The IndyCar Series holds its first North American race of the season this weekend, returning from its wild Brazilian season opener to the street course in St Petersburg, Florida, where last year Ryan Briscoe took victory.
Briscoe and his Team Penske colleagues Helio Castroneves and Will Power will be among the favourites, but the Target Chip Ganassi Racing pairing of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon will be looking to atone for getting their tyre strategy wrong in the rain of Sao Paulo, while several other drivers will fancy their chances too.
Seven different cars hit the front at one point or another during the first practice session but it was Power, winner in Brazil, who ended up on top.
One of the most intriguing stories of the weekend involves Graham Rahal, who was on pole at St Pete last year for Newman/Haas/Lanigan and won there in 2008 for the same team.
The young American was unexpectedly left without a ride for 2010 when McDonald’s pulled its sponsorship from N/H/L and his probable absence from the series was highlighted as a sign that it was failing to market itself properly to a home audience.
But owner-driver Sarah Fisher, an oval specialist, realised that she was likely to be a long way off the pace on the road courses of St Pete and the Barber Motorsports Park and signed Rahal to a two-race deal to replace her in those events.
While Rahal will not start as favourite, it’s far from impossible that Sunday will end with a first IndyCar victory for a female-owned team, following on from Lauren George’s Vision Indy Lights team’s triumph in Mid-Ohio last year.
Also likely to be contesting for the win are last year’s podium drivers, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson. Hunter-Reay is now with traditional powerhouse Andretti Autosport, which is showing signs of returning to form after slumping in recent years, while Wilson is now teamed with fellow Brit Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold.
Conway crashed out of last year’s race but across the season his performance on road and street courses was generally strong and he is fresh from an eighth-place finish in Sao Paulo.
Wilson said: “I feel like I know what I want from the Z-Line Designs car at St. Petersburg. It’s a very tough and demanding track. When you are on the airport section of the circuit it’s high speed, and then when you get to the street part it’s very tight and twisty, so it’s very difficult. I’m going to keep working away at things and I’m hoping that we can be strong. The plan is to get the Z-Line Designs car on the podium.”
Conway added: “I’m looking forward to going back to St. Pete. I have some unfinished business with that place in regards to how it went for me last year. With that in mind, I can’t wait to get on track and put the Dad’s Root Beer car up front.”
Panther’s Dan Wheldon will be hoping for a repeat of 2005, when he won in his adopted home town, and not of last year when he was knocked out of second place by contact with another car.
He said: “It’s always great for me to race here in front of all the great fans in St. Pete. This track is really fun to drive and it has a little bit of everything – high speed corners, 90-degree and 180-degree turns.
“And I have to admit I’m really excited to be back here with Panther Racing in the National Guard car – we had a great opening weekend in Sao Paulo and the race car we had here last year was honestly one of the best street course cars I’ve ever driven.
“There is a lot of positive energy in this team right now and hopefully we can carry this momentum through this weekend and the rest of the season.”
Meanwhile Alex Lloyd, who was signed to race the Boy Scouts of America car for Dale Coyne Racing in Brazil, is entered for St Pete and looks likely to be named for the whole season.
But there is no sign on the entry list of James Rossiter, who was hoping to secure the funding to join the season for KV Racing, or the top rookie from Sao Paulo Ana Beatriz who drove as team-mate to Wilson and Conway and was hoping to continue through the season.
The 2010 IndyCar championship is currently led by Power, ahead of Hunter-Reay, Vitor Meira, Raphael Matos and Wheldon.
* Martin Plowman was fastest in first practice for the Indy Lights support series in St Pete on Friday. The Briton set the best time ahead of James Hinchcliffe and Stefan Wilson, brother of Justin. Pippa Mann was ninth-fastest and James Winslow 14th of the 15 cars.