NTT INDYCAR Series
Hot Tip: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
The normal starting grid forecast that has seen Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing control the Firestone Fast Six was altered Saturday, during qualifying for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Despite never having competed on the Verizon IndyCar Series to date, except one practice day at Road America last summer, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports pilot Robert Wickens secured the first Verizon P1 Award of 2018, setting the stage for what could be an unpredictable start on Sunday. Two other rookies are featured on the second row with A.J. Foyt Racing newcomer Matheus Leist joined by Ed Carpenter Racing road ringer Jordan King.
The remainder of the top half-dozen are veterans, with Team Penske road racing ace Will Power taking the outside spot on the front line and former Andretti Autosport teammates Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay rolling off from the third row.
How the newcomers handle the first corner of the 110-lap battle could set the tone for not only the season opener, but for the next several rounds on the road to the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
For the top half of the field, a couple of issues step up beyond turn one. First, can Will Power avoid the mechanical maladies that ruined his dominant run a year ago? There is no question that the Australian has the easiest path to the winner’s circle, if able to make a solid start that avoids the contact that is infamous in previous St. Petersburg IndyCar race history. Also in his favor, is the fact that his expected championship rivals, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud all fared poorly in Saturday qualifying and may have to alter their race plans to get among the frontrunners at the finish.
Regarding the newcomers, handling the first pit stop sequence will be key. While pace should not be a concern; Wickens, Leist, and King all come from road course learning backgrounds, getting down to a required speed limit, hitting the marks, and not stalling the engine are new factors that are rarely dealt with in the lower rungs of worldwide open-wheel minor league action. Any major gaffe here could ruin a race result, just ask Spencer Pigot, whose St. Pete Grand Prix was silenced after he damaged his suspension leaving his box a year ago.
As for those further down the list, the biggest threats could be Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal. Both have routinely turned a bleak outlook race morning, into a major score here. The second-generation American pulled the flip-flop trick in 2008, while it was the Frenchman’s turn last year. It also would not be unexpected for Newgarden, Pagenaud, or even Ed Jones to go off-sequence early, as all on paper seem to have more in their hands than qualifying would suggest.
Regardless of how the first segment of the race goes, whether clean and green, or marred by full course cautions, Will Power is the overwhelming choice. Of course, that was the option last year and well, you get the point.
FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury
The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularOpenWheel.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.