(Saint Petersburg, Florida) The bay-front streets of downtown Saint Petersburg, in West Central Florida, between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, are the setting for an eleventh Verizon IndyCar Series race — Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg.
This city has hosted numerous races in various series, from SCCA Pro Racing’s Trans-Am Series, to American Le Mans Series, Champ Car, Formula Vee to Indy Lights. The course configurations have varied since racing began in the 1980s, but the course is east downtown, on the waterfront, between the Pier and Demens Landing yacht basin. In the past, the track has gone around Tropicana Field (Florida Suncoast Dome), but for the past several years to today, the track encloses Al Lang Stadium, Mahaffey Theater, Dali Museum, and uses a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.
Residents of high-rise condominium and apartment towers can look down on the course, as can pilots of many light aircraft which continue to use the airport all week.Race spectators can but brief helicopter rides to oversee the venue.
Sebastien Bourdais, pilot of the #11 KVSH Dallara-Chevy, and native of Le Mans, France, has maintained a home here for several years. For his first open-wheel race in North America, the season-opening Champ Car race in Saint Petersburg, Bourdais qualified fastest and won pole position for the start. He finished his first Grand Prix in fourth place.
This year sees Bourdais (and teammate Sebastian Saavedra) move from the defunct Dragon Racing to KVSH and again have Chevy horsepower. Perhaps Bourdais can claim another pole position on his hometown track.
Tony Kanaan was the fastest qualifier here in 2008. This season, Kanaan moves from KVSH to Chip Ganassi Racing and takes his knowledge of Chevy (Ilmor) engines with him.
Although Chip Ganassi racing won last year’s Verizon IndyCar Championship with Honda engines, and this year Honda has a new engine, with two turbochargers, the team has adopted, and adapted to, Chevrolet twin-turbo V-6 motors.
One of Kanaan’s teammates, the 2013 champion driver, Scott Dixon, has more IndyCar wins (33) than any active driver, but he hasn’t won in Saint Petersburg. In two recent years, he has clouted the left wall past Turn 8.
Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves seemed to be the king of the Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg by winning three times (2006, 2007 and 2012). Last year, due in part to Castroneves’s pit strategy and masterful driving by competitor James Hinchcliffe, ‘Hinch’ won the race and was awarded the customary commemorative surfboard in addition to his first-place trophy. Today Hinch was fastest in morning practice. One might say that that is unimportant — it’s not qualifying or racing. But Takuma Sato, second-fastest qualifier here last year, was fastest in the afternoon practice. So one may think that these racers, who’d performed well last year, and have same teams and engine brands that they had last year, have a ‘handle’ on this track and are guys to watch.
Although IndyCar veterans Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani are absent this March, at least 17 drivers in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix have raced previously in Saint Petersburg.
And a few newcomers to the Verizon IndyCar Series debut this weekend. Russian Mikhail Aleshin, Briton Jack Hawksworth, and Columbians Carlos Hurtas, Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Munoz.
Hawksworth won in his Indy Lights Series debut here last year after winning the Pro Mazda Championship race here in 2012. Hawksworth certainly knows his way around this racetrack. Look for him in the dark blue, #98 Charter television car with the super-bright yellow rookie stripes on the rear.
Montoya returns to open-wheel racing after a stint in NASCAR and Daytona Prototypes. The former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion and Formula One race winner drives for Team Penske this year in the Verizon IndyCar after being released from Chip Ganassi Racing.
Penske Racing had released Australian Ryan Briscoe at the end of the 2012 IndyCar season. Chip Ganassi Racing, for whom he had raced in 2005 (debuting in Saint Petersburg) put him in the NTT Data race car for last year’s Indy 500. He acquitted himself then, so this IndyCar season sees him resume full-time racing for Ganassi. He fills-out a four-car ‘super team’ of winners and champions at Ganassi Racing, alongside Charlie Kimball, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.
Graham Rahal, who won his first IndyCar race here in 2008 and the next year earned his first pole position here, will race in a second season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, now sporting the colors of the Army National Guard, and shepherded by engineer Bill Pappas. Undoubtedly he aims to recapture past glory in Saint Petersburg this weekend.
Ed Carpenter Racing has plugged Mike Conway into its #20 Dallara this week. Conway won an IndyCar race in Detroit and a race in nearly every series he entered last year as a sports car and formula car road- and street-course specialist. Team owner Ed Carpenter hopes Conway returns the Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka race car to Victory Lane in this season’s first three races before Carpenter slides into the cockpit for the Indy 500.
Following Saturday qualifying sessions, the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg race will begin Sunday afternoon at 3:20. Tune in to ABC television at 3:00 (Eastern). For more information, including live timing and scoring, see the IndyCar Series website, IndyCar.com.