Much like any street circuit, Turn 1 of Lap 1 was brutal with abundant contact. The 2008 race winner and 2009 pole setter, Graham Rahal, was punted into the grass inside Turn 1 effectively ending his drive for back-to-back victories. He was able to battle back and claim a top ten, but it certainly wasn’t the finish he was wanting. The surprise performers of the race wer Ryan Hunter-Raey and Justin Wilson. The talent of the two drivers were never in question, but with Ryan driving for Vision Racing and Justin driving for Dale Coyne Racing, their perceived chances of performing well were not high. Justin Wilson in the first practice session set the fastest time on the harder black sidewall tires, and his pace on the hards would continue to be quick all weekend long. In the end, it was Ryan Briscoe who claimed the victory with Ryan and Justin finishing out the podium. Achieving victory was the best way of redeeming himself after playing pinball with his car in Turn 9 trying to get around Jay Howard in 2008.
There are a few debut drivers coming to St. Petersburg, and some old drivers showing up in new rides. Most surprisingly is the return of Graham Rahal to the IZOD IndyCar Series driving the #67 Dollar General car for Sarah Fisher Racing. Ms. Fisher attended the Spring Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park and was less than impressed with her performance. Showing far better business sense than we’ve seen from other team owners in the past, Sarah went out and convinced Dollar General to go along with a plan to hire Graham Rahal to drive the car for the first two races of the team’s schedule, St. Petersburg and Barber. This is a fantastic move for SFR, and it should be a story that yields significant airtime for Graham, SFR, and Dollar General especially given that Graham won this race in 2008. Will he be able to repeat his 2008 performance? Well, to be honest, probably not, but I do expect him to be reasonably competitive and bring home a solid top-10 finish for the young team.
If Sao Paulo was any indication, the street races this year will be a complete toss up. …ok, perhaps not a complete toss up. I seriously doubt that we’ll see the likes of Milka anywhere near the front, but the podium steps can quite easily be occupied by drivers from just about any team, even Dreyer & Reinbold Racing! At Sao Paulo, seven different teams were represented in the top ten: Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, de Ferran Luczo Dragon Racing, Panther Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. I would not be surprised to see Justin Wilson, who showed strong in this event last year for Dale Coyne Racing, up front and challenging all race long. Tagliani also showed surprising speed at Sao Paulo and may also be up front. At Sao Paulo, in fact, it was quite possible that we could have seen eight teams in the top ten but for the first lap mayhem that took out KV Racing Technologies drivers Takuma Sato and Mario Moraes. I fully expect more of the same at St. Petersburg.
Speaking of Mario Moraes, he and Marco Andretti should be a pair to watch this weekend, especially if they end up qualifying anywhere near each other! Last year at Indianapolis, the two touched wheels and ended up in the Turn 1 wall on the openning lap. Both drivers pointed fingers at each other, and to be sure there was a little bit of blame to be had on both sides. My personal opinion is that Mario gets the lion’s share of that blame, but others may argue and argue well for the converse. This year, the two drivers again found themselves tangled up in a heap of bent metal and carbon fiber shards in Turn 1 of Lap 1. When Takuma Sato failed to brake in time for Turn 1, punting Dixon and in turn Castroneves, it caused everyone behind to check up. All except for Mario Moraes who launched his car up and onto the slowing Marco Andretti. Mario’s KVRT car ended up resting quite literally in Marco’s lap. Thankfully, neither driver was seriously injured, only shaken up a bit. However, the incident did rekindle the hard feeling the two drivers had for each other after Indianapolis last year. If they end up any where close to each other, I think we can definitely expect fireworks.
Another rivalry that may be heating up is between Alex Tagliani and Dan Wheldon. Ok, perhaps the rivalry is more one-directional. Tags was very upset with Wheldon after Dan rear-ended him at the end of the long backstretch of Sao Paulo. Wheldon claimed that he hit a bump, got airborne, and lost his braking which caused him to unintentially run into Tags. Reviewing the replay of the incident seems to confirm Wheldon’s accounting. Tags wasn’t buying it, at least not after he looked at the tape. It should make for some interesting qualifying and racing this weekend.
Tomorrow, we’ll have a wrap-up of the practice sessions and what we can expect to see during qualifications. Be sure to check out the live timing and scoring and video streams of all of Friday’s practice sessions at http://www.indycar.com/.