Race weekend is finally here. After a long, eventful off season, Indycar returns with a new series owner, a new advancement in safety, and some rule tweaks. Another great rookie class is waiting for their first round of competition. Several races will host expanded fields.
Two new eras begin tomorrow at 10:45 am when the NTT Indycar Series has its first practice session of the year. The 17th Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first event with Roger Penske in charge of the series. It also will be the first official session in which the aeroscreen becomes a part of Indycar safety.
The Kids Are Alright
One of the things to watch over the weekend is the young drivers. Last year’s outstanding rookie group and this year’s equally talented first year drivers make up almost a third of the grid for Sunday’s race. The rookie battle between Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay should be fun to watch all season. Alex Palou is the mystery rookie. He is quick, but is he on a team that can get him to the front? Felipe Nasr is new to Indycar, but his F1 and sports car experience should help him find speed quickly. These rookies not only have to battle the veterans, but also the second year drivers who amassed some stellar statistics in 2019. These nine drivers could be considered a class to watch by themselves.
The Aeroscreen and Pit Stops
This weekend will be the first time the aeroscreen is tested under race conditions. How will it affect the car’s handling in traffic? Will passing be easier, more difficult , or about the same? Teams need a couple of races to get a handle on the effects of the new safety attachment.
An extra crew member will be allowed over the wall this season to exclusively tend to the aeroscreen. The crew member can only work on the screen when the rear wheels of the car are off the ground. The duties are limited to tear offs and cleaning the screen. Since St. Pete is the first race with the aeroscreen, could we see some teams have pit stop issues? I’m sure the teams have practiced the new procedures, but in the heat of competition, things happen. I plan to watch pit stops closely Sunday.
The race distance has been shortened to 100 laps this year from the 110 it has been since 2013. 100 laps was the original distance beginning in 2005. I think it was probably done for television purposes. This shouldn’t change the need for three stops, but the timing of the final stop could depend on when the yellows fall. A team that pits late enough could end the race on red tires and have a speed advantage. Normally a team would want to be on blacks at the end of this race.
If the recent trend holds, Josef Newgarden will win. His victory last year made him just the third winner since 2015. Juan Pablo Montoya won the first of back to back races in St. Pete then. Sebastien Bourdais went back to back in 2017 and 2018. Newgarden was just the fourth winner of this race to go on to win the series championship. Will Power was the last driver to win both in 2014.
The race has had few caution periods for the most part in recent years. Qualifying position is the key to success. The pole winner doesn’t necessarily win, but with the exception of Bourdais’ two victories, starting near the front helps.
When we talk qualifying, we usually mean Will Power. He is the active leader in career poles and won the pole last year. Look for him to repeat as the top qualifier, but I look for Scott Dixon to finally win at this track.
It is possible the schedule may be adjusted during the weekend. I will keep you posted on any changes that occur. If you’re coming to the race, stay safe and wash your hands.