Solid race all around but few surprises in St. Pete

The first race of the newly-minted NTT IndyCar Series season is now in the books, and looking at the results by team, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s 2009 rather than 2019.  Nonetheless, the maiden race on this season’s calendar provided plenty of action and exciting racing.

To the surprise of exactly NO ONE, Team Penske took two of the top three position’s in Sunday 110-lap affair though perhaps some might have assumed Will Power would find his way to the top rung of the podium after securing his eighth pole at the St. Petersburg airport track during a disjointed qualifying session on Saturday.  Instead, Josef Newgarden was helped by a gutsy strategy call by Penske Prez Tim Cindric, leap-frogging past Power and Scott Dixon when his team elected to run a stint in the middle of the race on sticker Firestone Firehawk alternate tires, putting faith that Newgarden could make the quicker but less-durable tires last an entire 30-lap segment.  Josef did just as he needed to do and was never seriously challenged throughout the last half of the race.

The rest of the top seven positions, behind Newgarden, by team were as follows: Ganassi, Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, Schmidt Petersen, Penske.  If anyone thought the apple cart was ready to be overturned, Sunday’s results didn’t suggest that to be so.

Race control rebounds

I will have more on my thoughts about Race Control during Saturday’s qualifying session in a post later this week, but suffice is to say I don’t believe they handled the situations in the best possible manner on Saturday.  (To be totally fair, I think my issues were more with the rules than the application of the rules, which points more to the operations folks rather than the race stewards themselves. But I’ll address that all later.)  On Sunday, however, I felt Race Control did a fine job throughout the day letting the race play out without any unnecessary and undue interference.

Early in the race, Sebastian Bourdais had his Honda engine expire while heading down the backstretch towards Turn 10.  Bourdais was able to pull into the run-off area at the end of the straightaway and out of harm’s way.  However, in year’s past, we have often seen INDYCAR throw a quick full-course caution and bunch the field together.  In so doing, the running order has often been thrown into disarray as several drivers had already pitted.  In fact, anticipating such a yellow, Roger Penske called Will Power to the pits very late and, as we saw on the NBCSN coverage, nearly caused Power to end his day early while driving through the grass to reach the pit entrance.  As it turned out, no yellow flag ensued, and Power was behind the eight ball the rest of the day after his early stop.

I think the call was absolutely correct to not go full-course caution to retrieve Bourdais’ car, which was easily pushed behind the wall and out of any danger.  The situation probably caught Penske by surprise as INDYCAR has often thrown the yellow in those situations, but the decision not to do so should be applauded.  Race Director Kyle Novak has made it a point to keep the course green as much as possible, and Sunday’s decision appears to have been a result of that focus.

On the contrary, a decision later in the race to not throw a caution to remove a tarp/banner that had become dislodged from the Turn 2 wall and was laying on the track raised some eyebrows, especially when a portion of said banner got caught on the front wing and the undertray of James Hinchcliffe’s car, undoubtedly affecting his car’s performance for the rest of the race.  I understand why Race Control didn’t throw a yellow, believing the banner was out of the racing line and not an eminent danger to the drivers.  However, that banner certainly wasn’t tied down to the track in any way, and with the amount of air moved by these race cars, it was only a matter of time before the banner drifted back toward the racing line.  With very limited sight lines, using a local yellow to retrieve the banner would have put corner workers in a very dangerous situation.  As such, a very short full-course caution would have been warranted.  That isn’t to say it absolutely should have been thrown, and the decision not to do so is justifiable.  Quite honestly, I could argue that one either way.  Obviously it didn’t work out well for Hinch, but I don’t find the decision to stay green to be egregiously errant.

That being said, I would still like to see INDYCAR focus on reducing the length of yellow-flag periods overall.  Sunday’s race was a good example of how cautions should be used.  In the case of Bourdais’ blown engine, the yellow flag was out for only three laps – just long enough to remove Seb’s car, inspect the track to ensure no fluids were laid down and the track was in safe condition, and then release the field back to green.

The second and final yellow flag of the day was when ECR’s Ed Jones crashed in Turn 9 and Matheus Leist couldn’t avoid clipping his rear tire, ending both of their days.  The yellow flag remained out for 8 laps in that situation.  On a 1.8-mile track, laps go fairly quickly, and while I’d like to see those 8 laps reduced, if possible, that isn’t a completely unreasonable amount of time to get the track back to safe conditions.

However, my bigger problem is with cautions on ovals.  I would like to see the caution period used primary (and quite honestly solely) for cleaning up the track and making it safe for racing to resume.  Extending cautions for pit stops and ensuring the running order is correct as a result of those pit stops often causes cautions to drag on WAY too long.  (I’m realizing now this is probably a soapbox for another post so I’ll cut this short.)  When it comes to cautions, I want a crash or debris to be cleaned up and the track to go immediately green.  If that only take one or two laps and some car gets stuck in the pits trying to take advantage of the yellow, that’s their problem.  More on this at a later date…

Suffice is to say, I thought Race Control did an excellent job on Sunday.  No unnecessary cautions.  No unnecessarily long cautions.  No questionable cars for blocking or avoidable contact.  All in all, kudos to Kyle Novak and his squad!

