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Will Power had barely featured at all in the practice sessions leading up to the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, and if anything all eyes were on Takuma Sato to see if the Japanese star could claim his second win in the Verizon IndyCar Series. But when it came down to race strategy on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, there was just no matching Power and Team Penske's masterful campaign for the #12 car.
- Huge early lead for Sato undone on pit lane
- Power goes on to lead most laps to claim first win of 2014
- Restart chaos sees Hawksworth and Andretti crash out
Under perfect blue skies in stark contrast to the stormy, overcast conditions of the last two days in Florida, the green flag finally dropped on the first round of the 2014 IndyCar season with Takuma Sato and Tony Kanaan leading the charge down to turn 1 at St Petersburg. Honours went to Sato who blasted away from the field, while Kanaan lost out for second place to an assertive Ryan Hunter-Reay. The big star of the incident-free first lap however was Graham Rahal, who launched himself forward nine spots from what had been a deeply disappointing back row qualifying position to run up in 13th position.
Ten laps in and Sato had a lead of over two seconds but was also complaining of oversteer, and in general the orders up and down pit lane were to focus on saving tyres - so much so that first Sebastien Bourdais and then James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin opted for off-sync early pit stops from the back of the field on laps 13 and 14. That set a trend, with Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden soon following suit for fresh, faster tyres rather than having to make do on fading rubber.
Not that the old tyres seemed all that much of a handicap to Sato who continued to power away at the front and build up a five-second lead, now over Hunter-Reay while Will Power and Helio Castroneves had also made their way past Kanaan for third and fourth places. Power was the first of the top six to pit on lap 22 and switch from the red-wall option soft tyres to the a set of the prime Firestones, but Sato and the other leaders stretched it to lap 28 without apparent ill effect before coming in.
Once the stops had cycled through, Sato was still in front, but his lead over second place man Power had been slashed back to just half a second, with Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Justin Wilson and Tony Kanaan making up the rest of the top six 30 laps in. Power was determined to press home the change in momentum, and as soon as he could he used the push-to-pass as he headed into turn 1 at the start of lap 31 to pull off a dazzling, successful and fearless overtake to claim the top spot. Once past, Power raced off into the distance at an alarming rate with Sato simply unable to match the #12's pace on this set of tyres.
Being passed in rapid succession by Marco Andretti, Jack Hawksworth and Graham Rahal only served to confirm the suspected gearbox and rear grip issues being experienced by Juan Pablo Montoya that forced the #2 car onto pit road for attention putting him a lap down. Also beset by gremlins were Charlie Kimball and Mikhail Aleshin, while last year's St Pete race winner James Hinchcliffe was suffering from electrical problems on the #27 that were stopping him from making any sort of progress at all from the back.
Graham Rahal was also back on pit road on lap 45 although in his case it was for his scheduled second stop on his off-sync pit strategy, which was soon copied by the other members of the same cohort. By comparison, Will Power was able to stay out until lap 52 at which point his lead over Sato was up to ten seconds and climbing. Sato had a few minutes in the lead to work with the overlap before his own pit stop was due, ultimately extending this second run all the way through to lap 58 before he came in, but that still left him needing one more stop to get to the finish and in the meantime he was now down to fifth place behind Power, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway. A neat move from Conway on Hunter-Reay soon put the Ed Carpenter Racing #20 up to third place, but the Englishman was still some nine seconds off the back of Castroneves who was in turn four seconds back from his team mate, race leader Will Power - although the #12 was atypically squirrelly during this phase of the race and looked a handful at times as Power continued to push hard.
After 76 uninterrupted laps of racing, a yellow finally materialised when Charlie Kimball ran into the tyres in the turn 1 run-off while battling with Jack Hawksworth. On his first lap out after his latest pit stop, Kimball's tyres had evidently been cooler and more lacking in grip than he had expected. The timing of the caution was a game-changer as everyone now piled onto pit road for their final stops of the day with 35 to go, after which Power was back at the front for the restart ahead of Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Kanaan and Sato. A miscommunication resulted in Conway getting called on to pit road too late, undoing all his good work as he was handed a drive-thru penalty for overtaking the safety car as a consequence, while Carlos Huertas and Sebastien Boursais were also penalised for coming into the pits while closed and for not packing up behind the safety car respectively.
The single file restart attempt on lap 83 did not go well: Will Power's pace to the start line was unusually but not improperly slow, nonetheless catching out everyone behind him who started to pile up in a concertina effect. Something had to give, and it was Jack Hawksworth's car that was sent spearing across the width of the track to collect Marco Andretti against the inside wall, in a nasty impact that left Marco nursing a sore hand after he had been unable to left go of the wheel fast enough. Hawksworth was uninjured, but the suspension on the #98 was shattered beyond repair.
Power was much more spritely on the next restart on lap 87 and pulled away from the battle for second which was won by Hunter-Reay from Castroneves, with Dixon, Pagenaud and Kanaan running close behind and Sato down to seventh just ahead of Wilson. With everyone working to the full extent of their fuel tolerance there was little room for any last minute surprises, and while Power was unable to pull out a huge lead at the front this time around it still settled at around a comfortable two second advantage over Hunter-Reay
That advantage was hardly dented by the time Power crossed the finish line and claimed the chequered flag, his 22nd victory in 122 starts in the Indycar Series. Along with the bonus point for leading the most laps, Power takes the initial lead in the championship standings by 13 points from Hunter-Reay as he sets his sights firmly on finally winning his first career title in 2014. But if this weekend is anything to go by, it's going to take a lot of hard work - no matter how effortless Power made it look to the fans watching on.
"Man, I'm mentally tired," he said. "That was physical and hard, but pretty stoked to get the first win for Verizon as the series sponsor with the Verizon car. It's a great day, a great stop there when we all pitted at the same time, the boys got me out there. Really happy with that and we executed well."
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