ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - There are multiple advantages to starting on the front row on IZOD IndyCar Series road/street courses. In the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, one was avoiding the seven-car blockade in Turn 1 of the first lap.
Dario Franchitti and pole sitter Will Power were among those who kept their cars' noses clean at the start and subsequent side-by-side restarts through 100 laps on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit by the bay, and that's they way they completed the season opener.
Franchitti made a strong start in his bid for a third consecutive series championship (only two others in Indy car history have accomplished it) by running away from Power and the remnants of the 24-car field to win for the first time at St. Pete. He collected two bonus points to the 50 for the victory by leading the most laps (94).
"You see how close the field is, so every point matters," said Franchitti, who tied three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford for 10th all time on the Indy car list with 27 victories. "I had better watch out for the pace car because J.R. might be taking me out not wanting me to get 28."
Power, the 2010 championship runner-up and Mario Andretti Road Course Championship Award winner, was 7.1612 seconds back. Tony Kanaan, who had only four practice sessions in the No. 82 GEICO KV Racing Technology-Lotus car since joining the team midweek, finished third and Simona de Silvestro finished a career-best fourth by advancing 13 positions in the No. 78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy/HVM Racing car.
"She did a great job and made me run for my money," said Kanaan, who finished 0.4571 of a second ahead. "It's a great start for me and my new team."
Takuma Sato also recorded an IZOD IndyCar Series-best fifth-place finish in the No. 5 KV Racing Technology-Lotus car. Alex Tagliani, driving the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins car for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, wound up sixth. Raphael Matos, the '09 series Rookie of the Year, produced a seventh place for AFS Racing in its initial IZOD IndyCar Series start, advancing nine spots.
“I have to thank (team owner) Gary Peterson and everyone that believed in me," said Matos, who re-joined the team with which he won the 2008 Firestone Indy Lights Championship. "It was a very difficult race, but I was able to keep my nose clean … sort of. I pushed very hard that last stint on the (Firestone Firehawk alternate) tires, trying to get that sixth position. We had a goal of finishing in the top 10, so I’m really happy for the whole team.”
Speaking of starts, that's where the real news of the race was made. As Power led the field into Turn 1, the cars on Rows 2-5 bunched together as they converged on the tight right-hander with predictable results.
No. 3 Guidepoint Systems Team Penske car of two-time St. Pete race winner Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti's No. 26 Venom Energy Drink car made contact, which resulted in Andretti landing upside down for the second consecutive year in the season-opening race. Also involved were the Nos. 9 (Scott Dixon), 6 (Ryan Briscoe, who was quickest in the morning warm-up), 02 (Oriol Servia) and 27 (Mike Conway). Conway, who started fourth in his first race since suffering injuries in the Indianapolis 500 last May, and Andretti (Andretti Autosport teammates) were eliminated right off the bat.
After repairs, Dixon, Servia, Castroneves and Briscoe, his Team Penske teammate, re-entered the race, with Servia (ninth in the Telemundo Newman/Haas Racing car) the highest finisher. Castroneves recorded the fastest race lap (1 minute, 3.8683 seconds) on Lap 74.
“I took the green and had a good run going on the inside of (Ryan) Briscoe and then Helio (Castroneves) misjudged his breaking point and ran up into the back of me," said Andretti, who started seventh. "It was all a chain of events from there. I think having the cars start so close together is great for the fans but it was no good for me today.”
Added Castroneves: "As far as the incident, I'll have to look and see what happened, but it seems like I locked up the rear on the car. It's very disappointing, but we never gave up and we know we'll have better results next race."
Contributed Servia: “The two-wide restarts were not a problem for me. It's just that the two-wide restarts at this track are tricky because the inside line here is so dirty because this is an airport, there is paint, there is oil and that is why we had so many problems. If you look at the replay, it wasn’t just the restarts, it was the start itself too and we always start two-wide. It’s was just that the inside line here is one of the dirtiest of the season. It won’t be the case at Barber (April 10).”
Vitor Meira rose from 13th on the grid to eighth in the No. 14 ABC Supply car for A.J. Foyt Racing, while Justin Wilson (No. 22 TransSystems/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing) also was in the top 10. Rookie JR Hildebrand, driving the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car was one place ahead of Danica Patrick's No. 7 Team GoDaddy entry for Andretti Autosport in 12th.