April 13, 2024

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Prut's Cooldown: St. Petersburg

Prut's Cooldown: St. Petersburg

Anatomy of a nap

It's time to own the bad smell of sweat.

As Formula 1 put the world to sleep during its opening races of 2024 with its new car regulations for 2022 that were supposed to create close races (and did quite the opposite), we laughed them off their naps as they told everyone who would listen that the real race is on. And it's about to start when the IndyCar season begins in St. Petersburg.

And then we put people to sleep while Josef Newgarden and Team Penske did their best Max Verstappen and Red Bull impression by starting out front, leading practically the entire race, and storming the distance in a parade contest that mirrored Formula 1 in all the wrong ways.

Newgarden led 92 of the 100 laps, with Christian Lundgaard – on an alternate strategy after pitting to replace a flat tire on the first lap – taking six laps, so if you adjust for this anomaly, Newgarden basically led 99 out of 100.

So what happened to make Grand Prix racing so boring? There are two items that stand out more than anything else, starting with the Firestone tires.

A more solid hybrid

There's no blame for pointing in Firestone's direction here. It did what it was asked to develop stiffer tires to handle the significant increase in car weight as IndyCar switched to a hybrid system to open the season. With heavier hybrids scheduled to race at St. Petersburg and all the races on the 2024 calendar, Firestone has made stiffer tires that can survive while being punished with that extra mass. IndyCar then pulled the plug on switching to a hybrid system for the first half of the season, but it was too late for Firestone to help.

The decision was made after Firestone produced its tires, meaning the teams spent the weekend with lighter cars — about 31 pounds less than last year's spec, due to new lightweight components meant to offset some of the bulk of the energy recovery system — On tires that are not manufactured. Designed for lighter machines.

The mismatch between lighter cars and stiffer tires made those tires more difficult to operate during starts and restarts, making passing a serious challenge for those who were using the stiffer tire, Firestone's primary tire. At the most convenient point where shooting was offered from the inside of Turn 1 or Turn 3 to make a pass, drivers often found that there was not enough control to become aggressive.

“The tires are definitely getting stiffer, you can feel it,” Colton Herta told RACER. “And they're taking longer than usual to arrive, which is why I think you've seen me, Felix and a couple of the other guys getting caught up in these restarts by the drivers on the (slightly softer) alternatives.

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“I think about 2021 where I was leading, and Joseph was behind me, and I was in the primaries and he was an understudy, but I was able to hold him off because they came faster. It was tough, but I was able to hold him off. But once that gets to its operating window , they can be fairly similar. Obviously it's not ideal to have tires that aren't intended for this package because I think it dampens the racing a little bit. Firestone has been stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Better behaviour

It's hard to ignore the year-to-year change in crashes and how they affect racing. In 2023, we had five cautions on 26 laps out of 100, allowing teams to secure a lot of fuel behind the fast car and open up multiple strategic options. In 2024, there were three short cautions for nine laps, keeping the field locked on fuel economy without the opportunity to try a backup plan and have a good chance at the bonus.

Although it may seem strange, the mostly clean driving and associated lack of strategic options was a large part of the reason the race was so frustrating.

Reconsider the number of courses

A few drivers suggested changing the distance for next year's race. One of them asked that his name be withheld after Penske Entertainment spent the past week on the task.

“I think we need to go back to the old 110-lap formula,” he said. “We were all stuck on a strategy and the quickest way to beat that race was to make two stops. There was really no way around the two stoppers and make it work. If you add another 10 laps, you basically make it a three-stop race, or at least a race like Barber where You have the option of trying to pull while saving (fuel) or keeping it going all the way with three laps in. Lift it up if you want, or try to make it with two, and that's some drama that has to unfold if you succeed.

Concerns and context

The real worry for me is the amazing audience that turned up to watch a truly uninspiring contest. Hopefully these new and curious fans won't be turned away from returning next year, because this was an anomaly for IndyCar.

We all wanted IndyCar to deliver an exciting story to start the season in the stratosphere, especially after Penske Entertainment spent most of the offseason defecating on the bed or getting beaten up for its shortcomings. A great palate cleanser is what we were hoping for, but didn't get. that's good.

