March 30, 2014 — report by Race Chaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Chris Jones photo — ST. PETERSBURG, FL — For the first time in four years, Will Power failed to set the fastest time in qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but on race day, there was no one in the IndyCar Series capable of slowing the street course master in the season opener.
Pole-sitter Takuma Sato led the field for the first third of the race before fading away to seventh, but the Aussie powered his way to the front following the first round of pit stops, taking over first place on lap 31 and pulling away at a rate of over half a second per lap on Sato.
The weekend was interrupted by weather during Saturday qualifying, changing track conditions and making the setups difficult on teams, but Power says the result was deserved and comes as a result of their dedication.
“Obviously, this is the perfect way to start. We kind of struggled a bit during the weekend with the setup, but we definitely made a good racecar,” Power said. “As a team, I think we worked very well to get the most out of our cars. It’s been a real team effort, really happy to get the Verizon car in Victory Lane again.”
For leading a race-high 74 laps, Power earned two bonus points to pad his early lead in the drivers’ standings. Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay attempted to reel in Power in the closing laps, but Power set the race’s fastest lap of the day with 15 to go and sailed away as smoothly as the yachts lining the run down to turn 10.
In a series highlighted by parity and with so many questions entering the season, Power says he didn’t expect the #12 to dominate.
“Honestly, I think a lot of people had good dialed-in cars. I wasn’t expecting to be that competitive in the race, actually, as the weekend was unfolding. Just a good team strategy, good pit stops, mistake-free driving, and a good car—it’s all hard work.”
The race ran caution free until lap 76, brought out by Charlie Kimball overshooting turn 1 into the tire barrier. A round of pit stops sets up the final stint to the finish, but not before a controversial restart by Power stacked up the field and caused an expensive logjam behind him.
On lap 84, Power brought the field to green but seemed to slow significantly upon reaching the restart box. The competitors at the back of the field saw the green flag and jumped onto the throttle, creating a bottleneck and resulting in contact at pit entry that eliminated rookie Jack Hawksworth and Marco Andretti from contention. Despite criticism from competitors, Power sees the situation differently and did not intend to create chaos.
“The pace car pulls off and you set the pace you want. I wasn’t even in the zone,” Power told reporters at the post-race press conference, recalling his view from behind the wheel. “To me, the only problem people would have had was if they gassed back to get a big run. That’s the only problem they should have had. I didn’t touch the brakes.”
Teammate Helio Castroneves restarted in second at the time. Although he stopped short of heavily criticizing his Penske counterpart, the Brazilian considered the act to be one of trickery to gain an extra advantage on the rest of the field.
“I didn’t know that trick from him, and he got me, which was good. I’m not saying that in a bad way,” Castroneves said. “He knew where I was going, so he did something that I was not expecting and it caught me by surprise. That does not take away anything from the win he had today.”
Sunday marked the fifth straight race at St. Petersburg that Power has led, dating back to his first victory at the circuit in 2010. With the win, Power joins Castroneves as the only two drivers to take the checkered flag more than once at the event.
Ryan Hunter-Reay failed to lead a lap, but ran in the top five consistently throughout the day and finished second, stealing second place from Castroneves on the final restart. The 2012 IndyCar champion was the only Andretti Autosport driver to finish inside the top 17. Rookie Carlos Munoz finished 17th, while 2013 St. Pete Grand Prix winner James Hinchliffe was unable to duplicate his previous success, finishing one lap down in 19th thanks to a slew of electrical issues that hindered forward progress throughout the day.
Castroneves, a three-time victor at the season opener, finished third, satisfied with his performance to pick up the new season in a similar manner to his strong, near title-winning campaign in 2013.
“I will take it. Unfortunately, one of the restarts was a poker game with Will, but he was fast in the end and it was difficult to push it,” Castroneves said. “I have to thank Roger [Penske] for a great, great start and the Hitachi boys for great pit stops. Great effort for everyone and certainly we want to win the championship, so this is a good start.”
Defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and new Ganassi stable-mate Tony Kanaan finished fourth and sixth respectively, sandwiching Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman quietly worked his way up to fifth in the Schmidt-Peterson-Hamilton Motorsports #77 after starting 14th.
Mike Conway worked his way into the top five by the race’s halfway point in his debut for Ed Carpenter Racing, but the day unraveled by a set of errors under caution that bumped the #20 to the tail end of the field. On lap 80, the Brit missed his cue from the team’s radio communication to pit, and then proceeded to pass the pace car under the same yellow in another bout of bad communication. Conway, who will run all road races for the team in 2014, was classified in 16th.
Juan Pablo Montoya’s highly publicized return to IndyCar was not as strong as hoped but perhaps as to be expected, finishing 15th in his maiden run at St. Pete and first time back in the cockpit of an open wheel car since his final season with Williams in the 2006 Formula One season.
The newly sponsored Verizon IndyCar Series resumes its eighteen-fixture season on Sunday April 13 for the 40th running of the Grand Prix of Long Beach.