IndyCar opener at St. Pete forgettable
Editor's note: This is the third 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).
Well, the 2011 season certainly didn't get off to the start I was hoping for. As you probably know, I was involved in a crash at the first corner of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and I finished the race in 20th place. That's frustrating, because I had a lot of success at St. Pete in the past, including two victories.
It was also disappointing because we welcomed our new sponsor -- GuidePoint Systems -- to the team, but not with the results we were hoping for. The good news is, they had a great time at the race and they definitely see the opportunities that lie ahead.
The problems started for us earlier in the weekend. I had trouble locking the rear brakes throughout practice, but we kept improving the car and we were third fastest in the final practice session. I made it out of my qualifying group pretty easily, but I was unable to repeat my time during the second round of qualifications and we failed to make it into the Firestone Fast Six, instead lining up ninth on the starting grid.
That left us in the middle of the pack and on the inside line for the start, and that's when it all went wrong. After the race, I was still trying to figure out what happened. Part of the St. Petersburg track is the main runway of the Albert Whitted Airport, so naturally there are white stripes painted on the runway. Normally we are not running or braking on the part of the track where I was for the start -- on the far inside line entering the corner. I wasn't sure whether somebody pushed me from behind or whether I locked the rear wheels on the white painted lines, but I ran into the back of Marco Andretti's car and knocked him into a few more cars. Marco's car rolled and landed upside down, but fortunately he wasn't hurt.
Obviously, if it was my fault or my mistake, I apologize. There's just nothing else you can do in a situation like that. It was just one of those unfortunate things. After I pushed Marco, it turned into a big mess that ended up ruining the race for several drivers, including my teammate, Ryan Briscoe.
I still don't understand what happened because I wasn't really trying to pass anyone -- I was just trying to stay behind Marco. Maybe he braked too deep, but I just couldn't stop the car. I do believe from the replays I saw right after the race that there was nobody behind me. It looked like I just locked the rears on the paint and I ended up hitting Marco.
The Team Penske guys did a terrific job getting the car repaired quickly. In fact, it's incredible that they changed the entire left front corner of the car in such a short period of time. When we got back out there, we showed that the GuidePoint Systems machine was pretty fast. We did a lot of laps in the 63-second bracket, including the fastest timed lap in the race. Unfortunately, we were 16 laps behind after we came back out from the garage.
The start and the new double-file race restarts IndyCar introduced this year were certainly a controversial topic after the St. Petersburg race. I think they need to look at the line where we are allowed to start accelerating. The reason I'm saying that is we accelerate so fast and our tires and our brakes are still cold.
Everything is difficult, and you can't see anything back there. It's like sitting on your floor. Your braking point for the first corner of a race is completely different. You're coming into the corner at a different speed because you've been behind the pace car, and with IndyCar's new rules this year, the start speed was quite a bit slower than we are used to from the past. Plus, the car is much heavier with a full tank of fuel and you have cars all around you. It creates a difficult situation for everybody.
My suggestion would be to start accelerating 400 or 500 feet from the start line rather than 200 feet so we can create more speed and separation between the cars. The drivers would be able to see more, and there wouldn't be so much of a tight pack. Certainly I will express my opinion to chief steward Brian Barnhart and series CEO Randy Bernard.
But overall I'm pleased that the series is trying new things. It's a positive thing, not a negative thing. We might just need to make some small modifications. It was exciting for the fans, and that's what everyone was looking for. That's the most important thing. We wanted to work on the new start procedures in the first few races so that we can fix any problems before the Indianapolis 500.
One of the big stories in St. Pete was Simona De Silvestro's fourth-place finish, which was the best of her IndyCar career. Simona did a really great job, and I know she was giving Tony Kanaan all the pressure he could handle in the last few laps. The great thing about auto racing is that it's an equal sport. The female competitors might wear their hair in a ponytail and they might put on makeup, but when they put on that helmet, they're the same as any other driver out there. It's great for women everywhere, and what an awesome job by Simona.
I think Tony might be the best thing that ever happened to the KVRT-Lotus team. It struggled to finish races in the past, and now I think it's going to see much better results. A week before the race, Tony didn't know whether he would be in a car at St. Petersburg and he didn't get any preseason testing, so good for him. Sometimes it's like tennis -- when a guy is injured or he spends some time away from the court, all of a sudden, he's no longer a favorite. It's a psychological thing. Tony didn't have much to lose, but he is patient and he's a good driver.
I'm happy for him and that team, and for sure they are going to be contenders this season.
Obviously our main objective in the next few races is to try to pick up the points that we lost toward the championship. You certainly don't want to start the season coming from behind. We know we need to come back strong from that disappointment. So we knew we couldn't leave St. Petersburg hanging our heads down. We have to continue to stay positive and ahead of the game. Falling behind in the points standings hurts, but it's a long season and we have to focus on the job at hand and hope for better luck in the next few races.
I'm sure things are going to turn around quickly. All three Team Penske cars were very fast at Barber Motorsports Park in spring testing, and I've always enjoyed racing on the Long Beach street course. Those back-to-back races are a good opportunity for us to take some positive momentum to my home race in Brazil -- and of course for the month of May and the Indianapolis 500.