What To Watch For: St. Petersburg

Following a compelling qualifying session that saw Will Power take the pole, Takuma Sato and Simona de Silvestro claim second and third on the grid, and rookie Tristan Vautier crack the Firestone Fast Six, we're set for racing today at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Noon ET, NBC Sports Network).

Power's fourth consecutive pole was no surprise whatsoever, but Sato, De Silvestro and Vautier went above and beyond expectations on Saturday. But qualifying is one thing and racing is another; we'll see if the latter three can capitalize and convert their strong starts to proper results.

De Silvestro will no doubt be the fans' choice this afternoon. The Swiss Missile went through a grueling 2012 thanks to the underpowered Lotus engine, but with a brand new team (KV Racing Technology) and a brand new Chevrolet engine, expect her to be much more competitive this season. If she could land a podium this afternoon, everyone involved would likely be over the moon.

Meanwhile, there are multiple big names in mid-pack and at the rear that will have to make their way up the grid. Among them: Dario Franchitti (10th), Justin Wilson (13th), Simon Pagenaud (19th), Scott Dixon (20th) and Sebastien Bourdais (21st).

Most of those I just listed are powered by Honda, which has been unable to completely match the pace of the Chevrolets up to this point; however, in this morning's warmup, the Honda camp landed eight of the top 10 positions (Ryan Hunter-Reay, a Chevy driver, led the way) so perhaps they'll have their act together for the main event. Still, the big boys will have to fight through the field and that should make for great action.

But no matter what engine you run, everything gets leveled if rain plays a role in today's race. Forecasts call for at least a 30% chance of rain in the Tampa/St. Pete region during race time, and that would change everything.

IZOD IndyCar Series – Honda GP of St. Petersburg

Starting Lineup

Row 1

12-Will Power (Alternate)
14-Takuma Sato (Alternate)

Row 2

78-Simona de Silvestro (Alternate)
27-James Hinchcliffe (Alternate)

Row 3

3-Helio Castroneves (Alternate)
55-Tristan Vautier (Alternate)

Row 4

25-Marco Andretti (Primary)
1-Ryan Hunter-Reay (Primary)

Row 5

6-Sebastian Saavedra (Alternate)
10-Dario Franchitti (Alternate)

Row 6

11-Tony Kanaan (Alternate)
22-Oriol Servia (Primary)

Row 7

19-Justin Wilson (Alternate)
83-Charlie Kimball (Primary)

Row 8

15-Graham Rahal (Primary)
67-Josef Newgarden (Alternate)

Row 9

98-Alex Tagliani (Alternate)
16-James Jakes (Primary)

Row 10

77-Simon Pagenaud (Alternate)
9-Scott Dixon (Primary)

Row 11

7-Sebastien Bourdais (Primary)
5-EJ Viso (Primary)

Row 12

20-Ed Carpenter (Alternate)
4-JR Hildebrand (Alternate)

Row 13

18-Ana Beatriz (Alternate)

What to watch for: St. Petersburg

1. Multiple hot spots on 1.8-mile course

If you’ve followed the series long enough, then you’ll have an idea of where the action is going to be on the St. Petersburg street circuit. Turn 1, a right-hander, has been the site of plenty of multi-car incidents over the years — including last year, which saw a big crash just after the start of the race that ended with Marco Andretti upside down. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail tomorrow.

After that, Turn 4, another sharp righty, is another part of the course that will see plenty of passing and, most likely, at least one or two botched attempts that will end with a car going into the tire barrier. If somebody gets a big run off the fast Turn 3 and can pull up alongside someone else on the short straight to 4, look out.

Finally, the left-hand Turn 10 — now known as ‘Dan Wheldon Way’ in honor of St. Petersburg’s late champion, Dan Wheldon — is another big braking zone that has serious risk/reward implications. Watch that left-side curb.

2. Andretti assault

The team with the best shot at breaking up the Penske-Ganassi bloc could be Andretti Autosport, which placed all three of its drivers within the first four rows. Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe (who didn’t race at St. Pete last year for Newman-Haas due to sponsorship problems) line up side-by-side in Row 2, while Marco Andretti will start P8 on the outside of Scott Dixon.

