After an unbearably long off-season, the 2014 IndyCar Series gets underway with the field gearing up for the Grand Prix of St Petersburg, a tortuous test on the streets of the Florida city. Our IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon previews this weekend’s racing – check out his complete season preview for a look at the year ahead…


The Circuit

2014 FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST PETERSBURG

St Petersburg Circuit

Date: 28-30 March 2014
Lap Length: 2.897km
Free Practice Session 1 Fri 10:00-10:45
Free Practice Session 2 Fri 14:00-14:45
Free Practice Session 3 Sat 10:00-10:45
Qualifying Sat 14:00-15:10
Sunday Warm-Up Sun 09:45-10:15
Race (110 laps) Sun 15:30-17:45
2013 Winner James Hinchcliffe (Andretti Autosport)

* All session times are quoted in Eastern Daylight Time (GMT -04:00 hrs)

St Petersburg is starting to become the regular venue for the first event of the year, having now kicked off the season for the last three years. The 2.9km circuit calls for cars to be highly adaptable to surface changes, with many jumps from concrete to asphalt over its 14 turns.

The circuit also takes in part of the local airport runway, with plenty of bumps requiring a stable car able to manage the changes in track surface.


St Petersburg Talking Points

Fireworks have been set off for Season 2014 before the first race has even started, with Team Penske President Tim Cindric playing a little bit of juvenile schoolyard taunting of arch-rival Chip Ganassi. There has always been a strong level of mutual respect between Penske and Ganassi, but Cindric poured a bit of fuel on the competitive fires by saying Chip Ganassi had more to gain by comparing himself to Roger Penske than vice-versa. Call it politics, call it a competitive jab, whatever. It wasn’t really necessary.

Regardless, the practice action so far has seen James Hinchcliffe and Takuma Sato top the timesheets from the first two practice sessions respectively.

As far as last minute driver signings go, this one has to be up there among the latest. Dale Coyne has finally named the occupant of his second car, with Carlos Huertas adding his name to the Rookie of the Year contenders. Huertas has been plucked from relative obscurity in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series and briefly tested with Panther Racing at the pre-season session at Sebring. He will contest all events this season except for the Indy 500, Texas, Pocono, Iowa, Milwaukee and Fontana – in other words, everything except the oval races.

As one driver joins the series at the last minute, another team has ruled itself out from participation this weekend. Panther Racing has withdrawn from the event this weekend, with owner John Barnes saying he isn’t confident of being able to contest every race. No driver has been named for the team so far, with no full-time pilot having been part of the team since J.R Hildebrand departed early last season. Could Panther be the next team to depart the series? Signs are looking ominous.

Fans are ready, the team are ready, the media is ready, and clearly, Penske & Ganassi management are ready to resume on-track hostilities. Off we go for 2014.

Image via XPB Images

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Matt Lennon

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