The opening race of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Season started off on the streets of St. Petersburg with polesitter Will Power putting his traditional mark on the field.
The Aussie led away from the start, pulling out an 11-second lead by Lap 18, but then things started to get very, very interesting.
A crash on cold tires by Dario Franchitti on Lap 19 brought out the first caution of the day, and when the race resumed on Lap 32, Power’s Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves–the defending race winner–served notice he wasn’t going down without a fight.
The Brazilian charged into Turn 1 on the outside of Power, went deeper under braking and made the hard pass around the outside. From there, the three-time Indy 500 winner commanded the race through Lap 84.
On the faster Firestone Reds that most drivers used during the first stint, Power was untouchable, but once they changed to the slower Blacks during the round of stops while Franchitti’s car was being retrieved, Castroneves held the advantage.
Castroneves help the point until a restart on Lap 85 where he locked up heading into Turn 1 and watched as James Hinchcliffe sailed down the inside. Power, who was clouted from behind by JR Hildebrand during that caution, pitted to replace a flat rear tire and fell to 17th, but went on the attack, moving to 13th by Lap 91.
Up front, Hinchcliffe led Castroneves by .6 seconds while Simona de Silvestro, who ran among the leaders all day, held a distant third, 2.7 seconds back from Hinchcliffe by Lap 92.
By Lap 100, Hinchcliffe was feeling the pressure from Castroneves, who sat just .28 seconds back. De Silvestro was 4.8 second back in third in fuel conservation mode with teammate Tony Kanaan 1.3 seconds back in fourth. An on-form Marco Andretti completed the top 5.
Lap 104 saw Power spin and clip the tire barrier, falling back to 16th while Andretti was on a charge, passing Kanaan for fourth and hunting down de Silvestro for third on Lap 106.
Hinchcliffe pulled out to a .8-second lead by Lap 109 and looked safe for the win while Andretti drilled the back of de Silvestro on the final corner at the start of Lap 110, dropping de Silvestro to fifth after Kanaan squeezed by.
At the line, Scott Dixon drag raced past de Silvestro to take fifth as Hinchcliffe did victory donuts in the runoff area at Turn 1.
The Canadian, who won on his 32nd IZOD IndyCar Series start, was ecstatic to break through with his former Newman/Haas engineer Craig Hampson on the timing stand.
“First of thanks to everyone,” said the 26-year-old. “Thanks to the fans. This race is so awesome. Man, that was a tough race. Last year we qualified fourth, finished fourth. Qualified fourth again and I thought that was kind of our cursed number there for a bit and then the big thing that people were saying early on in the season is ‘What is it going to take to win?’ And the big thing was minimizing mistakes. We had a good car. Not sure if we had the fastest car over a lap but I’ll tell you what, we nailed the pit stops. The guys were so good.
“The GoDaddy car was really good on those black tires. That last restart, man, Helio Castroneves there. He’s a three-time winner at this race. He’s on the Reds. He makes a mistake. I get by, but I’m thinking, ‘He has 30 laps to get this back.” And we were saving a bit of fuel, trying to save the tires and I just can’t be happier. It is so awesome. Dan [Wheldon's] hometown. Dan’s car. This one’s for him.”
While a win for Power, Hunter-Reay or one of the other stars would have been just as impressive, kicking off the season with a popular new face atop the podium should generate the exact kind of publicity IndyCar has been looking for.
Castroneves was disappointed to lose the lead and eventual win to Hinchcliffe, but took solace from banking quality points at Round 1.
“As long as I was in front of [Hinch], it was going to be fine,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t warm up my tires enough. Just a small mistake. I guess the old dogs still make mistakes. Still have a lot to learn. Great effort by the Hitachi guys, incredible car. And good job Hinch. Congrats!”
Andretti was the most impressive charger during the final laps, and despite a bit of bump-and-run on de Silvestro, the third-generation driver made it clear he’s ready to take the next step in his career.
“For me, this feels like a win for the struggles I have been having and all I can say is that it feels great to have the hard work pay off, for sure,” he said.
Chevrolet swept the podium, earned a 1-2-3-4, six of the first seven finishing positions and took the lead in the Manufacturers’ championship. It also continued the trend of Chevy winning races sponsored by Honda…
BEYOND THE PODIUM
Fourth-place finisher Tony Kanaan and fifth-place man Scott Dixon passed a combined 22 cars on the 110-lap run to the checkered flag.
For Kanaan, who’s accustomed to passing copious amounts of cars in the races, motoring forward from 11th was normal, while Dixon, who rarely finds himself outside the top 10, started a lowly 20th and went on a race-long passing spree to come home as the first Honda-powered car.
