this weekend, and at times it looked to be a race of who can hang on the longest. Power had initially jumped to an early lead, but again proved he can quickly lose the storyline when not clicking off laps all alone at the front. The day was filled with incredible story lines from Dario Franchitti walling it and finishing last, or Simona de Silvestro’s rise from the Lotus ashes to run up front literally all day. I don’t think we could have asked for a better kick off to the 2013 season.
Hinch – Indycar racing welcomed its newest member into the winners club for the first time since Ed Carpenter held off Dario Franchitti to the line at Kentucky in 2011. Not only does James Hinchcliffe’s win solidify him as a true future championship hopeful and proven performer, it also puts even more pressure on poor Marco Andretti to come up with another win, and soon. From the moment Hinch stepped into a big car, there was no question that this day would come. I had pegged Simon Pagenaud to beat the Canadian to the honour, but there is no better way to make a run at the championship than stealing the checkers from Helio in St. Petersburg. Hinchcliffe has the team and talent to be a serious competitor this year and he has silenced any doubts in Andretti Autosport’s ability to consistently mix it up with Penske and Ganassi.
Ganassi – Ok, Dario did win the 500 last year. But I wonder if there will be a return to the “big three” this year or whether we have just slotted Andretti in for Ganassi. Dixon won twice last year, but one came at the red flagged Belle Isle Grand Prix and the other at Mid-Ohio through speedy pit work to get Dixon out ahead of Power. Franchitti is out to lunch and Kimball looks to be squandering another year away for Chip. Dixon had a strong showing, but without quality input from his teammates, there is no way he can keep pace with the Penske and Andretti drivers all year long. Franchitti has not won his championships by a landslide, and the perennial bad luck of Dixon may very well run much deeper than we think. I think the problems with Ganassi are systemic and it may take an uncomfortable shakeup at the team to start the healing process.
Exhausts – In a most unusual turn of events, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier were both eliminated from competition due to header/exhaust problems. One failure is chance, but two on the same team in a spec series? There must have been something deeper going on. Honestly, I have no idea if the exhaust system is a homologated part, but I cannot imagine that the Honda engineers would be OK with teams experimenting with exhaust system configuration at the detriment of engine performance and reliability. Nor do I believe that teams are even allowed to play with exhaust construction or configuration. Something very fishy is going on, and we know that Sam Schmidt is not above bending the rules in search of the winning edge. That’s not what I am saying happened in this situation, however there is more to this story that I think we will ever know. I very highly doubt we will see another exhaust failure on a Honda engine this year, especially out of the SPM camp.
Setup – Since preseason testing kicked off, teams have been struggling to find that optimal setup in 2013. The speed seen at Barber did not transfer to the Streets of St. Pete and once teams bolted the red sidewalls on, the problems were only magnified. The DW12 started life at a naturally pushy car. Whether by learning to drive a wonky setup, or simply changing driving styles, teams and drivers were able to work most of the machines bad habits out by the end of 2012 and the DW12 was transformed into quite the racey car. Come race conditions in 2013, and it was like the paddock was just handed the equipment only a week prior. The complete lack of front grip was the main complaint, and the visually loose racecar of Will Power in qualifying may be the only solution to get the rotation drivers need. We could have a long season ahead of tail happy racecars and nervous drivers.
Honda – Simply put, the Japanese manufacturer has lost their way and need to rediscover the path soon. Ganassi had pointed words for Honda, a sentiment not publicly backed by other similarly powered teams but something, I am sure, the other teams were happy was said. Since Ilmor was ripped from the Honda stable and hand delivered to Chevy by Mr. Penske, Honda has not had a real sniff at consistent success. Has Honda gone down the wrong developmental path with a single turbo setup? I am not totally convinced, but HPD has proven they can engineer race winning machinery as proven by the 24 race wins by multiple types of HPD designed engines strapped into the ARX-01 Le Mans Prototype. Honda has the knowledge to compete with Chevy, and they have never made it a secret that they want competition in IndyCar; it’s time to step it up and give their teams something to bring to the fight.
With this first round in the books, if Sunday was a preview for the year to come we may very well have another heated year in indycar. The new and improved booth was fantastic with the addition of Leigh Diffey is an absolutely stellar addition. He brings an air of professionalism that has been missing from our broadcasts, and the pit road crew is even stronger than last year. On nearly every front, the series is poised to have a breakout year and the only question is if management can properly capitalize and parley it into positive growth. Two weeks until Barber Motorsports Park is too long to kick the season off; the two opening rounds of the season need to be back-to-back so any casual viewers can get in the habit of watching indycar. I cannot think of a better way to have kicked off the season than with the mostly professional driving and a win from The Mayor.