What does the start of INDYCAR season smell like? Sea salt, frying arepas, and suntan lotion. We’re in St. Petersburg for the 2019 Season opener and if you have a pulse – you’re excited. It has been a crazy off-season with all sorts of announcements, tea spilled, and hope for the future of the season. Put that aside, cars are on track and that is all that matters!
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg wasn’t always an INDYCAR race. From 1985-1990 the event was a Sports Car Club of America race. There were a few years of hiatus before becoming a Trans-Am race for 1996 and 1997. A few more years of hiatus followed before CART raced there in 2003. We all know what happened after that race (and if not you can listen to a great episode HERE and read a write up about it HERE).
The race became an IRL/INDYCAR event in 2005 and holds the distinction of being IRL’s first non-oval event. Since 2009, the streets of St. Pete have served as the season opener, and what a location! The race is on a street circuit, one of four on the 2019 schedule, that utilizes a lot of waterfront streets. A unique feature of this race is the use of airport runways. The drivers hit Turn 14 and drive down a runway before the strong right hand turn into Turn 1. It has been the site of many exciting moments both in the race and in practice and qualifications. If you have the chance to sit in the Turn 1 stands for practice or qualifications – you should. It’s where some of my most favorite pictures from last year were taken.
I’m going to pause before jumping into the 2018 race to mention the support series results from 2018. If you’re not watching the support series, you’re missing out (a great primer is HERE). Each Road to Indy series runs two different races over the weekend. For USF2000, Kyle Kirkwood won Race 1 and Alexandre Baron won Race 2. For Pro Mazda, now Indy Pro 2000, Rinus VeeKay swept the weekend. For IndyLights Patricio O’Ward won Race 1 and Santiago Urrutia won Race 2.
The 2018 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg didn’t only serve as the season opener, it was the first time the universal areo-kit debuted. The rumors going into the season indicated the car was now a handful and it was hard to drive. Interestingly though, the on-track pass record was smashed halfway through the race. The race ended with a three hundred and sixty-six passes and eleven lead changes. It was a race where the Rookies decided to say “hello” and “we’re here for you”. Jordan King set the track record during practice and the Fast Six featured three Rookies (King, Matheius Leist, and Robert Wickens). Oh and a Rookie won the pole, nearly won the race and led most laps – Robert Wickens. If not for an unfortunate racing incident on the very last lap, he probably would have won. The race ended with Sebastian Bourdais winning (his second win in a row at the track), Graham Rahal in second, and Alexander Rossi in third.
For 2019, I am expecting wild things to happen. This is a race where everyone comes together for the first time, everyone races for the first time (in a while), and there seems to be no rules. It would be interesting to see Sebastian Bourdais win and get the three-peat. Of course, I want my driver to win, but I’m always here for a Rookie coming in on the first race and going “don’t count us out”.
We spent the hour leading up to the race saying that Lap 1 Turn 1 was going to turn into a shootout. Consequences for a good portion of the field. We were wrong (I don’t have the ego to not admit when I make a call and it’s wrong – it happens a lot). I’m writing this part on the 6:10a flight from Tampa to Chicago. While I don’t have access to social media currently, people will be complaining. People always complain. Fans complain. There wasn’t enough passing. Why did they not call yellows? Do I disagree with Race Control? Yes. I disagree a lot. Kyle Novak, head of race control for INDYCAR, is a fellow attorney. Perhaps there’s something that drives me to disagree. That being said, it was a great weekend.
Rookies and Floridians came on strong at practices. Florida Native, and engine abuser, Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the top 3 of each of the three practice sessions. Except for the first session, he held the fastest time. Felix Rosenqvist (I won’t type his nickname, but stay tuned for the Race Report podcast dropping Wednesday – you can subscribe HERE) came in first practice session and nabbed the top spot! As I had been calling. That first practice session also had fellow Swede, Marcus Ericsson in the top 3. Rookies seem to do very well at St. Petersburg. Colton Herta also popped up, nabbing the fourth quickest spot in Practice Session 2.
The third practice session as a bit of a free for all. Zach Veach at one point did a reverse Tokyo Drift into a barrier. Ben Hanley, who holds the title of Rookie with the worst weekend, seemed to find the wall twice in that practice session. Max Chilton found a runoff. Ericsson just gave a kiss to a wall. Surprising to me was that Bourdais had an unsecured wiggle off the airport turn.
Qualifications turned into a disagreement about rules and what happens when they red flag in quals and no one gets the laps. Round 1 Group 1 seemed to let everyone know that this was going to be a wild weekend. Marco Andretti stalled. I think he actually didn’t have enough fuel. Causing a red flag. He lost his two quickest laps and ate up time. The group got started back up again, Santino Ferrucci hit a barrier. Another red flag, more time out. There’s a guarantee of 5 laps in road/street course qualifications. No one got more than four laps during the first group. In fact, as they waited for time, there was a lot of back and forth over radios as to what was going to happen. James Hinchcliffe sat in second and came over the radio to double check that he didn’t have to go back out. Round 1 Group 2 also had some kerfluffles. Both Scott Dixon had Takuma Sato had issues, Sato causing a yellow and Dixon spinning and saving. More rules! If a driver, during qualifications, interferes with another driver’s attempt, they forfeit their fastest two laps and do not advance. Sato was deemed to interfere, Dixon was deemed not to interfere. There was drama at the end of this session as the two drivers both stayed in their cars. Helmets on. Until Race Control made the call.
