Roger Penske was in a bullish mood after his team dominated IndyCar’s season-opener in the streets of St. Petersburg. Penske’s cars swept the front row with Will Power and Ryan Briscoe while veteran team leader Helio Castroneves came through to win easily after running away on his own in the race’s closing stages.
It was a great win for Castroneves, who failed to win a race last year for the first time in his thirteen years with Penske, and particularly satisfying for Penske, the godfather of the new 2.2-litre turbo V6 Chevrolet/Ilmor engine with which Castroneves won the race. Chevrolet engines took four of the top five places.
“This was a terrific run,” Penske said. “With the new Chevy engine, the new car and Helio at the wheel, it was a great win. We had three good cars today and it’s going to be a good season. It’s great to be back racing.”
The new turbocharged engines sound better than the old non-turbos and the new Dallara DW12 is a refreshing if awkward-looking change. Passing appeared as difficult as ever, although there were a handful of impressive moves including Castroneves outbraking Scott Dixon for the lead around the outside.
“How about that pass!” Castroneves grinned. “I tried to pass him earlier in the lap but couldn’t do it. So I said, ‘Let’s see what happens at the end of the straightaway.’ As soon as he moved he gave me an option to go on the outside and I made it stick. That was a fair race, a good race.”
Dixon was the only non-Chevrolet driver who looked capable of winning the race. He led 37 laps in one of Ganassi’s Honda-powered cars and finished second, five seconds behind Castroneves. “I don’t think we quite had the speed but we had great restarts and the strategy fell into our hands,” Dixon said. “It’s nice to finish this race. I haven’t finished this race for three or four years so we got some good points.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe finished third and fourth for Andretti Autosport with Ryan Briscoe taking fifth for Penske. Simon Pagenaud drove a good race to finish sixth in Sam Schmidt’s Honda-powered car while pole winner and early leader Will Power finished a disappointing seventh after an early fuelstop left him mired in the backfield for much of the race.
Nor did defending champion Dario Franchitti enjoy a good day, qualifying 10th and finishing 13th, the last unlapped car, after running out fuel on the way into the pits for his last stop.
Rubens Barrichello qualified 14th for his rookie IndyCar start and was classified a quiet 17th, two laps down, when he ran out of fuel at the end of the race.
Despite the new formula IndyCar’s formbook looks pretty much as usual with the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams at the front. Based on St Petersburg the new Chevrolet twin turbo V6, designed by veteran Ilmor engineer Steve Miller, appears to have a small edge over the single turbo Honda. It also appears that Penske will be the team to beat this year as Roger’s team tries to win its 13th championship and first since 2006 with Sam Hornish.