Five things we learned at IndyCar's season opener from St. Petersburg
Simona de Silvestro turned heads with her fourth-place finish after starting 17th
Later starting zones and side-by-side restarts created havoc for the drivers
Danica Patrick was penalized for avoidable contact on the last lap to cap a bad day
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This year's IndyCar Series season was predicted to be action-packed with a deep field of drivers, some new combinations and some new NASCAR-style rules designed to add more drama.
And it didn't take long for those rules changes to dramatically impact Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with a six-car pileup in the first turn at the start of the race taking out some of the biggest names in the series.
In the end, Dario Franchitti showed why he is a three-time Series champion, earning his 27th career victory -- tying him with Johnny Rutherford for 10th on the all-time list. But it was a driver from Switzerland who stole the show with an impressive fourth-place finish and is ready to establish herself as IndyCar's fast female -- and her name is not Danica Patrick.
So, here are the "Five Things We Learned" from the IndyCar Series opener at St. Petersburg ...
1. Simona de Silvestro's performance was extraordinary. The young driver is from a country where auto racing is banned. So the native of Thun, Switzerland, had to move to Italy early in her career just to compete. After rising through the lower formulas, she landed a ride at HVM Racing last season and showed tremendous potential driving for one of the smallest IndyCar teams. She started 21st and finished ninth at Toronto, started seventh (but finished 22nd) at Edmonton and started 10th and finished eighth at Mid-Ohio.
Team owner Keith Wiggins saw tremendous potential in de Silvestro and, while bigger teams tried to lure her away from his small operation, he held firm and was able to retain her.
On Sunday, we saw why he was so high on de Silvestro. She started 17th, but ascended to second on a Lap 13 restart. She drove behind the leader, Franchitti, for much of the first portion of the race before her final pit stop shuffled her back to fourth behind Franchitti, Will Power and Tony Kanaan. With Franchitti far ahead of Power in the closing laps of the race, the real show was de Silvestro hounding Kanaan for third over the final four laps. She closed to within mere feet of the rear of Kanaan's race car, but was unable to gain the position.
Her performance was as good as a victory and gave IndyCar another talented female driver capable of winning a race. Danica Patrick, the highest-profile driver in the Series, finished 12th and had to replace the front wing on her car so many times, it's a wonder the team didn't have to call Buffalo Wild Wings for extras.
"I would have never thought we would have finished like we did," de Silvestro said on pit lane after climbing out of the car. "The way the weekend started, we struggled quite a bit. It was the first time working with my new engineer. We started working together and it clicked in the morning warm-up so I'm looking forward to the rest of the season. I really liked the double-file restarts because I was able to gain positions every time. It's pretty unbelievable doing what we did."
Her end-of-race battle with Kanaan will serve her well in the future.
"I was really pushing there at the end," de Silvestro said. "I was running fourth and didn't want to try anything crazy but I tried at the end to try to get third place but I wasn't quite there. Tony was struggling at the end quite a bit and I was really pushing. I almost got inside of him in Turn 1. It was a big risk to take but I think it was the right choice. It's a lot of fun because on the street courses as a driver you can really push yourself and find the limit. The double-file restart gives you an opportunity to pass and it made it quite a spectacle. I got into Will Power a little bit earlier in the race trying to avoid him but he finished second so it didn't hurt.
"It's the first time really competing like that against Tony Kanaan. It's pretty crazy for me because I've been watching him since I was growing up and to be right there racing him now is pretty cool."
Kanaan laid his head on the table and pounded his first when de Silvestro referred to his age in a joking matter but this was an instance of IndyCar's future merging with the present and past of the sport in Kanaan.
"I used every single strength and experience I had to hold her off," Kanaan said. "Obviously, I never blocked her. I never did anything. I just really drove it as hard as I could and I made a mistake with three laps to go, she pulled alongside me, couldn't make the pass and then at that point, I was hoping for a no-yellow (caution at the end) because I was going to be a sitting duck and I would lose third position. Simona blew my doors off on a restart before and I knew she was strong.
"I used everything I could to hold her off."
HVM Racing doesn't have the resources and manpower of the dominant teams, such as Team Penske and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. At least on the street and road courses of the schedule, de Silvestro can be a contender but admittedly has to learn the high-speed art of oval racing.
"We are one of the smallest teams here but we have great backing," de Silvestro said. "We changed engineers on Monday so I had a lot of sound effects when I tried to describe the car. It's really weird when I explain the car, so you have to listen in.
"Last year, we struggled toward the end to try to put sponsorship together but Keith Wiggins (team owner) worked hard and he has a great team of people on the team. They are like a big family. It's a pretty small team but we get along really well. I'm really lucky; not many drivers have this opportunity."
Wiggins has been making a lot happen with a little throughout his racing career. He joined Bettenhausen Motorsports in mid-2000 as managing director and part owner and purchased the team following Bettenhausen's death in a plane crash in 2001.
As a team owner in Champ Car, Wiggins's cars were able to win six races with Mario Dominguez, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Nelson Philippe and Robert Doornbos.
A seventh win could come someday with de Silvestro.
"It wasn't a win, but we had a strong weekend and this is why we do this," Wiggins said. "You think you have it together, then you put a deal together. We gave her a good package when it mattered, didn't make a turn wrong and was able to stay out of all the crap the other cars got into. I felt a lot of pull in the paddock over recent events to see what we have come through.
"People really feel she is a driver -- she is the real deal. And whether you are a woman or a man you have to respect her ability to drive a race car."