“It’s definitely a good start of the season for everyone at KV Racing, finishing fourth and sixth,” said the 2004 IndyCar Series champion. “My car was flawless while on track, the only problem we had during the race was that I couldn’t shift into neutral during my last stop. That cost me three spots on track and made me work a bit more for this fourth place finish.”
Dixon reckons he could have placed higher if not for an engine issue.
“We went a little bit off sequence there at the end but what killed us was the left waste gate on the turbo broke, so I had no boost,” said the Kiwi. “I was just getting killed on straight-line speed and they just all got past me on the final restarts.”
De Silvestro’s determined performance didn’t end with the podium she deserved, but there was little to criticize about her first race with KV and Chevrolet.
“It’s been a good weekend for us,” she said. “Unfortunately we lost a few positions at the end there. We kind of ran out of tires at the end. I think we can be pretty happy with sixth. Now we know what we have to work on for the next race. It was really cool to be up front all day with Will, Hinch and everybody; it was awesome. I think we can learn a lot from this weekend to have a better result at the next race. I really want to thank Chevy and my Nuclear Clean Air Energy sponsors for all their support. I’m really excited to get to Barber and see what we can do there.”
Andretti Autosport had a 1-3-7 on the day, with E.J. Viso overcoming a bad day of practice and qualifying on Saturday (a suspension piece broke in final practice, sending him into the wall), and like Dixon, improved 15 positions from 22nd to seventh.
“I am extremely happy finishing seventh after a very difficult beginning of the weekend with so many mechanical issues in the practice and qualifying,” he said. “It’s been tough to survive and make it to here, but the team did a great job to get me a very competitive car and give me all the tools to stay battling in the field. I’m feeling good about this year; I think we will be able to achieve good positions. Congratulations to my teammate, James, on his first win in the IZOD IndyCar Series.”
Takuma Sato stunned the field by qualifying second in his Honda-powered A.J. Foyt Racing machine, but the Japanese driver slowly faded when contact damaged the front wings on his No. 14 car.
“It was a tough race right at the beginning, we clipped a front wing on the second restart so we had a damaged car most of the race,” he said. “Before we changed the front wing we were as far down as 15th. We picked up some pace and were able to overtake a few cars on the track so that was encouraging. There are quite a few things we need to look at but we fought hard today and I want to thank the ABC Supply team for their hard work!”
2012 Firestone Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier qualified sixth, ran inside the top six and got as high as fourth until his Honda-powered No. 55 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry was forced to retire with a broken exhaust. His teammate Simon Pagenaud would suffer the same fate while running deeper in the field, but Vautier looked set for a strong result until parking his car for good 40 laps from the finish.
“I feel good,” he said. “We had a great weekend. We made some progress and were right in there during the race. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports gave me a great car. It was very good on tires, so we could be very consistent. It is just a shame I was having a lot of fun running with the other guys and wish I was still out there.”
Of all the drivers to become the first to hit the wall in a race this year, Dario Franchitti would not have been the obvious choice. Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay experienced gear selection issues and a sticking throttle that dropped him to 18th and Will Power, who was running in the top three at the time, had his day ruined by Hildebrand’s mistake.
Add in Dixon’s poor qualifying, and the drivers I had pegged to claim the top 4 in the championship had a challenging Sunday in St. Pete.
1. (4) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
2. (5) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
3. (7) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
4. (11) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
5. (20) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 110, Running
6. (3) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
7. (22) EJ Viso, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
8. (2) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 110, Running
9. (13) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 110, Running
10. (17) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Honda, 110, Running
11. (21) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
12. (14) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 110, Running
13. (15) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 110, Running
14. (23) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Chevrolet, 110, Running
15. (18) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 110, Running
16. (1) Will Power, Dallara-Chevrolet, 107, Running
17. (12) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Chevrolet, 104, Running
18. (8) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Chevrolet, 79, Mechanical
19. (24) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Chevrolet, 78, Contact
20. (9) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Chevrolet, 72, Contact
21. (6) Tristan Vautier, Dallara-Honda, 69, Mechanical
22. (25) Ana Beatriz, Dallara-Honda, 55, Mechanical
23. (16) Josef Newgarden, Dallara-Honda, 50, Mechanical
24. (19) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara-Honda, 26, Mechanical
25. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 18, Contact
Winners average speed: 83.539
Time of Race: 02:22:12.5502
Margin of victory: 1.0982
Cautions: 4 for 29 laps
Lead changes: 4 among 4 drivers
Power 1 – 26
Castroneves 27 – 45
Servia 46 – 61
Castroneves 62 – 84
Hinchcliffe 85 – 110
Point Standings: Hinchcliffe 51, Castroneves 43, Andretti 35, Kanaan 32, Dixon 30, de Silvestro 28, Viso 26, Sato, 24, Wilson 22, Tagliani 20
Check back shortly for a full report.