Rosenqvist impresses

Since his abbreviated stint in Indy Lights in 2016, we have been hearing of Chip Ganassi singing praises of Felix Rosenqvist and that Ganassi wanted to put him into his #10 car for the IndyCar Series.  Rosenqvist made his NTT IndyCar Series debut this week and impressed on every level.

I was admittedly a bit skeptical Rosenqvist would live up to the hype, but this weekend showed that he has the chops to take the fight right to the biggest names in the Series.  Granted, the young Swede wasn’t put into any seriously hazardous situations (other than maybe Will Power nearly hip checking him while exiting pit lane), but Rosenqvist showed he wasn’t going to back down to anyone.  After the lap 23 restart, Rosenqvist made a sensational pass for the lead on Will Power, something not many rookies have ever been able to say.  Throughout the remainder of the race, he never set a foot wrong and finished a very solid fourth.  It was a great solid effort in his first IndyCar race, and he more than backed up the hype surrounding his arrival.

Herta also impresses

If not for a blatant rookie mistake in qualifying, 18-year old Colton Herta would have proceeded into the Firestone Fast 6, a sensational effort for both Herta and the fledgling Harding-Steinbrenner Racing Team.  As it was, he started a still-respectable 11th.  In Sunday’s race, Herta not only brought the car home in one piece, he did so managing an eighth-place finish behind only those names you would expect to be at the top of the box score.

Near the end of the race, when I noticed Herta was running eighth, I thought to myself, “that’s a disappointing result.”  Then I realized how crazy of a statement that is.  This kid had run only one IndyCar race and was running Sunday with a team that is known to have financial difficulties.  While they have a technical association with Andretti Autosport, it still isn’t realistic for them to be battling for a Top-10 every week, let alone in the first race of the season.  Yet there I was somehow just expecting that to be the case.  Considering the only drivers in front of Herta were from the Big Three and Hinchcliffe, an eight-place finish was very impressive for the second-generation driver.

Maybe it was the impressive results Herta posted at Spring Training at COTA or the fact that he should have qualified in the top three rows on Saturday.  Whatever it was, it really says something about the effort that team and that driver have put forth that somehow I feel they underperformed on Sunday by “only” finishing eighth.  Instead, we should be applauding their effort.  I won’t be at all surprised to see a Top 5 in their future and some podiums by year end.  This kid is really going places.

NBC technical issues

Ok, let’s get this out of the way.  Those of us who watched from home (and who were actually able to see TV coverage) know there was a technical glitch during the middle of the race, and we lost probably 6-8 laps of coverage.  I didn’t enjoy the static shot of the race track or the audio that sounded like Leigh Diffey was talking into a pillow.  But let’s be honest, folks, it really wasn’t the end of the world.

As expected, Twitter was aflame within minutes of the glitch about how terrible this was, how NBCSN had the entire off season to work out these bugs, how better presentation is expected if we are to shell out $50 per year for NBC Gold (how those two are related is beyond me), blah blah blah.  Some people really need to get over themselves and see the bigger picture.  (Disclosure – I did tweet about the technical hiccup myself but only to confirm it was an NBCSN issue and not something on my end as I tend to have odd happenings with my Comcast service.)

Remember, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg course did not even exist two months ago. Three weeks from now, there will be no remnants of the facility either.  Everything is temporary and built from scratch.  There are no permanent facilities, including the infrastructure that is place at a permanent racing facility to handle data and communication lines.  Given the dozens of miles of wires and cables that have to be strung from command posts to each remote corner of the track and that are exposed to the tens of thousands of spectators at track on a given weekend, it is not unheard of that a connection at some point gets dropped.  Quite honestly, I’m shocked it doesn’t happen more often.

Yes, it was annoying, and no, I’m not suggesting that having dead air is acceptable.  But the reality is we didn’t miss any meaningful action in the race, and anything substantial we would have missed could have been easily replayed once the feed was resumed.  To suggest NBC completely dropped the ball and was ill-prepared for the race is just ridiculous.

All-in-all, I thought NBC Sports did a fantastic job with their coverage this weekend.  The few times I pulled up the practice sessions via the NBC Gold website, the stream was smooth and crystal clear.  I had no problems accessing the site to see archived footage.  My only problem all weekend was trying to sign into a second device and not getting my password to be accepted.  After a call to NBC Gold Customer Service, it was determined I had actually put a typo in my own email address when I signed up.  They corrected the error (my error) right away and I was off and running.  I didn’t even have to wait and dial through a seemingly endless stream of touch-tone options.  I can’t ask for anything more than that.

