This weekend the Verizon IndyCar Series launches its 2017 season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The race, held thirty minutes west of Tampa, has become a favourite amongst fans for its wide open first turn which creates several passing opportunities.
It is also the only race on the IndyCar calendar to combine city streets with an airport runway, making it one of the most unique race tracks in North America. Ahead of this weekend’s race, here are five stories you need to follow:
1) Newgarden Finds New Home at Penske
Josef Newgarden, who over the last five seasons has quickly become one of the most popular drivers in the paddock, has signed on to replace Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya at Penske. All eyes will be on the 26-year-old as he looks to impress in his first start with one of the most accomplished teams in IndyCar racing. In his past 82 starts, the Tennessean has 3 wins, 10 podiums, and 1 pole position. All signs indicate this year could be his most successful yet, however he will be looking to start things off on the right note with a good weekend in St. Petersburg. Newgarden has traditionally struggled in season openers, his highest finish to date was 9th place in 2014.
2) Bourdais Returns to Coyne
Josef Newgarden isn’t the only driver finding himself in a new stable this season, as Sebastian Bourdais has left the now defunct KV Racing to join Dale Coyne’s acclaimed Honda team. However, this won’t be the first time Bourdais has driven for Coyne. The four-time Champ Car champion first drove for him in 2011, which marked the Frenchman’s return to America following an ill-fated attempt at Formula 1 with Toro Rosso. Bourdais has six overall starts at St. Petersburg, winning the pole back in 2003 when the event was part of the Champ Car World Series. His best finish in a Verizon IndyCar Series event at St. Petersburg came in 2015 when he finished 6th.
3) Fresh Looking A.J. Foyt Racing Signs New Drivers and Engine Manufacturer
There’s no doubt that Honda cars have been playing catch-up to Chevrolet ever since IndyCar introduced manufacturer aero kits back in 2015. Honda drivers have been complaining of a lack of speed and overall downforce in comparison to their Chevy counterparts. However, for A.J. Foyt Racing these problems will hopefully be put behind them, as they have signed a deal with Chevrolet, effectively filling the void left behind by Chip Ganassi Racing who switched to Honda at the end of last season. With the Honda woes behind them, Foyt also made headlines during the off-season with the addition of Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, two young guns with a huge amount of promise. With the pieces seemingly falling into place, A.J. Foyt Racing is poised to have its best IndyCar season in years, and it could all start with a decent finish this weekend in St. Petersburg.
4) Hildebrand Marks Return to Full-Time Competition
It has been four years since JR Hildebrand last competed full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, with Panther Racing. However, in that time, Hildebrand has been no stranger in the IndyCar paddock, having competed in the last three Indy 500s for Ed Carpenter Racing. After Josef Newgarden left Ed Carpenter for Penske, Hildebrand was the logical choice to replace him, and will compete full-time in 2017. The young American will be feeling the pressure this weekend, as he is yet to earn a top 10 finish, registering DNFs in his last two St. Petersburg starts.
5) Dixon Still Without Full-Time Sponsor
When Target announced last season that it would be leaving IndyCar, ending a 27 year partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing, many fans and reporters began wondering who would fill this immense vacancy. As the 2016 season came to an end in September, there was still no announcement as to a new full-time sponsor for the number 9 car. This weekend Dixon’s car will be sporting the logos of General Electric, a familiar name to Ganassi, however the deal is only for the opening round. As of yet there is no full season sponsor, however many expect Ganassi to announce one in time for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 in May.
With these stories and more to follow, this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is sure to be an exciting start to the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.