Not the thrill-a-minute race we were promised but it was better than some make out. That’s not entirely surprising.
A Calm Race
IndyCar suffers from a longer off-season than most so the first race invariably gets hyped up quite a lot. If that race isn’t all-action, all the time, then a lot of fans get very disappointed and make unfair comments. IndyCar fans are a particularly vocal lot and quite a few rush to judgement.
Think it through logically though. This was the first race with a brand-new car, first we didn’t know how it would race and second there is a shortage of spares. Add in that this is a street race with bumps and concrete walls. Add in a smaller fuel cell than previous years, with new engines, leading to teams frantically trying to work the fuel numbers (and many failed). Add in the new Race Control with a different grasp on what they will accept and not accept, particularly on starts and on defending or blocking the drivers will have to get used to over a period of several races. Add in also, and not insignificantly, this was the first race since the drivers’ friend was killed alongside them, and it took place at his home.
Realistically the drivers were always going to take it easy at this one. I’d like to think they will be more likely to push the envelope at a track with a bigger margin for error, and the engineers will have the fuel mileage cracked now they have a race under their belts. We may still have to put up with fuel saving, however. When the fuel cell issue is resolved and they can be restored to normal size, I hope they have the option of making them slightly larger than before so the drivers can be allowed to actually push and race, we’ve seen too many fuel mileage races in the last few years and some drivers were saving throughout the whole St. Pete race. This can’t continue. Part of the fun of strategy races is the differential between tortoise and hare, it isn’t fun when everybody is made to be the tortoise.
All of this said, it was not entirely a processional race. The problem was the TV coverage giving us the sense that it was. This is not a new phenomenon, ESPN have done this countless times in the past. The other partner, Versus (now NBC Sports), is better but not always by a great margin. It isn’t as bad as some of the dire F1 races of the 1990s to early 2000s (the pre-FOM days), but it isn’t ideal.
Many passes were brought to us in replay, which is fine, you can’t be live everywhere. I understood why we missed the pass for the lead – we’d been watching Dixon and Helio driving around not passing each other for a while so it made sense to cut to a big group of cars where there might be passing. Just the luck of the TV crew that the pass happened just after they cut away! Now they could’ve had a spotter looking at the front straight to see if Helio was setting up a pass so they could cut back to it, and it seemed this didn’t happen, but we saw it soon after.
I’m actually more annoyed at the many other passes we missed entirely. People (including Pippa Mann) were tweeting live from the grandstands and were assurring us there was overtaking going on at turn 1 which wasn’t being picked up on TV or the big screens at the track. If we’d seen that racing people may have walked away from watching this race with a good impression not an indifferent one.
Given the levels of strategy involved in IndyCar racing, I would’ve appreciated a better explanation of what was going on. In a Safety Car period we were told the top 6 had not pitted and most others had, fine, what I didn’t pick up on at all was that the leading cars were on a 2-stop strategy and the rest a 3-stopper. I just assumed they’d decided to make their next stop later. Call me lazy, I’m probably very lazy at this, but from the UK F1 coverage (when we had refuelling in F1) I am used to being told how many stops people are planning to make based on what lap they come in. Yes, I know this is hard to do. I also think it would help more people understand what’s going on. To that end it was nice to see the ‘laps since pit’ column appear on live timing this year (thanks to @99forever I think it was for pointing that out) – I’d like a ‘total pit visits’ column too, please!
I watched the race on Sky and their pre-race featured a nice mix of their own interviews alongside ABC pieces, it was nicely done. They didn’t include ABC’s Wheldon tribute which received glowing praise on Twitter. While I’m unsure if that’s a good decision or not, I am certainly glad Sky chose not to air the crash again as that wasn’t needed at all, I wasn’t interested in seeing it again.
One of ABC’s good prerace pieces we did see was the comparison between 2011 and 2012 cars, that was a good explanation. I don’t know if they covered the differences between engines, I didn’t see anything on my coverage. Mid-race Sky lost the feed to Florida briefly but that’s the danger of satellite connections I suppose. It was very good to have at least a part of the race on the new Sky Sports F1 HD channel, which is available to those on Sky who don’t pay for the other Sky Sports channels and on a day with an F1 race when people would’ve seen the many trails for it. Sadly the delayed F1 replay took precedence over a live race in progress which was just a bizarre decision, so they bumped the first half of this race to ‘red button’ and online.
Isn’t it great to have engine competition again? No sooner than a Chevy engine took pole did Honda drivers start complaining they just didn’t have the mid-corner driveability of their rivals, even if they did have the top-end. Apparently when the Honda spools up it just goes – it just takes longer to get going. All do to with the choice of Chevy (and Lotus) to go with twin-turbos and Honda with a single. It may not be a big difference but I love that we now have a difference, and potentially it could change throughout the year as suppliers and teams play with setups and engine mappings.
On race day many of the Honda drivers struggled again, but one man didn’t. Scott Dixon was on fire and led for multiple laps. He seemed to be the only Honda entrant able to run up front consistently, and I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps his team nailed the setup of the DW12. Perhaps more of the Chevy teams just happen to have their chassis closer to the sweet spot than the Honda teams. The teams have been working together in each camp so it would make sense they might adopt similar setups at least to begin with.
Lotus were behind, as we all expected, yet they weren’t a million miles away. Perhaps by the standards of recent years they were, but not by the standards of open engine competition. They may have been at the back but they were still within 1.5 seconds of the frontrunner in any given session, except for Legge who was often a little further back.
I strongly recommend reading Marshall Pruett’s St. Pete Rewind for more of this sort of information as well as his view on the weekend as he saw it, touching on all aspects from technical traits, to race control decisions, to who’s been giving out press packs and who hasn’t. Marshall is one of the best around in any branch of our sport.
Many eyes were on Rubens Barrichello, despite this it was pleasing that ABC/ESPN didn’t spend the whole race ‘checking in’ with Rubens as they always did with Danica Patrick. They kept us up to date without piling on the pressure of expectation, that was left to those of us who know what he can do in the right car. So, how did he do? Sadly there’s only one word: underwhelming. That’s slightly unfair as he lost a lot of Friday running due to mechanical failure. Even so, and even in a series new to him, I still expected a professional of his experience to have bounced back on Saturday and Sunday to at least get close to his teammates if not beat them. As it was, he was nowhere near them. He’ll surely be happier on a more familiar style of track this weekend where I expect him to attack all the way.
This weekend: Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham/Leeds, Alabama, USA
IndyCar pays a 3rd visit to the challenging natural terrain course with the quirky statues and art installations. It is also fairly narrow by modern standards though perhaps not if you compare it to somewhere like Mid-Ohio or Donington Park which are similar in nature. It also has a long straight so is a fast course, yet the slow twisty sections at each end break up the flow enough to make passing difficult. The most ideal location is the hairpin of turn five which has an undulating straight into a tight slow hairpin, and it is a downhill braking zone which makes it very difficult to judge the right braking point when trying to make a pass, or defend against one!
It is better than the most of the IndyCar bloggerati give it credit for, I think a lot of them just don’t like F1-style races which is what this course has provided on the last two visits. Contrary to popular belief there is passing here and it happens at turn five. It is up to the TV crew to show it to us.