Santoroski: Five takeaways from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

By Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – The Verizon IndyCar Series held its season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg seeing Juan Pablo Montoya take victory in the Penske Chevrolet. The win was Montoya’s second consecutive win at the track, and the eighth overall for Team Penske at the venue. Allow me to share some observations from the weekend.

1)Aleshin is for real

Almost lost in the shuffle of the weekend’s headlines was the solid performance from Schmidt-Peterson driver, Mikhail Aleshin. The Russian driver qualified his Honda-powered machine an inauspicious seventeenth and quietly ran his race in a near-flawless manner and finished fifth.

He found himself bottled up behind a gaggle of stopped cars when Carloz Munoz’s failed move on Graham Rahal caused a nine car pile-up. Aleshin was one of the very few who was able to keep the car from stalling, find reverse, and get on his way.

Aleshin joined the Series in 2014, and quickly proved his worth as more than a rich pay driver. Earning one 2014 podium along the way, he was forced to sit out 2015 due to recovering from injuries sustained at Fontana, and economic issues in Russia.

Rejoining in 2016, Alsehin missed much of the pre-season testing dealing with work Visa issues. The fact that he came into St. Petersburg with very little test time makes his drive today that much more impressive, and will be one to keep an eye on all season long.

2) The old dog never runs out of new tricks

Penske Racing’s Simon Pagenaud led from the green and pulled a healthy lead on the field. It certainly seemed for a time that it would be a Pagenaud rout as he pulled away from the field.  Although the Frenchman looked much improved from last year, it was his much more experienced teammate, Montoya, who essentially took Pagenaud to school and snatched the win.

“Yeah, Montoya is an old dog.” said Pagenaud, ‘He found a little good trick on me.  I made one tiny little mistake and it lost me the race.”

In the second half of the race, with the field shuffled due to differing pit strategies, Montoya managed to put the pressure on his young teammate, passing him on lap 55.

From there, Montoya was able to hold back the rest of the field despite suffering through rear brake problems and issues with the steering column.

Sometimes, I believe that Montoya’s raw skill as a wheelman is underappreciated. Whereas many drivers strive to hit their marks, and do every lap in identical fashion, Montoya has a unique ability to change his line several times and adjust his driving style to changing track conditions or deteriorating handling in the car.

Far from ever being a technical driver, Montoya is almost a throwback to a bygone era as he muscles the car around the track, and still manages to pull away.

Pagenaud still has a lot to learn.

3) A rock solid event

2016 marks the 12th visit of the Verizon IndyCar Series to St. Petersburg. The track has become a favorite stop of the teams and drivers and is approaching crown jewel status. With attendance estimates for the combined weekend approaching 160,000 and Firestone renewing its title sponsorship for another three years, St. Pete is one of the most solid events on the calendar.

The beautiful waterfront racetrack has become the traditional season-opener, given an early Spring date that makes for perfect Florida weather. The date coincides with many college spring breaks in the southeast, and this contributes to the street party atmosphere. We should expect the Firestone Grand Prix to continue to grow and produce fantastic racing for many years to come.

4) IndyCar not taking any chances with head injuries 

Team Penske driver, Will Power qualified on pole but was forced to sit out of Sunday’s race when it was determined that he had suffered a concussion during a crash in Friday’s practice.

There were no apparent symptoms on Friday, but after Saturday’s session, Power began to complain of dizziness, nausea and a headache. While some speculated that he had come down with the flu, IndyCar’s medical staff ordered another evaluation.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that is generally associated with a blow to the head, but can also be caused if the head is shaken violently, as in Power’s case. Medical professionals are continuously learning and understanding the lasting effects of head trauma as concussions have become a serious topic of conversation in sports.

The days of, “You just got your bell rung,  get back in the game,” are long over, and IndyCar’s concussion protocol program is on the cutting edge.

One only needs to speak with Dario Franchitti about the two weeks of his life that he cannot remember to realize how serious this issue is.

5)  Uncharacteristic day for Ganassi

It’s extremely rare to watch an IndyCar race with four Chip Ganassi cars entered, and not one of them be a factor on race day. Dixon was decent in qualifying, taking a spot behind the four Penske cars. He flirted with the front of the field on occasion in the early going, but ended up a mediocre seventh. Teammates Kanaan, Kimball, and Chilton finished 9th, 10th and 17th.

Three cars in the top ten doesn’t seem like a horrible day, but this is Chip Ganassi Racing, the winner of seven IndyCar Championships and four CART titles. The bar is just a bit higher.

Dixon had a long pit stop when he ran into overheating issues in the middle segment of the race. The radiators were thoroughly cleaned of debris during the 27 second stop. This, in and of itself, is not highly unusual as street races are prone to debris on the course.

When we saw the same procedure repeated for Kanaan’s car, Kimball’s car, and then twice on Chilton’s car it raises an eyebrow.

Because there are different aerodynamic configurations available to the teams, I’m wondering if the Ganassi cars tried something different with the front wings or diffusers that the other Chevrolet teams did not.  It is possible that they were funneling more air, and therefore more garbage into the radiators causing the overheating.

Either way, don’t expect Ganassi down for long.

Image: Chris Jones/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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