Event Preview: The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

By Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer

The time has nearly arrived for the Verizon IndyCar Series to drop the green flag on their 2016 season. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place the weekend of March 11-13, 2016.

The scenic track, located on the harbor of Tampa Bay, has been on the IndyCar calendar since 2005 opening the season each year since 2011. St. Petersburg has hosted professional racing on various street courses on-and-off since 1987, when the city first hosted the SCCA Trans-Am Series.

The current version of the course, first constructed for the CART/ChampCar Series in 2003, features 14 turns laid out over 1.8 miles on a combination of asphalt and concrete surfaces.The course uses much of the length of Bay Shore Drive as it winds in front of the Tampa Bay Yacht Club, circles around beautiful Pioneer Park, and utilizes the runway at Albert Whitted Airport as its front straight.

The Penske Team has taken victory seven times in the history of the event, including last season’s race. Juan Pablo Montoya returns with Penske as the defending race Champion. Other former St. Pete winners in this year’s field include Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and James Hinchcliffe.

Hinchcliffe will be returning to the Series after sitting out the bulk of 2015 recovering from injuries sustained during a practice crash at Indianapolis.

In addition to the usual suspects on the grid, the 2016 Grand Prix will see three drivers making their first start in the Series, including two former Formula One drivers.

Alexander Rossi will debut with the Andretti/Herta Team while Max Chilton will pilot a Chip Ganassi car. Joining them will be Indy Lights standout, Spencer Pigot, in a second Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan car.

Also battling for Rookie of the Year honors will be Conor Daly, who ran a part-time schedule in 2015 subbing for the aforementioned James Hinchcliffe.

Both Chevrolet and Honda have spent the long off-season diligently updating their aero packages, and working on engine development. Early indications from testing are that Honda has closed the gap somewhat, but Chevrolet still seems to have a small advantage.

Of course, testing laps, practice laps and even qualifying are no substitute for having the entire field on course in actual race conditions. Then, and only then, will we have a true idea of how the two cars stack up against one another.

Predicting a winner in the competitive IndyCar series is never an easy task, but if you forced me to make a pick, I would lean towards one of the Penske cars. The team led testing in Phoenix, and they are coming off of the sting of losing the Championship to Ganassi in the closing moments of the 2015 season.

That being said, picking a Penske car is no easy task either. All four of their drivers excel on this type of circuit. I’ll flip a coin and say Helio Castroneves as a sentimental favorite.

The popular Brazilian driver has been overshadowed by his teammates in recent seasons, but I believe his competitive fire is burning as brightly as ever.

I wouldn’t count out a strong performance from Josef Newgarden either. The young driver from Tennessee is coming off of a breakthrough 2015 season that saw him take two wins.

Other drivers to keep an eye on include Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais. And, it goes without saying that four-time series Champion, Scott Dixon, is a threat to win at every race, on every track, on any weekend.

The St. Pete weekend will be jam-packed with racing for all three days. Support races include all three of the series in the Mazda Road to Indy program, as well as the Pirelli World Challenge and Stadium Super Trucks.

Tickets are still available for race weekend at www.gpstpete.com/

The race will be broadcast live on ABC-TV beginning at 12:30 pm EST on March 13th. Practice, qualifying, and support events can be found streaming on the IndyCar YouTube channel, or at www.indycar.com.

Image: Chris Owens/INDYCAR

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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