|Photo Credit: Chris Jones|
St. Petersburg, Florida once again serves as the launching pad for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2016 campaign. The 1.8-mile street course in the vibrant tourist hot spot provided the first opportunity for open wheel drivers in the North American-based series to compete with a clean slate.
The first race of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series would be contested by 22 drivers (18 returning veterans and 4 rookies to the Series) for a 110-lap main event on Sunday. Two drivers for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Canada’s James Hinchcliffe and Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin made competitive returns to the cockpit for a full season. Hinchcliffe’s 2015 season came to an end at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following a severe crash in practice for the Indy 500. Aleshin’s suffered injuries in a practice crash in the 2014 race at Auto Club Speedway that took the driver out of the car for a year. Mikhail Aleshin was back in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car for IndyCar’s last 2015 race at Sonoma.
While the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg returned the return of two drivers from long-standing injuries, the race started without the presence of the pole-winning driver Will Power. Having suffered an on-track impact on Friday, Power initially cleared IndyCar’s medical examination. Allowing him to qualify his #12 Verizon Dallara-Chevrolet on the pole, Will Power would later report symptoms of a mild concussion. Unable to run the season opening race, Oriol Servia was recruited by the team as a replacement driver of the #12 machine that started in the rear of the racing grid.
|Photo Credit: Chris Owens|
Lacking their pole-winning driver in the season opener, Team Penske still maintained a strong field of entrants for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Promoted to the pole by Power’s withdrawal, Penske’s #22 Hewlett Packard car driven by Simon Pagenaud capitalized right from the start of the race. Holding onto the lead for the initial 48 laps, Pagenaud’s early advantage came with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves in hot pursuit.
Deeper in the field at the start of street race, James Hinchcliffe’s celebrated return was disrupted when contact made on the first lap with another vehicle. Losing a lap right at the start of the 110-lap main event, James Hinchcliffe and his #5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team would gain the lap back when the race’s first caution fell on lap 46. A collision between the #19 of Luca Flippi and the #27 of Marco Andretti slowed the field.
By the time the caution period concluded, Simon Pagenaud gave up the lead to IndyCar rookie driver Conor Daly as the field retook the green. The restart would be short-lived as a turn 4 incident involving Carlos Munoz and Graham Rahal caused a massive jam-up causing many drivers to stop within the section with some requiring their cars to be restarted after stalling. Part of the accident that would bring out the race’s second and final caution was James Hinchcliffe. With minor damage and a cut tire, Hinchcliffe’s #5 car would return to the team pit stall and lose the lap it had regained. Unable to regain the lap back a second time, James Hinchcliffe’s first race back in IndyCar since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crash resulted in a 19th place finish. Rahal finished a few positions ahead of Hinchcliffe crossing the line in 16th place. Carlos Munoz received a stop and go penalty for avoidable contact but was still able to collect an 8th place finish.
When the race resumed on lap 63, Color Daly surrendered the lead to the #2 Verizon-sponsored Team Penske machine of Juan-Pablo Montoya. Excluding a 3-lap period where Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay led, Montoya would spend the rest of the race in the top spot. Winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for a second year in a row, Juan-Pablo Montoya’s margin of victory was 2.33 seconds over teammate Simon Pagenaud. Roger Penske’s race team celebrated the 1-2 finish as a fine way to kick-off the team’s 50th anniversary. Team Penske’s opportunity of clinching the top-3 places was dashed in the late laps as Helio Castroneves was overtaken by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Montoya joins teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves as the only multiple time winners of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
|Photo Credit: Chris Jones|
Behind the 4th place car of Helio Castroneves, Mikhail Aleshin posted a strong 5th place run. The AJ Foyt Racing’s driver Takuma Sato was another driver picking up a respectable result following the IndyCar season opener with 6th at the line.
The next round for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season is major open wheel racing's return to the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval set for April 2nd.