The competition will be fierce in 2011
Editor's note: This is the second installment by three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who'll be writing periodically for ESPN.com throughout the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series season (as told to ESPN.com motorsports writer John Oreovicz).
It's hard to believe that the first race of the Izod IndyCar Series season is finally here and I can't wait. I'm really excited about how the testing at IndyCar spring training went for myself and Team Penske.
The buzz and the atmosphere at Barber Motorsports Park was awesome. Almost every car was there and it had the feeling of a race weekend, which was really cool. It was good to see everyone coming back, and there were some new faces and different colors on the race cars that I am going to have to get used to seeing in my rearview mirrors!
I really liked the vibe that was happening there and I'm certainly feeling amped up for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
St. Pete is definitely a great place to start the championship. It's a great racetrack and it seems the crowd really enjoys having us there. I particularly love the place, maybe because I've had a lot of success there.
I've won twice, got the pole position and had another second-place finish there. The expectation and the feeling I have is really good, so I'm optimistic for St. Pete as Guidepoint Systems makes its debut as a sponsor on the No. 3 Team Penske car this weekend, and I'm really hopeful for the season in general.
We could see in spring training that the three Team Penske cars were very fast and showed tremendous potential. Obviously none of what we learned there can be used on a street course like St. Pete because Barber is a different type of circuit -- a smooth, natural-terrain road course. But we were happy with the results and I'm sure there is more to come.
Looking at the testing times, certainly the Ganassi and Penske teams are going to continue to be very successful. They are very good teams and they set the pace for everyone both on and off the track.
It's a good challenge for the others. Newman/Haas Racing and KV Racing Technology -- Lotus seemed to be very strong, so I think they are going to be the closest challengers. I wouldn't call them dark horses, because we know they are capable of being very strong, especially with Tony Kanaan now at KV and Oriol Servia back at Newman/Haas.
But new combinations with new drivers will certainly create more of a challenge for us and make us more competitive.
Dario Franchitti is the defending Izod IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion, and he is always a very good driver. I'm actually happy that he's achieving this amount of success because he's showing that experience counts quite a lot.
That reflects well on the other "elder statesmen" in the IndyCar Series like me! All the experienced drivers help their teams develop a better car and achieve good results. I have no doubt Dario is going to be a very tough competitor this year and he's a great champion too -- a very classy guy.
Chip Ganassi's team is running four cars this year and it says a lot that his team has the capability to do that. I could see at spring training that they have moved some people around and that creates opportunities for young mechanics and engineers. That's how guys like that make names of their own.
Plus, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball have a great opportunity to advance their careers and show what they are capable of, as well. I know they are going to be competitive. I don't wish the Ganassi group anything bad, but I hope there will be too much going on and that will take a little bit of their focus away from what they did in the past. It will be interesting to see.
Kanaan had a tough winter but he found a ride with KV -- Lotus. He is another one of those experienced drivers who is always a threat to win races. KV -- Lotus always seems to have fast cars on the ovals, but its inexperienced drivers last year weren't often able to show that.
I think Tony will be a guy who springs a few surprises with that team. I'm glad to have him in the series, because he's a great name and a strong personality and I'm happy he was able to find a ride. He's a good friend and I wish him all the luck.
We can't count Andretti Autosport out either. Certainly Ryan Hunter-Reay has proved that he is a very talented and fast driver. And Mike Conway has a great opportunity to prove himself in a good team that has won races before and run at the front. The Andretti team has won championships and the Indianapolis 500, so clearly the team has talent. With Hunter-Reay leading the team, I guarantee you Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Conway will make a strong team out there. I just hope we will be in front of them!
Justin Wilson was very competitive last year for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and he was on the podium a couple times. They showed a lot of potential and speed and Justin should continue to do well.
The person who is going to benefit from that is his teammate, Ana Beatriz. She can really learn a lot from Justin, in terms of braking, turn-in speed and how to work with the engineers. She has a great background in open-wheel racing and this is a terrific opportunity for her. But she's still a rookie, and even though she won Indy Lights races in the past, the Indy car has a lot more grip and power and it will take time for her to adjust.
As long as she knows to learn from Justin, I think she'll be up there as well.
Changes are always good, and the IndyCar Series has introduced some new rules for 2011.
I think the double-file restarts are going to create a lot of excitement. It might not always benefit the leader, but it's going to be the same for everyone, and the ones who will really benefit are the fans. I just hope everybody uses their heads and remembers that we are not NASCAR. We can't touch fenders and bumpers and bang wheels or there could be a big mess!
Overall I'm excited that the series is going to try some different things.
It's always very welcome to have new challenges. And the extra coverage and commitment that NBC Sports and Versus are devoting to Indy car racing is tremendous for the sport, along with our partners at ABC.
All these things are extremely awesome for us to have for the 2011 season, and I hope to be telling you about another victory in St. Petersburg for myself and Team Penske in my next column.