- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The promoters moved up the start time for the 2011 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Evidently they forgot to inform most of the drivers in the Izod IndyCar Series.
IndyCar's new marketing slogan is "Real Drivers, Real Race Cars, Real Fast," but that was certainly debatable Sunday in the first half of the 2011 season opener. The final year for the 9-year-old Dallara-Honda spec car formula got off to an embarrassingly bad start as an opening-lap crash and a series of contact-marred double-file restarts threatened to turn the St. Pete GP into a joke.
Thankfully, cooler heads eventually prevailed and perhaps not surprisingly, three of IndyCar's most experienced veterans occupied the podium at the end of the 100-lap contest. Three-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti cruised to an unchallenged victory, taking his 27th career IndyCar win by 7.16 seconds over Will Power.
Tony Kanaan, who joined KV Racing Technology just six days ago, produced a savvy drive to third place, while the highlight for many was the impressive run to a career-best fourth-place finish by second-year female driver Simona De Silvestro.
Franchitti's job was made easier by the first-turn accident that appeared to be triggered by Helio Castroneves that took out five top contenders. The Scotsman passed pole winner Power on the subsequent restart and led 94 of the final 95 laps to continue his remarkable mastery of the IndyCar Series.
Franchitti has swept the last three IndyCar Series championships he contested, broken up only by a brief foray into NASCAR racing in 2008.
His 27 race wins tie him with Johnny Rutherford for 10th place in the all-time rankings.
"I didn't have the pace to keep up with Dario," admitted Power, who finished second to Franchitti in the 2010 IndyCar championship standings. "I'm just very glad to get the points today."
The main talking point after the race was the disastrous start, which eliminated Andretti Autosport's Mike Conway and Marco Andretti and put Castroneves, his Team Penske colleague Ryan Briscoe and Franchitti's Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon several laps down.
Castroneves appeared to brake too late and bumped Andretti's car into a lazy barrel roll over Dixon's machine. IndyCar modified its start rules for 2011, requiring drivers to pack up closer together in rows and accelerate later in a manner similar to NASCAR.
"I wasn't trying to pass, I was trying to stop the car," Castroneves said. "But I ended up causing a mess. If it was my fault, I apologize."
For the first time, double-file restarts were mandated, and those didn't go too well either as repeated incidents on restarts caused nine of the first 15 laps to be run behind the pace car.
"I wouldn't call the new rule successful with four restarts in the first 15 laps," commented Power. "I think the drivers need to have more respect for each other. Sometimes you have to back off a little."
As the leader, Franchitti had few problems and saw most of the carnage in his rearview mirrors. He believes the jury is still out on the double-file restarts.
"I'm glad the guys at IndyCar are listening to the fans and trying new things, but nobody wants to see half the field taken out," Franchitti said. "But it was something the team owners wanted, too, and they wield a big stick. There's probably a few owners scratching their heads right now looking at the bill for all that broken carbon fiber.
"The drivers also have to take some of the blame," he added. "We're the ones controlling the cars. Overall I like the fact that the guys running the series are trying stuff. They are modifying the show and some things are going to work and others aren't. We just have to figure out what's workable."
Along with Justin Wilson, Franchitti and Kanaan head a drivers committee that works with IndyCar to refine the rules, and you can be certain that the restart regulations will undergo scrutiny prior to the next race, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama set for April 10 at Barber Motorsports Park.
"Is it the double-file restarts, is it the later acceleration point for the restart, or is it just guys going for gaps that aren't there?" queried Franchitti. "I think the late restart zone is good for passing, but at Indianapolis, you're going to be a sitting duck."
The main beneficiaries of the early carnage were Kanaan and De Silvestro. Kanaan moved from eighth to third on the opening lap, and he held second place for most of the race before losing the position to Power during the final round of pit stops.
"That team was put together last Monday, the mechanics had never worked together before and I needed them to wear name tags," Kanaan said. "I need to put a picture of the steering wheel on my nightstand because I was pushing the overtake button under yellow when I was trying to talk on the radio.
"Last winter was the longest five months of my life," he added. "I had a job and lost a job twice without ever driving a race car. I'm just happy to be here."
De Silvestro, meanwhile, gained eight places on the first lap and a series of aggressive restarts put her up to second place by Lap 14.
"This is huge," said the 22-year-old native of Switzerland, whose previous best IndyCar finish was eighth place last year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. "I never thought on Friday that we would be running so well in the race. We had to scramble to find a new engineer, and I think we made the right choice. Brent Harvey is pretty awesome -- he calms me down on the radio and I think we're making a good team together.
"It's pretty crazy for me to be racing TK [Kanaan] because I've been watching him since I was growing up," she added. "To be right there racing him is pretty cool."
Franchitti and Kanaan have been friends and competitors since 1998 and they good-naturedly ribbed each other about their senior citizen status in the IndyCar Series.
But both of them proved Sunday that they have plenty left in the tank.
"I forced the issue pretty aggressively on Will on the first restart to take the lead," Franchitti said. "People have questioned my motivation and maybe that answers the question of how badly I still want to win races and championships.
"When you get to do moves like that and they come off, it's a buzz," he added. "The Target team worked like clockwork and days like today when the car is great and nothing goes wrong are few and far between.
"So you have to enjoy them when they happen."
His rivals have been warned.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.