Preview: 2019 NTT IndyCar Series – St. Petersburg

by Jordan Groves
2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Duel In Detroit Race Start

After a long off-season, the NTT IndyCar Series is finally back! This weekend, the 2019 championship will get underway with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg; the now traditional season-opener on the streets of the Floridian city.

St. Petersburg often provides one hell of a start to the IndyCar season, with the teams and drivers being thoroughly tested by the fast, tight and bumpy 1.8-mile circuit.

Ahead of the much-anticipated season-opener, here is everything you need to know ahead of this weekend’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

What happened in 2018 at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg?

The 2018 IndyCar Series kicked off with a bang twelve months ago. After a tricky qualifying session with mixed weather conditions, rookie Robert Wickens was the fastest driver and would take pole position for his first IndyCar race; a feat only accomplished before by Nigel Mansell and Sebastien Bourdais.

Despite having driven in DTM for many years prior, Wickens seemed to have well and truly got back into the groove of single-seater racing. The Arrow Schmidt Peterson driver held onto the lead at the start of the race and went on to lead the most laps.

Everything looked to be going according to plan for Wickens as the race neared its end. However, a caution late in the race following a crash for Max Chilton set up a late-race restart with just two laps to go. Throughout the race, Alexander Rossi had been trading lap-times with Wickens toward the front of the field. On the restart, Rossi was determined to go for the victory.

Rossi got a great run on Wickens on the run down into turn one on the restart. Rossi went for a move up the inside of turn one, with Wickens holding his line on the outside to try and hold onto the position. At the apex of the corner, the rear of Rossi’s Andretti stepped out from underneath him.

As a result, Rossi and Wickens made contact, with Wickens being sent spinning into the outside wall and, therefore, out of the race. It was a desperately disappointing way for such an incredible performance to end for Robert. Rossi would manage to keep going, but he would lose two positions to Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal.

The caution would come out shortly thereafter for Wickens’ stricken Honda. Therefore, despite having started deep in the pack, Sebastien Bourdais would win the season-opening race for Dale Coyne Racing.

The win would be Sebastien’s second-straight victory at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but this one perhaps meant so much more than the first. Bourdais had missed much of the previous season due to his heavy crash in qualifying for the 2017 Indianapolis 500. There had been concerns that Sebastien may not be able to return to IndyCar. However, Bourdais’ win in the 2018 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg proved that all of those concerns were unwarranted.

You can read the reports from last year’s qualifying and race at St. Petersburg by following the links below

What should I look out for this weekend?

Last year, much of the focus heading into the opening race of the season was on the new cars and the updated, lower downforce, aerodynamic package. This time around, the cars have stayed very much the same. As a result, the focus now is almost squarely on the potential championship fight we have ahead of us.

A fantastic class of drivers will be on the grid this weekend. Heading into the season as the reigning champion will be Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Scott Dixon, who will be hoping to have a stronger start to the year then he did in 2018 in order to give himself every shot at defending his title.

Dixon was pursued in the 2018 title by his closest rival, Alexander Rossi. On his day last season, Rossi would put in some of the most dominating performances of the season, crushing the opposition at both Long Beach and Mid-Ohio. If he and Andretti Autosport can find the dominating form more often this year, there is every chance Rossi could be in with a shot of taking the title at the season-finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September.

However, in order to do that, Alexander will need a strong foundation to build off of. Rossi showed impressive race-pace twelve months ago and was in a position to contend for the victory until his ill-fated attempt at an overtake on Robert Wickens. If Rossi can keep out of trouble this time around, expect him to have a shot at victory circle on Sunday.

Rossi’s Andretti Autosports team-mate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, could also be one to watch this weekend. The American put in some stellar performances last year, including a simply dominating performance at the season finale at Sonoma Raceway. If the 2012 series champion can effectively capitalize on his momentum from the end of last season, he could be in with a shot of getting 2019 off to a great start by contending for his first St. Pete victory.

Once again, one of the most dangerous threats to the established “front-runners” on the grid, could come in the form of Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais. Whilst 2018 was a somewhat lacklustre season as a whole, Bourdais began the year on top by winning at St. Pete. If Bourdais can return to victory circle this weekend, it will be his third successive victory on the streets of St. Petersburg, a hat-trick that would further establish his dominance on the Floridian circuit.

The last group of drivers to keep an eye out for are the class of rookies that will be on the grid this weekend. Last year, St. Petersburg played host to the emergence of several exciting talents, with Robert Wickens, Jordan King and Matheus Leist all impressing at various points during the weekend despite being rookie drivers.

This time around, the grid will once again contain a number of rookies. Perhaps the most exciting prospect comes in the shape of Ganassi’s rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who will, at last, make his IndyCar debut after years of rumours linking him to the championship. He will also be joined by fellow Swedish driver, Marcus Ericsson, who will be on the grid with Arrow Schmidt Peterson after having lost his seat in Formula 1 at the end of last year.

Another rookie to keep an eye out for will be Harding Steinbrenner Racing‘s, Colton Herta. The American teenager showed impressive pace during the pre-season test at the Circuit of the Americas. What’s more, Harding put in a number of solid performances in what was their first full season of IndyCar last year. There is every chance that Herta and Harding could be right in the mix this weekend.

Finally, be on the look-out for IndyCar’s newest team and driver. DragonSpeed will make their IndyCar debut this weekend, with British driver Ben Hanley also making his first start. The team will have only completed a handful of shakedown laps before heading out on track this weekend at St. Petersburg. It will certainly be interesting to see how both the team and driver get on in their first event. Making it to the chequered flag on Sunday with valuable mileage completed will most likely feel like a victory for both Hanley and DragonSpeed.

What is the schedule for the weekend?

Friday 8 March

10:45 ET / 15:45 GMT – Practice one
14:15 ET / 19:15 GMT – Practice two

Saturday 9 March

10:45 ET / 15:45 GMT – Practice three
14:30 ET / 19:30 GMT – Qualifying

Sunday 10 March

12:30 ET / 17:30 GMT – Race

Where can I watch the 2019 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg?

Tickets are still available for this weekend’s race. Head to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg website for more information.

As a part of the IndyCar’s new UK coverage deal, both qualifying and the race will be broadcasted live on Sky Sports F1.

In the United States, television coverage for St. Petersburg will be shown on NBC Sports.

Further coverage of practice and qualifying will be provided for all via IndyCar’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

How can I keep up to date with all the race action?

If you cannot make it to St. Petersburg for this weekend’s race, you can keep up to date with all the action across the weekend right here at The Checkered Flag. We will have coverage of this weekend’s practice, qualifying and race sessions.

Be sure to also follow IndyCar on Twitter – @IndyCar – for live updates throughout the event.

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