Round 2 was safe and harmless. The Fast Six ended with rows of Teammates. Will Power captured the first pole of the season (and his fifty-fifth), and his teammate Josef Newgarden started next to him in P2. Chip Ganassi Racing took Row 2 with Felix Rosenqvist starting P3 and his championship teammate Scott Dixon starting P4. Then it was the All Andretti row with RHR in P5 and Rossi in P6.
They have brought back morning warm-ups. I know one person who works with a driver who is very happy about this. I have no real opinion on morning practice. It’s the drivers shaking the dust off the cars.
The race started off, and there was no incident Lap 1 Turn 1 as quite a few people had discussed. But within 2-5 laps, Felix Rosenqvist decided to pass Josef Newgarden and challenge Will Power. Rosenqvist is here to tell the series that it’s not fluke, he’s here to get shit done. Rosenqvist made a great challenge on Will Power in Turn 1, a pass and a game of chicken. The Rookie would go on to lead thirty-one laps out of the race. I do not regret for a moment calling him for my rookie this year and picking him for my fantasy team.
Team Penske had a good race. Will Power started on the pole. He ultimately finished third. Josef Newgarden started P2 and won the race. Simon Pagenaud, who started P13, ended the race in P7. The Captain is pleased no doubt.
The race started with twenty-four cars. That right there is an amazing statistic and speaks towards the growth of the sport. The race ended with eighteen cars still running, and eleven on the lead lap. Florida was not happy with her local drivers. On Lap 11, Sebastian Bourdais just had his car decide to stop. He, masterfully, pulled the car off into a runoff. The next Floridian in the tracks crosshairs was RHR, Lap 19 and his engine blew. Large trails of smoke covered the front stretch of the track. Then on Lap 29, Ed Jones stuffed it into a wall. It was as if he forgot to turn, or the car decided not to turn. He crunched the car and has suffered an injury to his arm. Matheus Leist then clipped Ed’s car and got into the wall a bit farther. Two other cars had weird mechanical issues. Takuma Sato suffered a gearbox failure around Lap 75, and Marcus Ericsson had issues with his water system and retired on Lap 54.
How do you get a nurse and attorney to rip off their headphones? Tell a diabetic driver their glucose monitor isn’t working. Then tell said driver to let you know “how they’re feeling”. Apparently, Kimball’s glucose readout decided to quit working. That’s a nightmare. Veach came on indicating his the engine sounded weird. I’m pleased to report that he finished the race, pulling off a P14. I’m also more in love with his livery now that I see it in person. Black with blue and yellow highlights is great!
Graham Rahal as a driver makes me want to hate him as a person. The man cannot help but whine about things. He can hate and block me on social media after that statement. Nothing is ever his fault. Everything is someone else’s fault. He bitches over in-car radio. He came over towards the end and said “we don’t have the car. We don’t have the pace. Let’s just stop”. Be an Ameri-CAN, not an Ameri-Can’t Rahal.
But other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln? The Race was still fantastically fast and great to watch!
I imagine the among of teeth gnashing and hand-wringing after the qualifications kerfluffle is at an all-time high. So how would you fix it? The easy answer is of course to extend the session. Extending anything and everything comes with issues. (Read about the Iowa race and ending on a yellow HERE) Qualifications have the same issues. Teams are stretching fuel to keep the car light. Television is giving a limited window. Sometimes we have to deal with the hand we’re dealt.
There is also gnashing about the blue flag issue with Marco and Josef Newgarden. Marco was holding up Newgarden. He was. That is undebatable. We saw blue flags thrown up at him on the course. Then his team came over the radio to say he didn’t have to give up the position. You can imagine the words that came out of this lawyer’s mouth. So…turns out there are two types of blue flag. An information or a declarative flag. Both use the same blue flag with orange stripe. If one is waved on the course – it’s informational and the driver is being *informed* that a faster car is approaching. If it’s waved from the Start/Finish that means move over you’re too slow.
All in all, this was a great way to kick off St. Petersburg. We had a fantastic time at the autograph session, where a huge crowd gathered. It was also International’s Women’s Day so we got Cara Adams up on stage and talked to her about tires (you can hear our two prior interviews with Cara HERE and HERE). We spent times with the Pain Tour, our very great track friends/family from Pennsylvania and hit up the best German restaurant in town. We also ran a 5k and I may or may not have puked near the track during the run.
Robert Wickens was at the race. He looks healthy. He had a genuine smile on his face. When we indicated that during the autograph session, the genuine love that poured out from fans was beautiful.
My ass being at that race!