Photo: Chris Owens / INDYCAR

SANTOROSKI: Five Takeaways from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

This past weekend, the stars and cars of the Verizon IndyCar Series were back on the track after a lengthy off-season.  The series did not disappoint, nor did Sebastien Bourdais who took the win in his first outing with Dale Coyne Racing in the No. 18 Sonny’s Barbecue Honda entry. Lets discuss five topics coming away from the “World’s Fastest Spring Break Party.”

1 ) Instant Validation

Sebastien Bourdais began shopping for a 2017 ride very early. After three rather fruitful seasons with KVSH Racing that produced four victories, he signed with Dale Coyne back in October. Some questioned the logic here, but Bourdais saw the writing on the wall at KVSH and his suspicions were confirmed as that team closed its doors some four months later.

This was a cagey move by a veteran of many years in the sport who has seen more than his fair share of disappointment, frustrations and journeyman seasons. In 2007, Bourdais was riding the wave of his fourth consecutive championship season in ChampCar, and headed off to Formula One; the dream of many European drivers.

One and a half seasons later, he was unceremoniously dumped by Torro Rosso finding himself both humbled and unemployed. The climb back towards the top was a long and arduous process, and Bourdais was intent on solidifying his plans for 2017. Realizing that he wasn’t in line for a Penske or Ganassi ride, Bourdais went about finding the best opportunity that was realistically in his grasp, and he had a few tricks up his sleeve to close the sale.

In his discussions with Dale Coyne, Bourdais was able to convince the team to hire two of his former race engineers. Craig Hampson, who worked with Sebastien during his ChampCar years, and Oliver Boisson, formerly of KVSH, were added to the team.

On paper, at least, it looked quite promising. The Coyne team has been historically late to the table with their current season plans, but with this deal solidified before Thanksgiving, along with the signing of rookie driver, Ed Jones, as a teammate, the team was able to prepare properly.

And, it paid off in a grand fashion.

2 ) A Closer Field 

Back in 2015, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg saw the debut of the aero-kit era in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In the two seasons since that day, where we saw the newly-crafted aerodynamic bits and pieces strewn about the track, the big story has been Chevrolet domination on the street and road circuits.

IndyCar became a game of the ‘haves’ vs. the ‘have-nots’ with the Honda camp firmly entrenched as the ‘have-nots.’ Chevrolet teams, led by Penske and Ganassi, were consistently at the front with the Honda cars left begging for table scraps.

As evidenced by pre-season testing and this weekend’s racing contest, we have a much closer field for 2017. Even in street course trim, Honda has become certainly equal, and, in some aspects, superior, to Chevrolet. With a 2017 freeze on aero development for both camps, Honda’s work with tweaking their engine package has paid massive dividends.

Always one to be ahead of the curve, Chip Ganassi moved all four of his entries to Honda power this season, and he now looks like a genius in doing so. If nothing else, Honda now has strength in numbers with the Japanese manufacturer supplying thirteen cars to Chevrolet’s eight.

This does not mean that Chevrolet is prepared to lay over and play dead, with the formidable might of the Penske organization leading the bowtie brigade. What it does mean is that we will see races decided by hard driving, clean pit work, and spot-on strategy rather than a performance advantage in the equipment.

3 ) This is Why I Love IndyCar Racing

Can you imagine if you logged on to your favorite Formula One website, and read the following news item:

The smallest team on the grid, which is largely financed out of the owner’s pocket, missed out on qualifying and started dead-last on the field. 

Sounds about right..

On race day, the driver advanced through the field, aided by a caution that happened to fall his way.

Could be…

He then passed the reigning Series Champion on the track and stormed off into the distance, dominating the rest of the day and taking home the checkers.

Now, suddenly you are convinced that your F1 news site has been hacked by “The Onion”.

And, that’s the point. This would never happen in Formula One. But, this is exactly what happened on Sunday for the Verizon IndyCar Series, and its not an unusual occurrence either. Over the past several seasons, we have seen the smaller teams contend with the big dogs time and time again. Rahal, KVSH, Ed Carpenter, Schmidt-Peterson and Dale Coyne: all of these teams have played the role of giant-slayer and come out on top.

Even in NASCAR, a series that strives for parity, the big teams are dominant. Sure, occasionally a guy like Chris Buescher will pull of a win, like the fluke in Pocono last year.

But, let’s make this perfectly clear. Bourdais’ win on Sunday with Dale Coyne Racing was no fluke. It was the result of equal parts preparation, strategy and hard work with a dash of racing luck. And that, my friends, is why I love IndyCar racing.

4 ) Keep Your Eyes on Sato

I’ll be honest. I like Takuma Sato. I like his aggression, I think he is very talented, and I like the fact that his fearless nature allows him to get the maximum out of a race car.

I don’t like the fact that that very same aggression and raw speed has gotten him into trouble and given him a bad rap. I also dislike the fact that he has been labeled as a ride-buyer, because he has close ties to Honda and Panasonic. But, I get it.

Yes, those ties have been helpful in keeping him in a seat. But at the same time, with there being no shortage of Japanese drivers out there, Honda feels strongly about keeping this guy in the fold. There is a reason for that.

After seven IndyCar seasons with Rahal, KV and Foyt, Sato has one win, four podiums, five poles, and a near-miss at the Indy 500 to show for it. I had often wondered if Sato would thrive in a larger organization, and with him joining Andretti Autosport this year, we have that exact scenario.

Sato crashed hard in practice with a brake failure, but was able to qualify fifth, leading the four-car Andretti team. On race day, he drove a remarkably clean race. In the second half of the event he had worked his way up to third, and was actually laying down lap times more than a second quicker than Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud, who occupied the top two spots. He looked headed for a certain podium until a sticking air-wrench ruined his final pit stop.

He finished where he started, in fifth place. However, throughout the day, he seemed to look like a different Sato than we are used to, steering clear of trouble, yet blindingly quick. I’m interested to see how the rest of his 2017 season plays out with Andretti Autosport.

5 ) A Great Start   

The Verizon IndyCars Series entered 2017 with positive growth, bolstered by a phenomenal 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.  In a time when some other racing series’ and even some stick and ball sports, are experiencing a decline, IndyCar seems to be gaining ground.

Mind you, their piece of the pie is just a sliver by comparison, and their footprint in mainstream media is still nearly non-existent, but the signs are all positive. The marketing (or lack thereof) in IndyCar has long been a sore spot for the hardcore fans, but I am encouraged with what I am seeing.

The social media activation and presence from IndyCar is superior to what we are getting out of NASCAR or Formula One, the ‘What’s Next’ ad campaign is actually quite compelling and IndyCar has a bona-fide A-lister on their hands in the form of James Hinchcliffe, who has been seen nearly everywhere lately. Even The New York Times recently ran a rather positive article about the series.

Sponsor interest seems to have been piqued with Miller Lite set to apply their logo to Josef Newgarden’s Penske for the Month of May, and Andretti Autosport partnering with Disney in fan zone activities.

In the midst of this positive news, the season-opener produces an underdog story that makes for great press. All good stuff.

Now, I do realize that the wounds of the split are not fully healed, and there still remains a significant segment of highly-knowledgeable race fans that refuse to accept the current series. Those minds may never change, but I do see many steps in the right direction to attract new fans, and I do see leadership in the series with that goal in mind.

It’s encouraging, that’s for sure.


Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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,