ST PETERSBURG, FL - MARCH 25: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team Penske celebrates winning the IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg on March 25, 2012 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Boring. Single-file. Disappointing. Underwhelming. A poor showcase for a racing series. All of these descriptors were used in the wake of the IZOD IndyCar Series season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday.
Virtually no one used what is the most important adjective of them all: completed.
It has been almost seven months since INDYCAR has seen a race go the full distance. In that time, the series has rolled out a new chassis, new engines, new rulebooks, and new officials to run the show. The changes in the series represented a turnover of epic proportions; in effect, the "reset" button had been pressed for the series to begin 2012.
While everyone tested the new combinations as thoroughly as practicable during the off-season, there is absolutely no substitute for the only trial by fire that matters - a full race distance. So while fan and media expectations involved surprises in qualifying and race order, new faces at the top of the pecking order, and a complete overhaul of INDYCAR's narrative, the competitors themselves were concerned with only one thing: the checkered flag.
One issue that came immediately to the forefront was reliability. Everyone in the know had foreshadowed that there would be failures expected in the race. After all, with so many new components and systems, it would have been miraculous indeed if nothing at all had gone wrong.
The problem for the peanut gallery was twofold. First of all, it had been nearly a decade since failure had been defined as anything more than poor pit strategy or driver error. Thanks to the Indy Racing League's reliance on a single engine, tire, and chassis supplier, most components used in the series were safely pulled back from the cliff's edge; Honda, for example, could crow about their bulletproof reliability because their engines did not have to be engineered within an inch of their lives to stay competitive.
This level of reliability spoiled a whole generation of fans who were either too new or too young to remember why INDYCAR ran 500-mile races in the first place - because endurance was one of the key storylines of the sport. The vaunted STP Turbine car, now held aloft as the shining example of innovation and forward-thinking at Indianapolis, dominated the races it ran and seemed like a lock to cross the yard of bricks first. Yet it never did, because it never lasted the whole race distance.
The second issue, for fans who understood that reliability would become an issue again this season, is that deep down in their animal cores they desperately wanted reliability issues to strike a particular team or driver. Many would never admit it aloud, but the innermost hope was that reliability issues would strike the teams who were most bulletproof during the previous era - Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
It's not so much that the hoi polloi wished ill upon these two teams, whose dominance has become more predictable than a political attack ad. It's just that, deep down, they hoped that someone else would finally ascend to the top of the INDYCAR pyramid - at the expense of the front-runners, if necessary. This sentiment - not very noble, but understandable in context - is an unfortunate show of naiveté given the history of the teams in question.
At any rate, the reliability issue became apparent early on. Katherine Legge's Lotus lasted 11 laps before losing power due to an electrical issue. Nine laps later, fan favorite Tony Kanaan was knocked out with a gearbox problem. Both issues would strike other teams as the race went on. Mike Conway, JR Hildebrand, Takuma Sato, and Sebastien Bourdais all exited late after running in the top six for much of the day.
However, the fact that multiple teams encountered similar reliability issues made it seem a bigger epidemic than it actually was. Only eight cars out of the 26 starters failed to finish the race; one more DNF than in 2010, and four fewer than at the 2009 St. Petersburg race. The difference, of course, is that this year only James Jakes failed to finish because of "Contact."
In all honesty, the fact that only seven cars suffered mechanical issues after such a total technology turnover is amazing. It should also be noted that three of the DNFs involved Lotus-powered cars, two of which were Dragon Racing teams that did not even have engines until mere days before the green flag.
Reliability issues aside, the racing action itself came under immediate fire from people watching it on TV. Maybe it was because there were only two on-track incidents - James Jakes stuffing his car into the tire barrier, and Helio Castroneves spinning out Ed Carpenter as the latter was headed to pit road - that people felt the race was "uneventful." More likely, however, it was due to the producer calling the action in the ABC control room who inexplicably ended up missing virtually every significant pass for position on the racetrack.
Observers actually watching the race at the event posted updates on social media when there were passes for position, and from their feedback there apparently was far more going on than ABC bothered to put on their feed. While viewers at home were treated to shots of the leaders opening up huge gaps, people like driver Pippa Mann were tweeting excitedly about yet another pass in turn one. Nearly all of the significant tactical moves ended up being made available to the public via replays, including Helio Castroneves' epic pass for the lead (the winning pass, it turns out) on the outside of Scott Dixon in the first turn.
But still, the lack of on-track incidents rendered the event a fuel-mileage calculation - in short, it was too clean for people looking for more drama and conflict. Sure, defending INDYCAR champion Dario Franchitti ended up running out of fuel at the end of the race and 2011 runner-up Will Power finished back in the pack because of pit strategy - both instances of a surprising turnabout from the status quo. But all many people could see were the large gaps among the leaders and the familiar names at the top of the final standings.
Perhaps it was inevitable that fans might walk away from the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg feeling let down, considering the enormous hype built up over the too-long off-season. That does not change the fact that the race was essentially what most people should have expected. In fact, the race went better than by rights it should have, considering all of the unknown variables at play going into the day.
Over the course of a season, issues pop up and then get solved. Questions of reliability are raised, then resolved, then raised again as teams push ever closer to the ragged edge of performance. Teams work through problems and put themselves into contention, or they make changes to achieve that goal. It is what any race fan should expect as the year-long narrative unspools.
That INDYCAR fans are approaching this narrative as if they had never heard it before only confirms the deleterious effects of the Spec Era. As a result, the natural process of motorsports engineering seems unnatural.
If the fans are having a hard time getting back into the swing of things, the competitors aren't. For them - even those derailed by mechanical issues - it is a return to a way of life that is more in line with what they believe racing should be. The checkered flag at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg meant that they had a solid event under their belts. For the drivers, it was a return to action that was tremendously overdue. For the teams, it was a full chapter added to new notebooks upon which they can craft plans of attack going forward.
In the end, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg delivered exactly what people should have expected. It was the first step on a road that is more unfamiliar than in years past, and that in and of itself should be exciting.