Takeways: Storylines abound for IndyCar, MRTI leaving opening weekend in St. Petersburg

Photo: Chris Jones/INDYCAR

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Three days, seven races and a few surprises later, the opening weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy at St. Petersburg, Florida has drawn to a close.

So, what all did we learn?

From a slew of young talents shining to the return of a dynamic duo, there was much to observe in sunny Florida, and while one race weekend isn’t necessarily a large enough sample size to predict the season, there were a few key takeaways from the weekend.

We’ll start with IndyCar.

Verizon IndyCar Series

Bourdais and Hampson shine again

Sebastien Bourdais wins in his Dale Coyne Racing return. (Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR)

When Sebastien Bourdais and longtime Newman/Haas Racing engineer Craig Hampson were confirmed to be rejoining forces with Dale Coyne Racing (DCR), speculation immediately began over whether the dynamic duo would prove as strong as they had in the past.

The duo proved deadly in their Champ Car days, rattling off 31 victories and four-consecutive championships in just five years from 2003-07.

However, opinions were split over Bourdais’ potential with DCR. That duo’s immense success had come a decade ago, and with what most would consider a stronger team. Could they truly contend again?

As it turns out, the answer was a resounding yes.

It took the lion’s share of luck, but when an early caution fell their way Bourdais and DCR took control in the 2017 series opener, rallying from last on the grid to take a dominant victory in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The victory was a popular one, as the lone remaining team from Champ Car soared to victory with one of that era’s best drivers, finally allowing Bourdais to avenge a close call in his 2003 debut at St. Pete 14 years later.

“I caught myself thinking about 2003, when obviously we started the opposite,” Bourdais said. “We dominated the weekend, were on pole, cleared the field, then all hell broke loose. I found myself tapping the wall in Turn 8, threw it away. It was kind of redemption day here.”

Whether DCR and Bourdais will be able to remain competitive throughout the year remains to be seen. But for one race, Bourdais and Hampson again proved an unstoppable force.

Pagenaud’s continues where he left off

Simon Pagenaud wasn’t able to secure the season-opening victory, but much like he did for the majority of 2016, the Frenchman proved scarily consistent in overcoming a 14th-place start with a runner-up result.

Pagenaud led 13 of the race’s 110 laps in his first race piloting the No. 1, a number afforded only to the defending champion.

“It’s definitely a champion team for regrouping like they did, understanding the issue we had in qualifying,” Pagenaud said. “This morning in the warmup, I was back home in my car. It was great to get that feeling back.”

Pagenaud’s rally secured a 1-2 sweep for France with Bourdais, and helped establish the Team Penske shoe as one of the early season favorites to hoist the Astor Cup this fall.

Honda flexes its muscle

Scott Dixon pits his No. 9 Honda during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Photo: Chris Jones/INDYCAR)

With manufacturer aerokits frozen for 2017, there was fear among some in the paddock that Honda would again struggle to find the speed displayed by Chevrolet in 2016.

If the first race of the season as any indication, those thoughts appear to be quite far from the truth.

Bourdais’ win gave Honda their first victory on a road/street course since Graham Rahal’s emotional 2015 triumph at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Behind Bourdais, the rest of the Honda paddock combined to tally seven of the top 10 positions on the grid, including a promising third-place result for Scott Dixon in Chip Ganassi Racing Teams’ return to Honda.

A few of those finishes can be attributed to strategy, but overall Honda showed more speed throughout the weekend than has been seen for many months on a street course. The team’s early success may bode well for them moving forward.

Surprises abound up front

Bourdais stole the headlines as the biggest surprise of the race, but many others left St. Pete with a smile on their face after showing surprising speed.

Takuma Sato rallied to a fifth-place finish in his debut with Andretti Autosport, tying the Japanese driver’s best finish from 2016 (Toronto) in his first attempt.

Sato was one of many Andretti drivers to leave Florida with some confidence, as the organization overcame 2016 struggles to place all four of their drivers in the top 11 with Ryan Hunter-Reay (fourth), Marco Andretti (seventh) and Alexander Rossi (11th).

He didn’t get the finish to show for it, but James Hinchcliffe proved the top contender on Sunday for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports before a lap 26 caution changed the complexion of the race. Hinchcliffe went one to finish ninth.

Last in the top 10 was another pleasant surprise for DCR, as rookie Ed Jones overcame a subpar qualifying effort (18th) to score a top 10 in his series debut.

The defending Indy Lights champion, Jones was awarded his position on the grid based on his Mazda Road to Indy scholarship. However, his first result proved that he has potential to earn a stay in the series beyond that guaranteed money.

 

Mazda Road to Indy

Seeing (soul) red again

Anthony Martin gets the broom after a Pro Mazda sweep in St. Petersburg. (Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Jones wasn’t the only MRTI scholarship winner smiling over the weekend, as all three scholarship winners in the MRTI made their way to victory lane in their respective series on Saturday.

Anthony Martin led the way, claiming his Pro Mazda debut with Cape Motorsports. A short while later, Oliver Askew rose to victory in the second USF2000 race of the day after coming second to Robert Megennis in the morning’s initial event.

Later that afternoon, Aaron Telitz held off a fierce challenge from pole to claim his debut in Indy Lights with Belardi Auto Racing.

Incredibly, Martin returned in the second Pro Mazda race on Sunday with another victory, sweeping the weekend for the series.

“The Soul Red boys… man it proves what Mazda is doing, is working,” Martin said. “It gives me the confidence when people believe in me. This weekend is the hardest I’ve ever pushed in my life.”

Veekay

Rinus Van Kalmthout – or “Veekay”, as his name was listed this weekend – isn’t a name most recognize in the MRTI at this stage, but if St. Petersburg was any indication then fans may want to start paying attention.

Van Kalmthout didn’t make his way to victory lane in either of Saturday’s USF2000 races, but the Pabst Racing driver proved consistent in a double-podium finish, taking third in race one, and second in race two.

A familiar name leads an intriguing title fight

Bryan Herta is a name many in the IndyCar paddock recognize, but it was son Colton that made headlines in St. Petersburg.

The younger Herta surged to the Indy Lights points lead in his series debut, earning a win and a second-place result in his first two races with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing.

Herta was joined by Soul Red driver Telitz and former Pro Mazda standout Pato O’Ward to lead an all-rookie top three in the standings out of the weekend.

Throw in a group of hungry, experienced shoes like Shelby Blackstock, Kyle Kaiser and Santi Urrutia, who fell just short of the title in 2016, and the Indy Lights grid appears poised to deliver a title fight every bit as exciting as IndyCar itself.

Herta will lead the field into Barber Motorsports Park, one step closer to matching his father’s 1993 Indy Lights title.

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