The first round in the hotly-anticipated IndyCar championship rematch between Dario Franchitti and Will Power was won by the Scotsman in fine style as he took victory in the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg by more than seven seconds.
Power, who was beaten by Franchitti to last year’s title in the final race, had qualified on pole but was only able to lead six laps as his Target Chip Ganassi Racing rival steered clear of early trouble and controlled the contest from the front.
“It is great to be here in the sunshine of St. Petersburg with the stands full and the Target car was running like a dream,” said Franchitti. “I was focused on what Will Power was doing and that was a good moment when we got around him on the second restart.
“It’s a great time to be an IndyCar driver, the series is on the ‘up’ and this will be a fantastic season.”
Power said: “Dario was just crazy fast. Shortly after he passed me, someone hit me from behind. That damage took a bit of downforce off the car and it took a while to work our way back up to second, with some great pit stops from the team. But Dario was untouchable, so we’ll take a solid second as a good start to our season.”
Later in the race Power faced a determined challenge from KV’s new recruit Tony Kanaan, but was able to leave the Brazilian behind after the last round of pit stops as he was using the more advantageous red tyres.
Kanaan, on blacks, fell into the clutches of Simona de Silvestro during the closing stages of the race and was forced to defend robustly in order to safeguard his podium finish – aided somewhat by his team-mate EJ Viso, who made de Silvestro work considerably harder to lap him than he had done Kanaan.
“We drove a conservative race until five laps to go and then Simona was all over me,” said Kanaan, “but I am an old man and she is a young girl and I think the experience helped out today.”
HVM’s de Silvestro was the best-placed of a number of drivers who benefited from a first-corner pile-up that left Marco Andretti’s car overturned and several of the leading qualifiers either out of the race or facing lengthy repairs before rejoining.
The carnage was triggered when Helio Castroneves locked up and hit Andretti, sending him into the cars of Scott Dixon and Mike Conway. The incident also scooped up Ryan Briscoe and Oriol Servia and, while Conway and Andretti were the only immediate retirements, it marked the end of the others’ hopes of making an impression on the race.
It also led to a thoroughly unexpected final top eight for the race, with Franchitti, Power, Kanaan and de Silvestro being followed home by Takuma Sato, Alex Tagliani, Raphael Matos and Vitor Meira.
Andretti, who suffered a similar fate in last season’s opening race, said: “I had a good run going on the inside of Briscoe and then Helio misjudged his braking point and ran up into the back of me. 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.”
Conway, who started fourth in his return to action following his big Indy 500 crash last year, again found himself in a dangerous accident. He said: “Someone obviously went into the first corner too hard, and it’s a bit silly really – the first lap of the race and a long way to go.
“It’s hugely disappointing to be taken out of the race at the first corner through no fault of my own. We had been strong all weekend and there was a real chance of victory which makes the situation even more frustrating.
“All we can do now is take the positives from the weekend – our competitive pace and the fantastic work that all the guys have done at Andretti Autosport – and look ahead to the race in Alabama in two weeks time.”
The opening caution period was followed by three more in quick succession as drivers struggled to cope with the new two-wide restarts, and it was lap 16 before the race got properly under way.
The new restart system was blamed by another potential winner, Ryan Hunter-Reay, for the shunt that put him out of contention – but others defended the system.
Servia, who recovered from the first-corner crash to finish ninth, said: “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.”
Justin Wilson had qualified sixth, but a puncture and a spin sent him back down the field and he eventually finished 10th, benefiting from a late tussle between the only two other drivers to finish on the lead lap, JR Hildebrand and Danica Patrick. They were classified 11th and 12th after Patrick was penalised for avoidable contact and forced to surrender a place to Hildebrand.
Dale Coyne Racing’s James Jakes was classified 15th, three laps down on the leader and behind Sebastian Saavedra and Ana Beatriz. He had risen to second place by delaying his first pitstop, but came unstuck when forced to make that stop under a full course caution. With the entire field drawn up behind the safety car, a slow stop dropped him right to the back.
He did, however, fare better than his team-mate Sebastien Bourdais. Both Dale Coyne drivers crashed in the warm-up, but Jakes’ car was repairable whereas the Frenchman’s was not and he was forced to sit out the race.
Newgarden wins Indy Lights season-opener
In the Indy Lights support race, Sam Schmidt Motorsport’s American duo Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly took victory, ahead of Ireland’s Peter Dempsey.
Andretti Autosport’s Stefan Wilson, brother of IndyCar driver Justin, had qualified fourth but was forced into the pits for repairs at the start of the race and finished 16th.
He said: “This definitely wasn’t how we wanted to start the season. After we got hit in turn one, the guys worked really hard to get the car back in shape for the rest of the race. It was a tough day, but I have to thank my crew for their hard work and efforts during the whole race.”
His team-mate James Winslow began and finished in 10th place, but packed a lot of incident in between. He said: “I had a really good start. About three or four people made contact in the first corner. I got past the first incident, but the next time my wing was clipped in turn two.
“After we came in and they replaced the front wing, the car was awesome, putting down top-five lap times. I was able to come from the back a bit near the end. We had the speed but just had some bad luck.”