Obviously, keeping their noses clean will be essential in the early going, but they also can’t let the Team Penske front row of polesitter Will Power and Ryan Briscoe escape their sight either. What’s more, Power and Briscoe won’t be lacking for help either at the front. Their teammate Helio Castroneves starts behind RHR and Hinch in P5.

3. Mid-pack melee?

There are some seriously good competitors in the middle of the grid that can make their way up the pylon, but being in mid-pack can be quite hazardous for them as well — especially on starts and restarts. Defending race and series champion Dario Franchitti is starting 9th after a subpar qualifying session, and behind him are some big names: Former St. Pete winner Graham Rahal in 10th, Rubens Barrichello (making his first IndyCar start) from 13th, another former F1 standout in Takuma Sato at 14th, Justin Wilson in 15th and Simon Pagenaud in 16th after his 10-spot penalty for an unapproved engine change.

Don’t be surprised to see some of these names pull themselves toward the front, but don’t also be surprised to see at least one of them have their days impacted by an incident of some kind.

4. Can Lotus be competitive?

The Chevy-Honda rivalry will be in full effect tomorrow, but try to keep an eye on the Lotus bunch and see if they can put up a decent fight. Sebastien Bourdais had been the group’s standard-bearer in practice and managed to do well considering the Lotus’ lack of power. But the switch to the alternate red tires went horribly for him in qualifying and he’s starting caboose in 26th as a result.

Instead, Alex Tagliani will lead the charge at the start on Sunday, starting from 17th position; the other four Lotus competitors are situated within the final six spots on the grid. Suffice to say, attrition could be their best friend.

5. Remembering ‘Lionheart’

It’s been five months since the IZOD IndyCar Series suffered the tragic loss of Wheldon. Sunday will be the first time the series goes back to racing since his death and so, it figures to be emotional for everyone. But we’re sure the drivers and teams will do all they can to honor the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion by putting on a great show in the city he took as his adopted hometown.

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
IZOD IndyCar Series

Position. (Car No.) Driver, Chassis-Engine, Time (Speed)

1. (12) Will Power, Dallara-Chevy, 01:01.3721 seconds (105.585 mph)
2. (2) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Chevy, 01:01.5357 (105.305)
3. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Chevy, 01:01.9321 (104.631)
4. (27) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Chevy, 01:01.9701 (104.567)
5. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Chevy, 01:01.9987 (104.518)
*6. (77) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara-Honda, 01:02.1095 (104.332)
7. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 01:01.7636 (104.916)
8. (26) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Chevy, 01:01.7895 (104.872)
9. (11) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Chevy, 01:01.8699 (104.736)
10. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 01:01.9570 (104.589)
11. (38) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 01:02.0233 (104.477)
12. (14) Mike Conway, Dallara-Honda, 01:02.5084 (103.666)
13. (5) EJ Viso, Dallara-Chevy, 01:02.5146 (103.656)
14. (8) Rubens Barrichello, Dallara-Chevy, 01:02.2009 (104.179)
15. (15) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 01:02.6015 (103.512)
16. (18) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 01:02.2538 (104.090)
17. (98) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Lotus, 01:02.6506 (103.431)
18. (4) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Chevy, 01:02.4426 (103.775)
19. (67) Josef Newgarden, Dallara-Honda, 01:02.7155 (103.324)
20. (19) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 01:02.5271 (103.635)
21. (78) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara-Lotus, 01:02.8218 (103.149)
22. (83) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 01:03.0437 (102.786)
23. (22) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Lotus, 01:02.8771 (103.058)
24. (20) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Chevy, 01:03.3591 (102.274)
25. (6) Katherine Legge, Dallara-Lotus, 01:04.1654 (100.989)
26. (7) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara-Lotus, 01:05.6858 (98.651)
*Note: Pagenaud has been given a 10-grid spot penalty for an unapproved engine change on March 23.