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There's a reason there are 17 or 18 races a year, because they can't all be masterpieces of drama and excitement.

respect

Colin Brown's introduction to IndyCar was a veritable baptism by fire after the Dale Coyne Racing team managed to set itself and its No. 51 Honda on fire during a mid-race pit stop.

Undeterred, Brown drove away from his pit box with the left rear portion of the car – a tire also rotating – – bursting into flames. The Texas man reported that he felt heat over his shoulder, but that was nothing compared to his young driver, Gavin Nielsen, who was set on fire in the crash.

Catching fire may be the point at which most humans exit and walk away, but Nielsen is not like most people. After he was extinguished and determined not to be injured, IndyCar technical director Kevin Blanch contacted Nielsen, informing him that in order to continue fueling Brawn's car, a new, non-burnt fire suit would be needed.

With these instructions delivered, Nielsen sprinted—wearing his refueling helmet—along the pit lane, to the Coyne tanker, tore off his old fire suit, jumped into its replacement, and raced back to the No. 51 pit stall near the pit. -in He was ready to resume his duties.

If you see Nielsen at an upcoming race, bring him some ice cream or something cold to drink. he deserves it.

Yes No on FP1

IndyCar's attempt to keep more cars on track and give drivers more staggered time during Friday's 75-minute opening practice session was an experiment. Based on comments from drivers, engineers and team owners, it has been almost universally criticized. If IndyCar bases its decision on continuing to try a 10-on-10 system using what the track says, I don't think we'll see him back at Long Beach.

Quiet title defense for Palo

IndyCar champion Alex Palou, along with the five-car Chip Ganassi Racing team, had a quiet start to the season with Marcus Armstrong posting his best qualifying performance of 10th. Armstrong also led the team in the race until he was involved in a crash of his own, and from there, Ballou came back to life and went from thirteenth to sixth. Sure enough, the Spaniard was 11.8 seconds behind Newgarden at the checkered flag, representing eternity on the small 1.8-mile track.

As much as it felt like Palo began a slow defense of his championship, I was reminded that he crossed the line eighth at St. Pete in 2023 and has continued to perform well in the drivers' standings.

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Solid foundations and head scratches

After Penske, there was a raft full of teams that left Florida wondering what had gone wrong with their attempt to tuck in Race 1. Arrow McLaren was the closest to the Penske drivers, but Pato O'Ward finished second with Newgarden by 7.9 seconds down the road – also an eternity.

Andretti Global, a 2023 street course enthusiast, was in good form with Marcus Ericsson until his engine's air intake swallowed some debris and starved the Honda's engine of oxygen. Colton Herta did well to finish fifth, first for the Honda, but there he was 10.2 seconds behind. For the winner. We already touched on Ganassi, and then there were some nice surprises like Meyer Shank Racing competing for the top spot with Felix Rosenqvist and finishing seventh after slowing down due to a pit stop and some technical issues. Juncos Hollinger Racing was stronger than ever all weekend and had a strong finish in sight until Romain Grosjean spun Linus Lundqvist into the wall and then his gearbox failed.

Rinus VeeKay and Ed Carpenter Racing also made their presence felt and created a good foundation to build on after their 10th place finish.

The one mystery of the weekend that, unfortunately, has become an annual mystery in St. Pete, was Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Who was rookie Pietro Fittipaldi, who started 26th, as the first RLL driver to cross the finish line in 15th? Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the RLL event was Christian Lundgaard limping into Saturday's Fast 12 and finishing 12th.

Graham Rahal, who must have angered the braking god in a previous life, was plagued by stopping problems, and overall, RLL's lack of competitiveness was as shocking as Penske's dominance.

In terms of the ten teams competing in the opening race, RLL finished eighth in the standings in terms of where their first driver finished. With the series returning the weekend after that at The Thermal Club, then Long Beach and Barber in April, there will be plenty of late nights and early mornings for them and the other nine teams that weren't close to matching Penske.

Looming

I met former AJ Foyt Racing driver Benjamin Pedersen in the pit lane on Saturday. He wasn't able to talk about the legal dispute with Foyt, but he wanted to be present at the first race and make sure his face was seen. Stay tuned.