Tuesday, 7 March 2017

2017 Indy Car Season is Go

It has finally arrived the 2017 Indy Car Season and this weekend it kicks off at the street course in St Petersburg. After the long season break its time to see just what a new season brings and who makes the big start straight out of the blocks.

So going into the 2017 season opener lets look at the facts and thoughts. Staring with the facts.

• Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske begins defense of his 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship at St. Petersburg. Pagenaud captured the title in dominating fashion, winning five times, including the last Verizon IndyCar Series race, the GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway. Now he aims to be Team Penske's first repeat champion since Gil de Ferran - a driver Pagenaud calls "his Yoda" - captured back-to-back CART championships in 2000 and 2001.

• Scott Dixon aims for a rebound season as Chip Ganassi Racing joins Honda for 2017. Dixon's four season championships tie him with greats Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti for second on the all-time Indy car list, trailing only the seven titles collected by A.J. Foyt. Dixon is fourth on the all-time Indy car victory list with 40. He has three runner-up finishes at St. Petersburg but has never won at the circuit.

• The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the 14th Indy car race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. Juan Pablo Montoya won the last two races, but is not entered in the event. Paul Tracy won the inaugural race on Feb. 23, 2003, under CART sanction. St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais, one of two drivers entered who competed in the first race, started from the pole. With the exception of 2004, the race has been run every year since.

• Helio Castroneves and Will Power are the only entered drivers to win at St. Petersburg more than once. Castroneves has won three times at the venue (2006, 2007, 2012), while Power has two St. Pete wins in 2010 and 2014 and Montoya in 2015 and 2016. Past winners Graham Rahal (2008) and James Hinchcliffe (2013) are also entered.

• Team Penske has won the pole position for seven of the last 10 St. Petersburg races, including six of the last seven poles with Power, who set the track record in 2016, but sat out the race due to illness. Past pole winners Bourdais (2003), Castroneves (2007), Tony Kanaan (2008), Rahal (2009) and Takuma Sato (2014) are also entered this weekend.

• Two drivers have won the race from the pole - Castroneves (2007) and Power (2010). The St. Petersburg winner has qualified fourth the last four seasons.

• Team Penske has won at St. Petersburg eight times, including four of the last five races with Castroneves (2012), Power (2014) and Montoya (2015-16). Andretti Autosport has two wins at St. Petersburg with Dan Wheldon (2005) and Hinchcliffe (2013). Chip Ganassi Racing (Dario Franchitti in 2011) has won once at St. Petersburg.

• Kanaan seeks to start his 266th consecutive race this weekend, which would extend his Indy car record streak that began in June 2001 at Portland. Teammate Dixon has made 207 consecutive starts heading into the weekend, which is the third-longest streak in Indy car racing.

• Castroneves will attempt to make his 328th career Indy car start, which ranks fourth on the all-time list. Kanaan will attempt to make his 327th Indy car start, which is fifth all-time. Both are competing in their 20th season of Indy car racing in 2017.

• 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion Ed Jones will make his first Verizon IndyCar Series start this weekend at St. Petersburg. Jones, one of six Indy Lights champions slated to race at St. Petersburg, swept an Indy Lights doubleheader at St. Petersburg in 2015, his first two races in the series.

• Since 2012, the Verizon IndyCar Series has averaged 8.75 different race winners per season, including a record-tying 11 winners in 2014. There were eight different winners in the 16 races of 2016 with an equally tight competition projected for the 2017 season.

• Drivers may engage their "push to pass" for total of 150 seconds during the race, with a maximum duration of 15 seconds for any one activation. The push-to-pass is not available on the initial start or any restart unless it occurs in the final two laps or three minutes of a timed race. The feature increases the power of the engine by approximately 60 horsepower for 2017. 

So now going into the start of the season and the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg what are the drivers all saying,

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 1 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet, 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): "It's exciting to have everything reset to zero, now that a new season is underway. It has been a disciplined winter and we feel ready to attack our 2017 championship defense. The PPG Chevy team has worked countless hours to be at maximum strength when we hit the streets of St Petersburg. It is no secret, I love street-course racing and it goes well with the beautiful weather of Florida and the amazing crowd there. We will carry the PPG colors this weekend and I look forward to bringing my best."

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) : "I'm so excited that the season is here. It feels like the offseason has lasted forever. Obviously, I'm in a new place, but that adds to the excitement. There has been a lot to digest over the winter, but I feel good about it. The whole team has worked really hard and come together nicely. We've had a number of test sessions and I think we're in great shape. We'll continue to grow as the season gets started, but all teams do that. As far as St. Petersburg goes, I, personally, haven't had great results, but this Verizon Chevrolet team has won the last two races there. I love the atmosphere and the vibe there. It's a great environment."

HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): "I can't wait to get to St. Pete. I just want to get this season started. I have a feeling that this is going to be a great season. I feel good about how we closed out the 2016 season and want to carry that momentum into this year. In the end, last season was good, but if this Hitachi Chevrolet team had gotten a couple of things to break the other way, then who knows what would have happened. It's my 20th season in Indy car, but I feel great and am ready to compete at the highest level. I love the St. Petersburg event. The fans are great. The weather is fantastic. We've had good finishes here and we're looking forward to getting off to a fast start this year."

CONOR DALY (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): "I've always enjoyed the race weekend in St. Pete. The city receives us all so well, and the fans come out in a big way to support us all weekend. The track always presents good opportunities for racing, which is crucial for a good start to the season."

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): "I think I say the same thing every year about St. Pete, in that it feels like the first day of school, but it is so true. It is always great to be back at the track and see everyone again, but more than that, it's about getting back to competition. I think that's what everyone misses the most about the offseason. I love the track there, the city, the whole event really. It's one of the best all year, so it's awesome to open the season there."

MIKHAIL ALESHIN (No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): "Very happy to be at St. Pete for the third time to start the Verizon IndyCar Series championship. It's a nice and typical street course, but with its own unique soul. Last year we finished P5 there, and this time we will definitely work to get a better result."

MAX CHILTON (No. 8 Gallagher Honda): "I'm excited to be returning to the site of my first Indy car race. I think we've come a long way since last year. I loved the track last year here at St. Petersburg, and I am hoping to get the year off to a good start with Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing, which makes things flow easier for the rest of the season."

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): "St. Petersburg is one of the best places to kick off the season. It's around spring break time, they do a fantastic job of getting the community in, and obviously, the party atmosphere there, too, with different things going on during the day. All the different classes of cars that race there and all the variety of things to do in St. Pete make it pretty fantastic for a lot of people. I live in Indianapolis and we finally get to have some sun and get to hang out in some warm weather. The track itself always has fantastic racing with big braking zones going into Turn 1. It's also very wide, great for starts, restarts and overtaking throughout the race. I think it's definitely been some great racing over the years and this year I expect the same. I haven't won there either, so I need to work on that one. I've had three or four podiums but have never won."

TONY KANAAN (No. 10 NTT Data Honda): "I love starting off the INDYCAR season on the streets of St. Petersburg. The track allows us to put on a great show and the fans are some of the best. We've done a lot of work this offseason with the switch to Honda, and we're feeling good as a team with where we are heading into the season opener. I'm also really excited to kick off the 2017 season with NTT Data on-board once again - the No. 10 NTT Data Honda is looking good both on and off track."

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): "The best part of going to St. Pete this year is being physically ready to race. I wasn't able to do that last year, which put us in a little hole that we eventually were able to dig out of, but I just didn't get out of the gate well. That's all behind us now and the Verizon Chevy team is ready to go. Our tests have gone very well and we're all excited about getting started. As with most street courses, qualifying at St. Petersburg is super important and that's an area we've done very well over the last several seasons. The results have been good for the most part, but it sure would be great to start the new year off on a high note. Like I said, though, I'm so happy about being in a better place physically to start the season."

CARLOS MUNOZ (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda): "St. Pete is one of my favorite tracks because it is like a home race for me since I live in Miami. I have a lot of family and friends who come to the race. I like the track a lot, and I like the town of St. Petersburg too. The track is really physical and the car setup is hard to get because there are different corners. It's actually pretty smooth compared to some of the other tracks. I want to start off the season well but I don't want to set any goals or numbers. Hopefully, we all will do our jobs together really well and we'll see how it goes."

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda): "St. Pete has been good and bad for me. After getting the win my first year here (2008), I came back and got pole, but there have been a lot of ups and downs since then. We've had times when we've been really strong at St. Pete and we've had times when we've struggled. Last year is an indication of that. We qualified well and we ran up front in the race until we got punted. We need to work hard to maximize what we have and work hard to start off this season really good because if we want to be champions, it has to start at St. Pete. One of the main challenges for St. Pete this year is that we don't know what we're going to get because it's been repaved so it's going to be a whole different situation. I'm ready to go, ready to get behind the wheel of the Steak 'n Shake Honda and get on track at St. Pete. It's been a long offseason. There's always a lot of build-up so by the time March finally rolls around, no one can wait to get started."