2. Later starting zones and side-by-side restarts created havoc for the drivers. After getting support from Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard pushed for a series of rules changes in the offseason to add more drama to this form of racing. That included a slower speed and a later starting zone for starts and restarts in a race. Also, IndyCar adopted the NASCAR style of double-file restarts. Originally, that rule was going to begin at the first oval race of the season -- the Indianapolis 500 -- but IndyCar went ahead and adopted it for the full season.
In the weeks leading up to the season-opener, drivers predicted there would be plenty of contact. In just the race's first turn, Marco Andretti's car went airborne and landed upside-down after it was tagged by Helio Castroneves [who admitted he braked too late at the start of the race] in a six-car pileup.
The drivers involved: Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe, Castroneves, Andretti, Oriol Servia and Mike Conway.
There were four caution periods in the first 15 laps, with several potential winners such as Ryan Hunter-Reay suffering damage during the side-by-side restarts later.
"It's just the double-file stuff on the street circuits. It doesn't take a genius to figure this isn't going to work," Hunter-Reay said. "It's different in NASCAR when they are going into a corner that move slowly, accelerate slowly and brake slowly. These cars all going into a temporary street circuit corner it's whoever bulldozes whoever else out of the way. Our suspension broke. When I was racing Will Power, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, it was fine. But when you get cleaned out by some of these other guys -- who knows?
"I had a great day going. I was running fourth. I think this decision has to be revisited. We need that so bad, especially on a day like today."
The problem wasn't so much the double-file restarts as it was the slower speeds and later starting zone heading to the green flag. In the past, the restart speed was about 100 miles per hour and the acceleration zone was about 500 feet from the flag stand. Sunday, the speed was about 70 mph and 100 feet from the flag stand.
The cars were simply too bunched up heading into the first turn funnel [a hard right-hand turn] to make that work.
"The problem is they have so many cars bunched in such a tight place," Will Power said. "It's like zero room for error and we can't bump like NASCAR. I think this is just going to continue every race and then it's going to be people getting knocked out every single restart. Maybe they should do it single file but start later -- then you would have more passing. But as it is, there is no passing. It's just that everyone is in the road and if you are going to get by someone, someone is going to get knocked out and that is what happens.
"I'm just glad there were no restarts at the end with the marbles [little bits of rubber on the track]."
Kanaan believes just because a rule is used in NASCAR doesn't mean it will work with fenderless, winged IndyCars.
"I think we are maybe trying to copy something that the other guys do but we don't have bumpers and we can't bump each other," Kanaan said. "We have 15 cars within one second of each other and you are not going to tell me we are not going to pass on the restarts."
Kanaan predicts it will get worse at other street races such as Long Beach and Toronto, where the first corner is far too narrow to allow this type of side-by-side restart.
"I don't like it and I think it's taking a lot of people out," Kanaan said. "If you are lucky you make it and if you are not, then you're done."
3. It didn't take long for Tony Kanaan to prove he's back. There is little doubt Tony Kanaan is one of the most talented drivers in this sport. He won the 2004 Series title for team owner Michael Andretti and has won 15 races in CART and IndyCar since 1998. But after losing his ride at Andretti Autosport at the end of last season, he struck a deal with fellow Brazilian Gil de Ferran in December. Kanaan lost that ride at the end of February because neither side could come up with the proper funding for the season.
It wasn't until Monday that Kanaan landed a ride for the 2011 season and that was with team owner Jimmy Vasser at KV Racing. Six days later, Kanaan proved that he really is a modern day whiz as he drove to an impressive third-place finish.
Practice? Who needs practice when you are as good as Tony Kanaan?
"Not bad for an old guy," Kanaan joked. "It's not even my first week on the job. I have never worked with all of the mechanics and I still don't know all the names on the crew but I'm just glad to be here. It was a long, long road. It was probably the longest five months in my life. I had a job and lost a job twice without even driving a race car. So I guess it was pretty interesting."
Kanaan benefited from his two teammates -- E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato. But if Kanaan is this good right out of the box, imagine how good he will be once he gets to know his crew?
"It was just a great day," Vasser said. "In one week's time to put a car on the track with a bunch of people he never knew and put it on the podium it makes me feel like I've found a good driver at Goodwill."
4. Dario Franchitti showed why he's a three-time IndyCar champion. Franchitti, also two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, led 94 of the 100 laps and recorded an easy win by 7.1612 seconds over Will Power, who was IndyCar's king in 2010 with the Mario Andretti Street and Road course championship.
"We aren't going to win this championship by sitting back," Franchitti said. "There are still a lot of races to go and we are taking it one at a time."
Last year, Franchitti passed Power in points in the final race of the season. It only took him one race to do that in 2011.
"Dario beat me again," Power said.
5. It wasn't Danica's day. A fitting end to Danica Patrick's day: she was Sunday's only penalized driver [avoidable contact with rookie J.R. Hildebrand on the final lap]. She was moved back one position and credited with a 12th-place finish.
This is supposed to be the form of racing in which Patrick excels, with the NASCAR Nationwide Series being where she is on a steep learning curve. And, while the first race of the season on a street course is not the best way to judge what Patrick will do in IndyCar this year, she had a very poor weekend, qualifying 19th on Saturday. With top drivers Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe finishing behind her because they were involved in early-race crashes, Patrick still didn't do better than 12th.
"Overall, I feel pretty fortunate to have made it to the end," Patrick said. "The beginning was pretty intense but we were able to stay out of the major trouble. I think we are going to Barber (Motorsports Park, site of the next IndyCar Series race in two weeks) with a better idea on what we need to have the result we want."
This is a key season for Patrick as her contracts expire at both Andretti Autosport in IndyCar and JR Motorsports in NASCAR. While IndyCar is supposed to be her forte, an off season in IndyCar could be what makes her decide to join NASCAR full-time.
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