(Note: For 2014, I’m going to turn over a new leaf during these race reviews. Usually, you won’t read much about the drivers’ actual race performance on these pages. It would take exceptional situations for me to devote much space to any one driver (the return of JPM for example). However, after looking at some of the awesome post-race resources provided by INDYCAR (I get them from the MoreFrontWing.com event summaries page) and the post-race press releases (provided by TrackSideOnline.com along with awesome insider content for 22 bucks a year) I think it’s about time I at least try to talk about the drivers in a non-technical way )
Race one in the bag, and Will Power leads the points. How am I not surprised? It’s not that I don’t like Mr. Power, I just love rooting against him even more. Everyone needs a bad guy, and it is even sweeter when your bad guy runs up front. I love seeing him squirm under the championship pressure and I’m glad he could build some confidence early in the season because he’s going to need it! The major players were in attendance and did not waste a second in continuing the battle from 2014. Some years it feels like St. Pete is kind of a warm-up for the season, but on Sunday it felt like the entire paddock was more than ready to race once the green flag fell.
THE Restart – Simple, not Will Powers fault. From the moment it happened, I saw the rear of the field assuming the leader was going to gas it out of the last corner to take the green. However, under the directive of race control, pace car driver Johnny Rutherford entered the front straight at reduced speed and pulled into pit lane at a later spot on the track than in 2013. Power followed suit and the first few guys (read: the experienced end of the grid) did as well. It was the rush to pack up in the rear of the field that ultimately caused the crash. Do you think, as a Roger Penske employee, Will Power would really brake-check a teammate?! That’s just irresponsible. Believe me, I’m the first one to try to find a reason to throw Power under the bus. This time he’s in the clear.
Montoya – OK, I think I can objectively look at JPM now that he, and I, have a race under our belts. To be fair, street racing is probably the hardest of the three disciplines of indycar racing to just jump into. Dealing with a low grip surface, constantly changing track conditions and the total lack of runoff room poses unique challenges to drivers that choose to kick-off their indycar career on the streets. Will JPM win a race or five this year? Yes. Will it come before Indy? Barber… Maybe, but probably not until after Detroit. Power looks super focused this year and could pose a huge road block to Montoya in his quest for victory lane. Juan Montoya Juan Pablo Montoya will take time to adjust. Honestly, I’m very glad he finished P15. Imagine the “NASCAR taught Juan how to race!” if he took the win.
Aleshin – The young Russian had quite the interesting day while still managing to finish P12 while making five non-penalty induced trips down pit lane. Mikhail lost five spots on the first ever flying start of his career five positions and placing him in a long fight at the tail end of the field for most of the first half of the day. Aleshin fought his way to 17th before shortly losing a lap during the second pit stop rotation. Three trips down pit road in six laps and an amazing second restart allowed him to fight Juan Pablo for 11 laps, overtaking him in the process. Rahal was able to make his way to the rookie, but Aleshin held him off until the checkers to secure an eventual P12 finish. It was truly an interesting debut for the highest placed rookie and also the highest placed driver to make more than three stops.
Honda Twin – With only two Chevys in the top 9, it looks like Hondas decision to reconfigure their engine was a good decision. By moving to the twin turbo layout, Honda was able to more closely match the characteristics of the Chevy motor. Honda also took the opportunity to rethink the layout of a twin turbo motor. The manufacturer moved the two 10+ pound turbo units as far forward in the rear heavy DW12 as far as possible to improve weight distribution. This has allowed Honda to turn the tables in St Pietersburg as they have had a total of seven top ten finishers in 2012 and 2013 combined. 2014 saw that number equaled with Chevy placing only three drivers in the top ten. Honda feels much farther ahead of the curve than they have been at the start of the previous two seasons and has a much improved platform to compete with Chevy each week.
Coverage – I was able to catch a fair amount of radio coverage this weekend along with the ABC broadcast of the race. Pippa Mann and Paul Page did a great job for their first weekend together. It was rough in a few spots and a bit unfocussed, but much better than what we had been enduring in years past. The radio team still had the problem of sometimes not dictating the on-track action to the listeners. We don’t have video coverage and need the team to paint us the picture; I felt more than a little blind at some points in the coverage. ABC was no better or worse than last year. For an indycar fans with not much experience with NASCAR, new announcer Allen Bestwick was competent if not a bit timid in his new environment. Hopefully he will be a familiar voice for curious onlookers during the remainder of ABC’s coverage.
Really, the race was pretty straight forward. A few loose brains on THE restart, but by no means the worst we have seen out of this crop of drivers. Although Bestwick didn’t absolutely stun me, I felt his addition and chemistry, perceived or actual, with the rest of the broadcast team boosted the energy from the booth. While not totally stunning me, they were able to make what could have been a boring race entertaining and easy to follow. And that is really my take away from the weekend. There were more lock-step green flag laps than we are usually accustomed to at St. Pete, yet the race still felt compelling and unpredictable. Well done from everyone all around and a great start to what looks to be a great year.