Sunshine and Cars (St. Pete 2021 Preview)

While the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is historically the kick-off race to the season, for two years now I get to discuss championship points going into this race. Following last week’s race in Barber Chip Ganassi Racing is sitting pretty in the championship points. Sure, we are only one race in and at this point – anything can happen. If Barber told us anything is that something *will* happen. Who among us had Josef Newgarden spinning out on the first lap? That was Barber Lap 1, St. Pete Lap 1 is just as crazy. So keep your eyes open! 

The St. Pete GP 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. 

James Hinchcliffe in the 26 for Andretti Autosport at the 2020 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Remembering the 2020 St. Pete Grand Prix (the one in October not the one attempted in March)

Whatever it was, qualifications turned into a kerfuffle. This was the penalty handed down to Marco Andretti and Felix Rosenqvist both forfeited their two fastest laps and were not allowed to move forward in Round 1 Group 1. In Round 1 Group 2, Max Chilton caused a yellow and lost his best lap. Due to Chilton’s yellow Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay failed to reduce their speed and also lost their best lap. When lap times and math get involved, things get complicated. At one point VeeKay was not fast enough to advance, so Conor was elevated to Round 2. Problem was that Conor didn’t have anything, so we had a delay as they got his car and helmet. And then they realized they did math wrong and Rinus was back in. In Round 2, Simon Pagenaud caused a red flag. Per the rule he lost his two fastest times and was not allowed to advance into the next group.

Even after qualifications weird luck and issues kept happening. Within the first ten laps he got passed by Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta. He also overshot Turn 10, foreshadowing of his next mistake. Power gave the race its first caution on Lap 35 when he overshot Turn 4. Ending his race. That then started the bad luck for Ed Carpenter Racing. On the restart, Rinus VeeKay was passed quickly by both Josef Newgarden and Jack Harvey. But within laps, another Full Course Yellow came out. Then, bizarrely while keeping heat in his tires, Conor Daly smacked the wall. The ended up having to change the tires, the front wing, and some work on the back as well. On the Lap 46 restart, Scott McLauglin got right into Rinus VeeKay. The cars were tangled up, but Rinus stayed in his car and was able to get back on the track after having a full front wing change. 

How I reacted to Rossi crashing out of the 2020 Firestone GP of St, Pete

Of course it was 2020 so bad luck followed Alexander Rossi and the rest of Andretti Autosport. Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta quickly passed Will Power. Shortly after so did James Hinchcliffe giving the team the top three positions. Herta decided to play a came of spin and save, doing the move at least twice. The first time he only lost two positions. His spin at the end of the race dropped him approximately thirteen positions. He finished the race in eleventh. Marco Andretti was having a heck of a race; he gave us some great racing against Graham Rahal. Then on a restart he got spun by Sato who ran right into right front tire, ending his race. It was under that yellow where James Hinchcliffe spun (what’s up with the veterans spinning under yellows!) and ran right into Jack Harvey. Hinch’s race was over and Harvey ended up as the last running car in the race. Finally, and man this is quite 2020…Alexander Rossi. He had a fantastic start. He did lead the most laps in the race. However, he got into the marbles (rubber pieces flung from the tires) in Turn 3 and smacked right into Turn 4 on Lap 71.

The race ended with Josef Newgarden as the winner, but Scott Dixon was the ultimate champion. It’s already ironic when the race winner of the Season Finale gets overshadowed. It must hurt a bit more if you were in the championship fight. The most peak 2020 moment? The pace car running out of fuel and a sudden threat of rain.

Some Thoughts before the 2021 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (that will be held in spring darnit!)

I think I perennially say that Sebastian Bourdais is a good pick for this race. If he doesn’t have weird engine issues, he’s been dominate here. This, among all of the tracks on the schedule, is his ‘home track’. He had a great streak of finishes leading up to 2019. As far as the sophomore crop, a majority of them have experience at this track from the Road to Indy Series. It’s hard to pick amongst them, but I’ve got a gut feeling about Rinus VeeKay. I can’t fully explain why, but I think given the unfortunate finish he suffered at this track last year, he’s going to out to – smartly – prove himself. 

As we will have back-to-back street courses, none of the oval lineup changes for this race. Romain Grosjean gave a solid performance in qualifications in Barber, ending up just outside fo the Firestone Fast Six, and he netted a solid top 10 performance. I look for him to move up a spot of two in the race, if not qualifying. Scott McLaughlin is technically a rookie, but he ran this race last year, so he should have some familiarity with the track. As far as Jimmie Johnson goes, well apparently his goal for the first few races is not to end up last. With St. Pete giving us incredible first lap action, that’s probably a goal he can make. While he did suffer a spin in Barber, it was by himself. I don’t see him as being the cause of any incidents. 

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