Photo: Walter G. Arce, Sr./ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

The nearly six-month wait for NTT IndyCar Series action will finally come to an end this weekend as 26 daring drivers are ready to hit the revered streets of St. Petersburg for the 17th renewal of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg March 15.

It’s the first season of Roger Penske’s empire taking control of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but Sunday will also mark the end of an era for one nation.

Brazil, a country that’s won five Indy car championships with Gil de Ferran (2000-01 CART), Cristiano da Matta (2002 CART), Emerson Fittipaldi (1989 CART) and Tony Kanaan (2004 IRL), won’t have a full-time Indy car driver for the first time since 1984. That’s because Kanaan will only be running the ovals for his final INDYCAR season and his former AJ Foyt Racing teammate Matheus Leist doesn’t have a ride.

However, ex-Formula One driver and 2018 IMSA champion Felipe Nasr will fill the void. After having a superb test at Sebring International Raceway with Carlin, where Nasr was literally the fastest driver in one of the sessions, he will be making his INDYCAR debut Sunday.

Despite being a one-off at the moment, the streak of having a Brazilian on an Indy car grid will continue as the last time South America’s most populated country was absent in American Open Wheel Racing was the 1999 Indy Racing League finale at Texas Motor Speedway.

The race itself also underwent changes as it’ll be 100 laps for the first time since 2012, down from 10 laps. Regardless of the race distance, the 1.8-mile street circuit always brings a lot of twist and turns, including recent breakthrough performances by rookies as shown by Robert Wickens (2018) and Felix Rosenqvist (2019).

This year, three full-time rookies will look to have strong debuts. Those three are reigning Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew, last year’s Indy Lights runner-up finisher Rinus VeeKay and the relatively unknown Alex Palou, who did impress some people during testing.

Perhaps the most important headline in the season opener will be the official race debut of the much talked about Aeroscreen.

Drivers have had their share of comments about the Aeroscreen after running laps throughout the off-season at tracks such as Sebring, Circuit of the Americas, Indianapolis and Richmond.

Five-time INDYCAR champion Scott Dixon said cooling and handling were his biggest takeaways, but his comments rose some concerns especially when he drove in different weather conditions.

“There was a lot of kind of emphasis on the cooling situation. Some people have brought up some issues with that. They’ve been able to test at some of those circuits,” Dixon said. “Even when we did the short oval test at Richmond, cooling seemed to be a little bit of an issue. COTA was extremely cold. That was going to be a non-issue there. The Sebring testing, which typically can be a little hot, you don’t get a whole lot of time to rest at that test track.

“The adjustments have been made. The cooling at least was very sufficient for us. Handling-wise I think the CG is a little higher, the car is heavier, definitely one of the areas we’ve really got to try and turn around because we keep adding weight to this car, which especially for accidents is not a good thing.

“It’s the same for everybody as far as the handling issues. We haven’t seen too much of a difference for us. Springs and dampers and things like that. But every team is unique on that side of things, too.”

Sunday will be the ultimate test when the 26 competitors will take the green flag. Once the 100-lap race is over and we crown a winner, we’ll definitely have a true feel how the new safety innovation will be received and perhaps set the tone for the 2020 campaign.

By the Numbers

What: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 1 of 17

Where: Streets of St. Petersburg – St. Petersburg, Florida (Opened: 1985, first INDYCAR event was 2003)

When: Sunday, March 15

TV/Radio: NBCSN, 3:00 pm ET / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 211)

Track Size: 1.8 mile street circuit

Race Length: 100 laps, 180 miles

2019 Race Winner: Josef Newgarden – No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started second, 60 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Jordan King – No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet (60.0476 seconds, 107.914 mph – March 10, 2018)

From the Driver’s Seat

“Similar to last year we have a similar approach every season of trying to prepare as best as possible,” Josef Newgarden on his approach going into 2020 as both the defending series champion and race winner at St. Petersburg. “We do a nice analysis together from the previous year. Really all of us, Simon, Will, me, we sat down with the team in the off-season. I think as the drivers, we try to get together and push in a common direction.

“We all feel pretty similar about where our weaknesses were, strengths were. We try and improve on that, just make ourselves better in all areas for the next season. We have the same goals. We need to try to win the Indianapolis 500 as a team, same thing with the drivers championship. It will go in that order. Yeah, prep is the same. A little bit more pressure I guess to try to do it again, but the preparation doesn’t change.”

Last Time at St. Petersburg

Aside from the technical difficulties NBC Sports dealt with last March, the first race NTT Data took over as the official series title of the IndyCar Series certainly didn’t disappoint. Thanks to Newgarden and Rosenqvist, who’ve led a combined total of 91-of-110 laps.

Early on, a pair of INDYCAR champions had car reliability issues as four-time champion and two-time St. Pete winner Sebastien Bourdais, and 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay were the first retirees of the race. Their setbacks proved to be the tale of their seasons as neither visited victory lane in 2019.

Rosenqvist, the man who carried the NTT Data colors, appeared to have the car to beat as neither Newgarden and his Team Penske teammate Will Power were unable to match the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s tremendous pace under green.

That’s where race strategy became Penske’s blessing as both were able to beat Rosenqvist with Power pitting a lap earlier than Rosenqvist, just narrowly avoided a disastrous collision to take the lead.

Newgarden would be the latest among the three to pit and with Power struggling to get quicker laps and sneaking by lapped traffic, notably Marco Andretti, the Tennessee racer gained control and went on to capture his 11th career INDYCAR victory.

“We were literally talking about (tire strategy) right before the race. We were trying to figure out, should we go used (tires) or new Firestone reds (alternate tires) and we made the call at the last minute to stay with used (tires). We’ll have that advantage if we need it and we used it,” Newgarden on his first St. Petersburg triumph. “It just worked out perfectly. I just can’t thank Chevy enough for all their support and what they put in this weekend. We had an incredible engine, we had everything we needed in fuel mileage and reliability and all the power.

“I’m telling you, we really figured things out on Saturday and it was a rocket ship. I’m so thankful to our group. We have the best of the best working at Team Penske.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, March 13

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (10:45 am to 11:30 am – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (3:00 pm to 3:45 pm – NBC Sports Gold)

Saturday, March 14

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 3 (10:45 am to 11:30 pm – NBC Sports Gold)
  • Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires Race No. 1 (1:30 pm – 50 laps, 90 miles – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (2:40 pm to 3:55 pm – NBC Sports Gold (Live)/NBCSN (10:00 pm))

Sunday, March 15

  • Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires Race No. 2 (12:45 pm – 55 laps, 99 miles – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (3:00 pm – 100 laps, 180 miles – NBCSN)

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.