ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—Helio Castroneves broke an 18-race losing streak with his third career victory at the IndyCar Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The Penske-Chevrolet driver gambled early on an unorthodox pit strategy, then used superior performance to pass Ganassi-Honda driver Scott Dixon for second on lap 73 of the 100-lap contest. When race leader J.R. Hildebrand pitted, Castroneves took over and couldn’t be caught; he crossed the finish line 5.5 seconds ahead.
“When the yellow came, we just decided to play a different strategy compared to [pole-sitter Will Power] and then a different strategy compared to Ryan [Hunter-Reay,]” Helio said after the race.
“We gambled, but with a safe zone, and it paid off. This is just what we need to start a great season.”
Most drivers made three [pit stops through the course of the 100-lap race, gambling that the fresh tires and the ability to go faster (and burn more fuel) would make up for the time lost in the pits.
Most drivers came in under either the first or second caution periods, when the drivers would lose less track position while the cars circled more slowly.
Castroneves, Dixon, and Hunter-Reay opted to do the race in two stops; this meant conserving tires and fuel. It also meant these drivers would need to decide when to push for position and when to let positions come to them. Castroneves made his moves at the perfect times, and found himself a bit better off late in the race; he had a bit more fuel than Hunter-Reay, and his tires were a little better than Dixon’s.
After the race, Castroneves did his usual “Spider Man” celebration, climbing the catch fence to wave to the fans. Then the driver crossed the track and climbed the opposite fence where the street sign “Dan Wheldon Way” indicated the road renamed in honor of late the IndyCar star, who lived in St. Pete. Castroneves pointed to heaven before returning to his car.
At his car, Castroneves bowed in prayer, overcome by the mix of emotions: the joy of finally winning again, and the reminder of the recent loss of his good friend.
Coming on the heels of the worst season Castroneves had had in IndyCar—the only one in which he didn’t win a race—the victory was especially sweet for him and his team.
“We never lost confidence. We never stopped believing. Especially this off-season, with the tests that we’ve been doing, we’ve been up there in testing, helping each other, so we never stopped believing. It’s important for us as a group to know that we can do it,” he said.
Scott Dixon finally finished a St. Pete Grand Prix. The Target-Ganassi driver has only four DNFs in the past three seasons, and three of them came at St. Pete. His Dallara-Honda was fine for the first 10 laps, he told the post-race press conference, but then lost grip. His crew was never able to get the speed back, and he had to settle for second. This is the third time he has finished second to Helio Castroneves at this track.
“Helio was a man on a mission. I don’t think we had the pace,” Dixon said after the race. “Probably I was a little too cautious in Turn One when he went around the outside, but I didn’t push the envelope too much. I was trying to envision a finish here.”
Dixon also felt his team might have made the wrong call on tires for the final stint. “Not sure we made the right decision on tires,” he said. “We went to used reds which we abused pretty badly in qualifying. They didn’t seem to have that good of grip.”
Andretti Autosport had a successful day, with Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe finishing third and fourth.
Hunter-Reay also gambled on strategy, and finished the race having to conserve fuel, which kept him from hunting down Dixon and Castroneves.
“It’s interesting when you’re in a fuel strategy race,” he said. “It’s like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. It’s really an art to actually turn quick laps and save a lot of fuel.”
Hunter-Reay was sufficiently artistic to finish on the podium, but he will doubtless review the decision to pit early than Dixon and Castroneves many times in the next few days.
Some drivers were less fortunate. Tony Kanaan was stricken with battery failure, an issue with all the Chevy engines. Apparently the alternators cannot keep the battery charged during caution periods. Most drivers countered this by revving the engines, thus using precious fuel; Kanaan saved fuel but had to park with no power.
Simona De Silvestro was stricken with a mysterious electrical problem, which robbed her of fuel pressure. James Jakes slammed the barrier outside Turn 10. Mike Conway, J.R. Hildebrand, Sébastien Bourdais, Katherine Legge, and Takuma Sato all retired as well—but none with blown engines. That fear, discussed very quietly in the paddock before the race, never came real. The three manufacturers’ power plants all performed admirably—aside from Chevy’s electrical issues. Mechanically, Chevy, Honda, and Lotus engines all got the job done.
Next: How the Race Was Run