As for the race-day production, I thought it was excellent. All the on-air talent were well prepared, and other than a couple misidentified cars and historic tidbit, the crewed was accurate and articulate.  I thought the pairing on Jon Beekhus and Robin Miller in the “Peacock Pitbox” was fantastic.  Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell continue to feed and play well off each other with a full dose of credibility.  Leigh Diffey conveyed the excitement of the event without being over-the-top and grating.  My only minor quibble was that it appeared the shot on a couple occasions cut away from a developing pass with cars heading into Turn 4.  Otherwise, I’ve got no complaints about the weekend’s TV coverage.  Good job, NBC!

Edit (3:47 pm CDT, 3/11/2019): Forbes.com is reporting the outage during the middle of the telecast was actually 13 minutes in length and was caused by “a power supply failure to one of IMSP’s uplinks due to two amplifiers overheating.”  NBC Sports said the failure affected their broadcast but was not an issue they could control.  Still, the overnight rating of 0.38 is up 36% from NBCSN’s average spring Sunday IndyCar rating of 0.28 in 2018.

Not the start Ed Jones needed

Following the 2017 Indianapolis 500, I faced the wrath of many when I explained my decision to vote Fernando Alonso for Rookie of the Year instead of then-Dale Coyne rookie Ed Jones.  Regardless of my seemingly well laid-out argument for Alonso, in which I fully admitted Jones would have been a worthy Co-Rookie of the Year had that been an option – people were falling over themselves to sing the praises of the young Dubaite (yes I did have to look up that word).  After an impressive start to the 2017 season, however, Jones came back to earth with only two more top 10 finishes the rest of the season and nine finishes of 13th or worse.

Nonetheless, Jones’s rookie season was good enough to earn him a coveted season in the #10 Chip Ganassi ride.  Unfortunately for Jones, the season was mostly a waste being highlighted by a pair of third-place finishes at Long Beach and Detroit.  By the end of the season, Jones was out of the ride (though there is strong conjecture that he was mostly seen as a one-year driver in that ride anyway).

Last October came word that Jones would drive for Ed Carpenter Racing in 2019, filling the road and street course portion of the schedule in the #20 opposite of Carpenter himself running on the ovals.  On the surface, this looked like a good position for Jones as he had shown well on the twisties but generally produced lackluster results on the ovals (said rookie outing at IMS being the exception).

Sadly, Sunday’s race ended against the Turn 9 wall after an unforced error saw Jones clipping the inside wall and shooting straight toward the outside barrier.  We’ve seen the accident before (seems like Ryan Briscoe had an identical accident many years ago while driving for Team Penske), so such an error is not unheard of.  However, given the lack of sponsors on the ECR Chevrolet, Jones’s first and last thought during every race needs to be ensuring the car comes home in one piece.

To add insult to injury, Jones apparently suffered a slight fracture to his left hand.  Given the speed at which the accident unfolded and the direct hit to the left front of the car, it isn’t surprising to hear of the hand injury.  Luckily Jones is not expected to miss track time when the Series heads to COTA in two weeks.

Overall impressions

Overall, I think the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg looked like most races we’ve seen at the St. Pete track.  There was some decent racing action early on in the race, but once the field got strung out, the balance of the race was fairly processional.  Nonetheless, I still found it an enjoyable race to watch and thought everyone showed well of themselves.  Most importantly, the vast majority of the field – sans the #20 car described above – survived the weekend relatively unscathed (there was minor damage to the #4 car of Matheus Leist but it didn’t appear to be significant) and teams can focus on fine-tuning their cars for COTA rather than rebuilding.

I’ll leave you with my quick-hitting lists of good performances and aspects of the weekend along with my disappointments.

Pleasantries

  • Safe weekend with little carnage.
  • Colton Herta and HSR backed up their impressive Spring Training.
  • Felix Rosenqvist showed why he comes with such acclaim.
  • Newgarden looks strong for run at second championship.
  • Scott Dixon escaped St. Pete with a good result and won’t start 2019 behind the 8 ball.
  • Santino Ferrucci kept it clean all weekend and was a 3rd rookie in the Top 10.
  • If a team would and should ever be satisfied with 18th, it will be Dragon Speed. A great effort for a car that was in bits three weeks ago and a team that turned its first laps in an Indy car just earlier in the week at Sebring.
  • Race control was a complete non-factor on Sunday.
  • I loved the 1:30 pm EDT start.  Races that don’t start until 3 or 4:00 just kill an entire Sunday.
  • Jim Cornelison.

Disappointments

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay simply can’t catch a break
  • With Bourdais and Hunter-Reay both losing their engines, could Honda be looking at another reliability problem as we saw in 2017?
  • AJ Foyt Racing duo of Kanaan and Leist were out to lunch all weekend. Was really hoping to see better to kick off their second season together.
  • Chevrolet only three spots in the Top 10, all Penske drivers. ECR and Foyt desperately need to step up their games.
  • Has Carlin really made any advances in 2019?  The only team running at the end behind Chilton and Kimball was Dragon Speed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s