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Author: Mark W. Theisen
March 29th 2015 -      WEST BEND, WISCONSIN MARCH 29, 2015:     The much heralded debut of the “aero” packages in the Verizon IndyCar series was about as one sided as it could get.  Team Penske and Chevrolet did their homework, designed a simpler package than rival Honda, and came away with a sweep of the top 6 finishing positions in the 11th running of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that opened the 2015 Verizon IndyCar series with Juan Pablo Montoya edging defending series champion Will Power for the victory.

    Discussion and development of the new aero package began nearly three years ago when Dallara introduced the current chassis.  The purpose of the aero kits was to give distinction to the cars powered by the engines of each manufacturer and enable the race fan to be able to identify the types of cars competing and also give teams some leeway in chassis set-up.

     This set up the possibility of destroying the unprecedented parity among contestants in the series that has been enjoyed by IndyCar fans since the new Dallara was introduced over 50 races ago.  What has been observed since the debut, testing, and now the first race has the beginnings of the destruction of that parity that attracted many fans to the series.

     Teams had barely three weeks of assembly and test time before the opening race so it is too early to draw any conclusions but on the outset Chevrolet designed less complicated front and rear pieces to add to their car as did Honda.  Chevrolet has significantly fewer parts, 123, than Honda’s nearly 200 pieces.  Keeping in mind that front wing assemblies had to keep the same weight as the original standard wing, one can see that with additional  parts to the wings and flaps come the use of materials that are not quite as durable as used before and the results became very apparent after the first lap at St. Petersburg today.

     It was also hoped that the smaller, backbone teams in IndyCar, would not be not be put far behind over the larger more engenderer designed teams.  From the initial practice sessions March 15th & 16th   at Barber Motorsports Park and then through qualifications for this weekend’s race it was Team Penske and it’s four stellar drivers at the top of the speed charts in each and every session  The well-funded and personnel  deep team rose to the top.

      Power won the pole for the race yesterday as he led a Penske and Chevrolet sweep of the top four starting spots.  He was followed by Simon Pagenaud, new to team Penske this year, Helio Castroneves and Montoya.  Eight of the top 10 qualifiers were Chevrolets with Takuma Sato, 5th and Ryan Hunter-Reay 8th, the only Honda powered machines to crack the top 10.

     With more pieces on the front wings for the Honda cars it made for more parts to break off after contact and it took only part of the first lap to see that first hand as contact between cars snapped pieces off like confetti and brought  the race under  full course yellow from lap 2 through 4 and each of the next two cautions were for debris on the track from what normally would have been termed “incidental” contact  before but now the track was littered with pieces that are not very good when run over by the racing tires.

     Power paced the first 21 laps of the race before making his first pit stop and it pretty much looked as though the defending Verizon series champion was well on his way to the same type of start he had last year at St. Petersburg leading 75 of the first 83 laps of the 110 lap race.

     What looked like a routine pit stop on lap 82 changed all that.  With Montoya making his final stop a lap prior it was Power’s crew that had the pressure on them and it looked as though it was a usual quick stop on the part of Power’s Penske crew but then the jack hesitated for a mere moment in bringing the car down and that was the break Montoya needed.

     Power returned to the track 3.3 seconds behind Montoya with 27 laps to go.  Shortly thereafter Montoya, because of his one lap earlier pit stop, was told to conserve fuel and this allowed Power to begin to shave the lead enjoyed by Montoya to the point that with 10 laps to go the pair were virtually nose to tail.

     Power saws his opportunity on lap 101 in turn 10 and began a pass attempt that Montoya was able to close the door on.  The two cars touched and a piece of the front wing of Power’s car came off.  Note a piece, not many and because of the simpler more efficient design of the Chevrolet parts Power was able to continue on and after dropping back a bit was actually figure out a different balance to the car minus the piece and he was able to again close the gap but he ran out of laps before making any attempt.

     At the end it was Montoya by 0.9930 seconds over Power, Tony Kanaan broke up the Penske juggernaut by finishing third in his Ganassi Racing Chevrolet with Castroneves and Pagenaud rounding out the top five.

   The win today is Montoya’s second in IndyCar since returning to the series last year from a stint in NASCAR.  He won at Pocono last summer in what he termed his re-adjustment year and today he posted his first road or street course win since 1999 in Vancouver.   “I saw him (Power) make a move,” said Montoya, “but he was way too far and I wasn’t going to give him the position.  If he was beside me I would have said, ‘OK go ahead.  When I got to the turning point he wasn’t even close.  It is a shame we touched, but it’s all good, its racing.”

     “If I hadn’t damaged my wing, maybe I would have had another shot,” said Power.   “With the tremendous down force these new aero packages generate the lead car truly has an advantage in this series now.  In the past you could not feel the turbulence from the car in front of you as much as it is now.  It gives the leader a significant advantage especially on these types of circuits.”

     Power continued, “He (Montoya) was very strong on the front straight and my exits weren’t very good.  I thought maybe I would catch him off-guard there where I tried to pass.  You usually don’t expect some to pass there so, yeah, I gave it a shot”

     Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Jack Hawksworth, Luca Filippi and Marco Andretti rounded out the top ten. With Hunter-Reay being the top finished Honda in 7th.  Hawksworth, making his debut with A.J. Foyt Racing Team, was able to lead 5 laps in the race, the only ones for Honda, as a result of an early race incident that had him make a take on an entire new nose piece thus putting him out of sequence with the leaders and able to a lead those laps between pit stops.  Filippi, replacing Mike Conway as the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter this year was pleased with his initial run the series.

     22 laps of the race were run under caution mostly for debris with twenty-two of the twenty-four starters running at the end.

    Today it was clear Team Penske had the upper hand, it is now up to the rest to try and close that gap and return the series to any given driver in any given race.

PENSKE (4):                                   Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya & Simon Pagenaud
GANASSI (4):                                 Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball & Sage Karam
ANDRETTI (4):                               Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, Simona de Silvestro*
KV RACING (2):                             Simon Bourdais & Stefano Coletti
DALE COYNE (2):                          Francesco Dracone & Carlos Huertas
SCHMIDT-PETERSON (2):            James Hinchcliffe & James Jakes
CFH (2):                                          Josef Newgarden & Luca Filippi or Ed Carpenter
A.J. FOYT (2):                                 Takuma Sato & Jack Hawksworth
BRYAN HERTA (1):                        Gabby Chaves
RAHAL LETTERMAN (1):              Graham Rahal

 *de Silvestro’s deal with Andretti was for this race only as funding is sought for more races
Twenty-three or twenty four cars is an improvement for 2015 and bodes well for the series.

    With the Month of May just five weeks away the quest to reach 33 entries continues.  Andretti has announced Justin Wilson as a drive for the 500 and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in addition to their regular drivers.  They would like to run five cars so they continue to work on de Silvestro as their best option for that number.

     With the 24 today plus Wilson, that is 25.  Buddy Lazier is 26.  Herta will have the two cars that is 27.  KV, CFH, and Coyne all plan a third car for the 500, which is 30.  Dreyer & Reinbold will have one, which is 31.  Schmidt Peterson usually has three, which is 32 if Rahal Letterman can find funding for a second car we would have 33!  All this depends on funding, drivers are available, and it is that sponsor and their dollars that is needed. Keep looking back for further updaters.