Will Power was on the pole the last four years for IndyCar’s season-opening street race in St Petersburg and has established himself as the man to beat on the Floridian airport-cum-street circuit.
This year Power was outpaced in qualifying by Takuma Sato, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay but he was soon on the move in the race, passing Kanaan for third after a dozen laps and leapfrogging Hunter-Reay during the first round of pitstops.
A few laps later Power made an excellent pass for the lead around the outside of pole winner Sato. Power outbraked Sato going into the first turn, pulled all the way beside the Japanese and forced his way inside and into the lead at the quickly following second turn. Thereafter, Power was in command, pulling away to lead by as much as 10 seconds and winning comfortably from Hunter-Reay and Hélio Castroneves.
An impressive win for the laconic Aussie was soured a little by a questionable restart two thirds of the way through the race. Power was leading at the time from team-mate Castroneves and Hunter-Reay and he barely accelerated as he led the field off the last turn toward the restart line.
Everyone closed up behind Power and in the middle of the field the accordion effect caught out Jack Hawksworth who was hit from behind and spun across the road, taking out Marco Andretti as he went. It was an unfortunate end to Hawksworth’s first IndyCar race after the young Englishman qualified an impressive eighth and ran well until his incident.
Power claimed to have been confused by IndyCar’s latest restart procedure. “They threw the green early,” Power said. “I thought we were meant to go when we got to the zone but they threw the green before we got there. I lifted a little, but I didn’t touch the brake.”
Team-mate Castroneves didn’t believe Power. “He was being very tricky,” Castroneves. “For sure he was being tricky. He was a bit of a wanker, but I couldn’t run with Will or Hunter-Reay at the end. My tyres were gone.”
St Petersburg Top 10 1 Will Power, Penske
2 Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti
3 Hélio Castroneves, Penske
4 Scott Dixon, Ganassi
5 Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Peterson
6 Tony Kanaan, Ganassi
7 Takuma Sato, Foyt
8 Justin Wilson, Coyne
9 Josef Newgarden, Fisher Hartman
10 Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi
Hunter-Reay drove a fast, consistent race to finish second after passing Castroneves on the final restart. At one point Castroneves was the only man who looked likely to challenge Power as he moved up quickly from 10th on the grid and ran second to his team-mate for 30 laps before Hunter-Reay pushed him back to third at the finish. Defending champion Scott Dixon qualified fifth and finished fourth ahead of Simon Pagenaud who drove a great race to work his way through the field from 14th on the grid.
Saturday’s qualifying was delayed three hours by heavy thunderstorms. The first two elimination rounds were run on a wet track but the track was dry for the final ‘Fast Six’ pole qualifying round.
Wet or dry, Takuma Sato was the man to beat during the two days of practice and qualifying at St Pete. He was fastest on Friday and set the pace again on Saturday, beating half of the field in the wet first round and outpacing the ‘Fast Six’ group by almost three-tenths. This was a substantial margin bearing in mind that the first 19 on Friday were covered by a mere nine-tenths. Sato led the race’s opening 32 laps but fell down the order thereafter to finish a disappointing seventh.
Juan Pablo Montoya was eliminated in the first round of qualifying, finishing the wet session ninth, only seven-tenths slower than pacesetter Sato, but it meant he started the race a lowly 18th. Juan freely admitted it’s taking him time to get up speed on his return to open-wheel cars after seven years in NASCAR. Nor had he ever seen the track in St Pete until last week.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Nevertheless, it was a disappointing return to Indycars with Roger Penske’s team as he made little progress during the race and made it to the finish a distant 15th in contrast to his two team-mates at the sharp end of the field.
IndyCar’s second round follows at Long Beach the weekend after next. Back in 1999 a youthful Montoya scored his first Indycar victory on the California streets in only his third CART race. On more familiar ground, Juan Pablo should be able to give a better account of himself, but clearly it will not be easy for him to match the pace set by his team-mates and the other top drivers in IndyCar’s deeply talented field.