By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The season opener of the NTT IndyCar Series saw a lot of action that resulted in six retirements, notably in the first 30 laps that took out some of the heavy favorites in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in Florida.
One of the major storylines heading into the 110-lap contest was the struggles of two-time St. Pete winner Sebastien Bourdais, who was eyeing on a three-peat at the 1.8-mile circuit. His bid for a three-peat was already facing multiple roadblocks. Not only he had a frustrating set of practice sessions, he started 19th after being one of five drivers who didn’t make a timed lap.
Once the race got underway, Bourdais made little ground on the field, just running outside the top-15. That would last as Bourdais’ agonizing weekend ended with the heaviest of blows, a mechanical failure on the 12th lap.
Going into Turn 9 straightaway, a small fire on the back end of his No. 18 SealMaster Honda forced him to park his car at the runoff in Dan Wheldon Way, signaling the end of his race and ended up 24th, his first last-place result since Gateway last August.
“It wasn’t the weekend the No.18 SealMaster Honda team was looking for. A tough deal,” Bourdais on his weekend. “No qualifying yesterday with a car that seemed to be pretty quick, then unfortunately, we had a non-team related issue with the car which took us out of the race. Really a shame, but we’ll regroup, keep working and see what we can do next race.”
The race would remain green until Lap 20 when another race favorite bit the dust and happened to also run a Honda powered engine. Coming to the start/finish line, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s goal of avoiding rotten luck, such as crashes and mechanical issues that’s plagued many title aspiring seasons in the past, were dashed as his No. 28 DHL Honda went kaboom, bringing out the first full course caution of the afternoon.
Prior to his engine expiring, Hunter-Reay was running in seventh before getting out of his car just shy of entering Turn 1. Last season, Hunter-Reay had three retirements that kept him out of the championship hunt and will now have to hope that mulligan doesn’t reoccur.
While Honda had reliability issues, Hunter-Reay remained confident about their engines, but an early retirement left him frustrated.
“We just gradually lost power today,” said Hunter-Reay. “Honda has been doing such a great job for us. They give us tremendous powerplants and great drivability, so we’ll have to go back and look at it.
“We definitely had a lot of positives this weekend for the DHL team. It’s unfortunate. Somehow, we have to avoid the bad luck and we’ll make a run for the championship. This one definitely stings. It’s going to put us behind the eight ball in points. We’ll figure it out.
“I have a great team behind me, and we’ll keep soldiering on. I have to thank all the fans for coming out and supporting us though – the NTT IndyCar Series has the best fans.”
After the cleanup, the race resumed on Lap 24, but that stint of green flag action would quickly be halted two laps later when a two-car crash took place in at the entrance of Turn 9.
Running under a different pit strategy, Ed Carpenter Racing driver Ed Jones was running in ninth until going a bit wide and slammed the inside barriers. The cars behind him got through with some barely avoiding the wounded No. 20 Chevrolet, including Zach Veach, but the car behind Veach wasn’t so fortunate.
Matheus Leist’s No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet clipped Jones, destroying the left rear wheel suspension and too had his afternoon cut short. With that retirement, it’s the second straight year he’s failed to finish the season opener. Ironically, also as a result of an accident early in the race.
Neither driver were hurt, but they’re also dealing with a deep hole in their quest of having a turnaround season.
“Unfortunately, not the ideal race that we wanted. I ended up hitting the No. 20 car on the restart, so another bad race here in St. Pete, but it is what it is,” Leist on his retirement. “Sometimes it’s just not your day and you’ve got to keep working hard for the next one. I’m looking forward to the next (race) at COTA (Circuit of The Americas) now.”
As for Jones, he felt that he had to take risks to prove his pace after having a weekend filled of shortcomings. That particular risk was battling James Hinchcliffe for position.
“It’s been a frustrating weekend so far. We had the pace to be at the front in qualifying. Then today, the guys gave me a great race car. We had to take risks to get forward quickly,” said Jones. “I made it from 16th to ninth, then I just tried to get a run on Hinchcliffe unfortunately I clipped the inside wall in Turn 9 and that was it. I’m sorry for the team; they did great work and they deserved a better result.”
The two-car incident was the final full course caution, but there would be two more retirements later in the race, involving two former Formula One drivers from two different decades.
The first was Marcus Ericsson, who pitted to check on water pressure. When the issue proved to be terminal, the No. 7 ARROW Honda team put his car behind the wall and the only rookie to retire from St. Pete after completing 54 laps.
Beforehand, Ericsson was on the cusp of having a top-10 afternoon, something he was aiming for after starting deep in the field.
“It was a great race up until the end,” said Ericsson. “We started quite far back, farther back than what we think we should’ve started. It was going well and we were well inside the top 10 when we had the problem (mechanical issue).
“Looking at what’s happening now, we were definitely going for a top eight in the Arrow car. It was just a shame because it was a really great race up until then.”
The sixth and finale retiree would be Takmua Sato, who’s No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda faced gearbox issues. Sato finished 19th after completing 75 laps and it marked his second straight retirement dating back to the finale at Sonoma last September.
“We were steadily moving up the field and it was looking good for us,” Sato on his race. “We weren’t the most competitive, but we were definitely moving up the field, which was positive. In the end, I am obviously disappointed not to finish. The boys worked so hard for us, it’s a shame not to finish it.”
Those six will now head into the next round at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas for the inaugural INDYCAR Classic March 24, hoping to avoid a deeper deficit into their title hopes.