There are other riveting stories, perhaps the best being Scott McLaughlin’s full-time commitment to the series after the Kiwi conquered Australia’s premier V8 Supercar tin-top championship for three years in succession. The 27-year-old raced for Penske Down Under and now The Captain has transferred him to one of the best seats in US single-seater racing. No pressure… although the signs are McLaughlin can more than handle it. He was 11th in St Pete and 14th in Barber. He’ll get there.
In contrast, you have to wonder about seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson’s brave switch to IndyCars at 45, driving for Ganassi in a limited programme on the road and street courses. It was a little sad to see the legend out-braking himself at the final turn, nerfing a tyre barrier then needing a tow from a safety vehicle before he could rejoin. The two-time Daytona 500 winner then spun on his own at the fast Turn 3, triggering a safety car.
He made it to the finish in P22 as the final classified runner, five laps down. Johnson has bitten off more than he can chew given the lack of testing that blights racing drivers in this modern era – but I can’t help but respect him for putting his neck on the block. Whatever happens, his reputation as a cast-iron hero of US motor sport is intact.
And what of Romain Grosjean? Credit where it’s due, the Frenchman has shown true grit to come back from that horror crash in Bahrain to finish 10th on his IndyCar debut at Barber and 13th at St Pete. In Florida, he hit the wall three times – in one lap! – and according to the commentators was ready to call it a day. But with encouragement from his Dale Coyne team, he plugged away and was rewarded with another finish. Probably best he’s not racing on the speedways though…
The other thing that struck me watching St Pete was how uncomplicated IndyCar keeps it. On tyres, Firestone offers a black-walled ‘prime’ and a red-walled ‘option’, and each driver must use both in the race. It’s enough to add some strategic intrigue, Newgarden chasing Herta home on softer reds as the leader banked on longer lasting grip from a set of blacks, but it’s straightforward and relatively easy to keep track of.
Then there’s the push-to-pass boost. Like DRS in F1 and Formula E’s Attack Mode and Fan Boost, IndyCar is not averse to some artificial aid to spice up the racing – but here the system is far less intrusive, more of a test of skill and again, simple to understand. Each driver has an allocation of 150 seconds of a 60bhp boost to use during the race, in bursts of up to 15 seconds.
They can use it to attack or defend, but if they get heavy on the button in the early going they’ll be vulnerable late on. For now, push-to-pass is just for the road and street courses, but in 2023 when a new hybrid engine formula is due the plan is for a system to be used on the ovals too. As long as it’s safe – a significant caveat for any development on the speedways – why not?
The race at St Pete was a genuine blast to the finish. Overtaking was tight and limited mostly to Turn 1, but you felt you were watching something you could believe in. Contrast that to the debacle that was Formula E’s first venture on to a permanent race track in Valencia and the comparison couldn’t be more painful. I’ve tried with Formula E, I really have… but when the FIA and series organisers talk up the skill in ‘energy management’ as a racing asset we should savour you know a series is in trouble. And president Monsieur Todt believes the media is at fault for the continuing apathy Formula E faces from a sceptical public…
What’s the biggest fear for most car buyers when it comes to considering an EV (aside from their relatively astronomical cost)? It’s still range anxiety. And playing on this fear is the premise Formula E’s racing action is centred around, that drivers might run out of spark before the flag? Well that really showcases the strengths of this rapidly evolving technology, doesn’t it? I’d love to be a fly on the wall in manufacturer boardrooms this week.
OK, there’s that blood pressure rising to the boil again. Deep breaths, head between the knees… remember St Pete, remember St Pete. Modern motor racing doesn’t have to tie itself in knots to make its point and be good. Just ask The Captain.