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda): "We're very excited to get the season started. Thanks to Dale (Coyne), we've put together a good group of people and it's been going well so far between the engineers and the technical team. It's always hard to know exactly where you stand going into the first race of the season, but I really think we have the potential to do well and everyone is anxious to see what we're going to do. That's exciting and a little stressful all at the same time because it puts pressure on everybody. On the other hand, I think it's a positive kind of pressure because it also means that some people are expecting us to maybe cause an upset. But that's what we're here for, and going up against the big teams is what makes it an interesting challenge. I think everyone is going to rediscover the St. Pete track because it's been completely repaved, even the runway. I drove on the first version of the track back in 2003 and I've seen its degradation through the years as it got bumpier and bumpier. They've only resurfaced it, so it will likely still have some bumps but it is a new surface so it should be much easier on the tires. It will be interesting to see how that changes things. It will be up to us to adapt to it as quickly as possible to get the best performance out of the car. I always enjoy racing in St. Pete. It's a home race for me and it's always nice to race in front of family and friends."

ED JONES (No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda): "It's great to finally be so close to the race now. Preseason testing has gone pretty well. I feel very comfortable in the car, even though I haven't had that much time. I've worked well with the team and got along with everyone. I think they've taken massive steps forward from where they were last year, and I'm really looking forward to getting going. St. Pete is a track I've done well on in the past (in Indy Lights), so it's a nice place to start again. I can't wait to see what we can do. For the first race, it's so hard to know where you stand against the competition because there are so many variables with what people are doing. It's hard to know until you get to that first qualifying session. With that in mind, for the race, it's better to not have clear expectations for myself because you never know where you are going to be. I think after St. Pete we'll have a better idea of where we are and know what to improve on and what to expect and what to aim for. St. Petersburg is a great track. I've always loved street circuits. It's where I made my debut in American racing and it was a perfect debut, so I have good memories there. The track itself is quite technical, it has a good variation of different corners. The infield is very technical and quite tight and then it opens a bit towards the main straightaway. It's also nice to have the track right next to water. Every year I've been there it's been amazing with a lot of fans there. It's a very good place to start the season off."

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet): "The whole Ed Carpenter Racing team is ready to get back to racing. It's been a long offseason so St. Pete can't get here soon enough. We've been working very hard over the winter to improve in many areas and we're excited to see that translate into results. St. Petersburg has always been good to me and I hope that success will continue this weekend in the No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet."

JR HILDEBRAND (No. 21 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet): "It's exciting to be getting the year kicked off this weekend in St. Pete. I'm looking forward to the challenge of competing full time again in the Verizon IndyCar Series and to getting the process of working together when it really counts started. The team has been doing an awesome job in their preparation this offseason. We've all been working hard, so it's going to be great to really get with the program in the Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet."

TAKUMA SATO (No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda): "I enjoy St. Petersburg each year. It welcomes us with Florida's typical warm weather after a long winter and has great restaurants, very enthusiastic fans, cool street-course scenery, lots of energy and excitement and, of course, it's a challenging track that I love - so it's the perfect venue for the opening race. I only had a single day of the road course testing this preseason, which is a quite challenging for me especially with (the) new environment I have, but the test went well and we learned a lot. I can't wait to get behind the wheel in my first race with Andretti Autosport."

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 27 hhgregg Honda): "It's important for us to get a good start in St. Pete this weekend - it will set the tone for the season and we want a strong, positive tone. I've been working hard through the offseason, both physically and mentally, and I'm ready to get the year started. I always look forward to the opening weekend; St. Pete is a great place to kick off the year. It's a great setting, the weather is perfect and it's a track that leads to good racing."

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): "There's no better place to kick off the Verizon IndyCar Series season than the streets of St. Pete. Not only is it one of my favorite street courses, it is essentially my home race and the perfect place to start the year. We've finished runner-up in St. Pete on a couple of occasions, so we're looking for that breakthrough win. This team has worked tirelessly over the offseason, but now it's time to put all that hard work to the test. We'll be working hard this weekend to rebound from last season and get the DHL Honda into victory lane."

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 83 Tresiba Honda): "Overall I was really happy with how the test went last week in Sebring. It was our last chance to make any big changes before the season begins, and I think we made some good progress with the Honda package. I'm absolutely stoked to get to the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Offseason testing helps keep us sane during the winter, but getting back to the Verizon IndyCar Series racetrack for a competitive race weekend is what motivates me as a driver. The entire Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing team is looking for a strong start to the season, and from the race shop to the gym, we've all spent the last five months working toward that same goal. Now it's finally time to put that plan into action."

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda): "This offseason has been anything but calm, however it has only fueled the excitement to get back into my race car. I am in a completely different space from where I was 12 months ago after finding my new home in the Verizon IndyCar Series. There is a lot of optimism in the team and we are all looking to come out of the box with momentum on our side. Having NAPA Auto Parts on the car for the season opener is fitting considering the relationship that we've built, and also because I feel like it's the best-looking car on the grid. We are ready to go. St. Pete can't get here soon enough."

Plenty been said but come Sunday that all changes as the first race of the 2017 season will be in the books and its game on then for the rest of what will again be a great and awesome season.

Quotes provided by IndyCar Media Services. Photo from the David Turner Collection

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