Verizon IndyCar Series

VICS: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

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After an extended break due to the earlier than usual conclusion of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series prior to the Labor Day holiday, open wheel racing fans’ suffering for race action is about to end in 48 hours time. With a slightly larger full-time fleet and the long awaited debut of manufacturer specific aerodynamic kits to the speedy Dallara DW-12 chassis, the circuit has a lot to look forward to in 2015, starting this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida with the Firestone Grand Prix.

Having hosted the IndyCar Series since 2005, the 1.8 mile combination of public roads and airport runways has produced plenty of action over its previous ten events. The action always seems to begin with the very first corner of the season, a near 90 degree right hander that is bumpy and features a surface change from concrete to asphalt. The section has been the scene of many exciting late braking duels and accidents, most notably Marco Andretti’s wild ride in 2011 where his Andretti Autosport vehicle came to a rest, wrong side up.

Assuming one can survive the first lap chaos, anything is possible as drivers have won from multiple spots on the starting grid. Based on testing completed recently at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, it appears that the Chevrolet “Bow-Tie” brigade has the upper hand on Honda in terms of making their new aerodynamic package work. Of course, things could change when practice begins today as Honda is loaded with teams such as Andretti Autosport that are much better on paper than their 14th out of 23 effort in testing would lead you to believe.

Certainly the focus heading into the opening round has to be on Roger Penske’s latest “super team.” For the first time in his over four decades as an IndyCar owner, the Captain is fielding four cars full time led by defending series champion and the essential king of road racing in this current era of open wheel racing, Australia’s Will Power. While the veteran has yet to become a force on the ovals, his prowess turning both left and right has given him a leg up on his rivals in years past.

However, there are three other drivers on the North Carolina-based squad that desire to dispute that claim, including three-time St. Petersburg Grand Prix champion Helio Castroneves. While known more for his success at the Indianapolis 500, where he just missed a record-tying fourth victory last May, a majority of his victories and famous fence-climbing celebrations in both Champ Car and IndyCar have come on the twisty tracks, including a win last year at The Raceway of Belle Isle in Detroit. Juan Pablo Montoya only claimed one victory last year in his return to full-time open wheel competition, but should challenge on a more regular basis with a full year of recent action now under his belt. The X-factor for Penske however could be its newest member, reigning Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis champion Simon Pagenaud. By adding the Frenchman to the fold, Penske may vary well have the two best road racing talents in 2015.

The second four-car group with Chevrolet power to call upon is Chip Ganassi Racing. The multi-time open wheel racing series champs are looking to bounce back from a somewhat lackluster 2014 campaign, when compared with years past. Two-time series champion Scott Dixon won twice last season (twice at Mid-Ohio and  Sonoma), while Tony Kanaan surprisingly struggled in his first season with CGR, needing a win at the Fontana finale to avoid being shut out of victory lane. Charlie Kimball and exciting newcomer Sage Karam are also capable of a major result at St. Petersburg, a fact that could certainly be critical for Karam, who is so far only confirmed for the season opener by CGR.

The best hope for Honda, as mentioned, could come from Andretti Autosport, whose entries finished an amazing 1-2-3-4 in the inaugural race at St. Petersburg in 2005. The 2015 team is led by defending Indianapolis 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has earned two runner-up finishes in his previous efforts at this street circuit. The new year could also be viewed as a redemption year for the team’s other three drivers, as Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti look to break into the winner’s circle, while the popular Switzerland-based driver Simona de Silvestro looks to regain her place on the Verizon IndyCar Series circuit after her unsuccessful attempt to find a race ride in the Formula One World Championship.

Beyond the big three, there are others among IndyCar’s small fries that could spring a winning performance this weekend. KV Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais was among the fast Chevrolets at Barber and has momentum after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring last weekend. 2008 St. Petersburg Grand Prix champion Graham Rahal was the fastest Honda during the recent test and is trying to break a recent run of bad luck in the past four races in St. Pete, where the Ohio-native has finished no better than 12th.

Stay tuned to Rubbings Racing for complete coverage throughout the weekend.

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About Matt Embury

Matt Embury is the Senior SportsCar Writer at Rubbings Racing and can be followed on Twitter (@MattEmbury) for the latest sports car news and opinions. A native of Mishawaka, Indiana, he has been following sports car racing for nearly 20 years.

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