2020 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview
By: Christopher DeHarde
The largest season-opening field in NTT IndyCar Series history since 2012 will race down the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida on March 15th to begin the next chapter in the top level of American open wheel racing.
An expanded grid of 26 cars are expected to compete in the 17th open wheel race held on the 1.8 mile, 14-turn circuit that snakes its way around the Salvador Dali Museum, Al Lang Stadium and finishes along the Albert Whitted Airport runway.
On the track, there are new drivers in new cars and some familiar teams expanding their operations. Perhaps the biggest change involves the newly-renamed Arrow McLaren SP team. Formerly Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the team became a joint entrant with McLaren Racing, switching to Chevrolet engines from Honda and relieving drivers James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson of their duties. Ericsson since has moved to Chip Ganassi Racing.
In place of Hinchcliffe and Ericsson, the team went with the youngest driver pairing in the series. 20-year-old Patricio O’Ward and 23-year-old Oliver Askew are the two most recent Indy Lights champions and answered the call to drive for McLaren’s partnership with Sam Schmidt’s team. The pair, however, will have their seasons scrutinized underneath a microscope by a fanbase and paddock still reeling from Hinchcliffe’s dismissal following assurances that his contract would be honored by the team.
Another team that went through wholesale changes was Dale Coyne Racing. Alex Palou takes over Santino Ferrucci’s seat in the renumbered and renamed No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda while Ferrucci shifts over to the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan-entry. Both lead engineers have also departed the team, with Michael Cannon going to Chip Ganassi Racing and Craig Hampson moving to Arrow McLaren SP.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises also has a new look going into 2020. With the departure of ABC Supply as a primary sponsor, the team has had to rely on a mix of four different drivers to pilot their two cars. Charlie Kimball will drive the No. 4 Chevrolet at all races, while Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and Dalton Kellett will share the No. 14 entry. Bourdais will drive the No. 14 at St. Petersburg.
Ed Carpenter Racing starts 2020 with a new driver in each of its two full-season entrants. The eponymous team owner will race the No. 20 Chevrolet on the ovals with Conor Daly taking over on the road and street courses. The No. 21 entry will have Rinus VeeKay behind the wheel, VeeKay being the Americanized version of Van Kalmthout. VeeKay won the 2018 Indy Pro 2000 championship and finished second in the other two Road to Indy championships behind Oliver Askew.
Other teams are expanding for 2020. Andretti Autosport has now absorbed Harding-Steinbrenner Racing into its fold with the newly-renamed Andretti Harding Steinbrener Autosport entry for Colton Herta while Meyer Shank Racing has expanded from 10 races to competing in all 17 IndyCar races with Jack Harvey behind the wheel.
Carlin will have Max Chilton behind the wheel in all road and street course races and the Indianapolis 500, the British driver believing that the risks at other ovals besides Indianapolis are not worth the rewards. Carlin’s second car has been linked with many drivers, but as of this writing, no decision has been announced for at least St. Petersburg.
Dragonspeed will have Ben Hanley back for St. Petersburg and the team will contest several more races as the season progresses. Also expanding their IndyCar operations is Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The Dennis Reinbold-led squad cut back to Indianapolis only after the 2013 Indianapolis 500 and will have Sage Karam behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Team Penske have their standard three cars from last year with Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud behind the wheel. Chip Ganassi Racing kept Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist to partner Ericsson, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing still have Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato while Andretti Autosport’s four full time drivers of Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Zach Veach are all back.
Off the track, new series ownership leads the changes ahead of the 2020 season. Penske Corporation announced on November 3, 2019 that it had come into an agreement with Hulman & Company to acquire all of its assets, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions. The sale was finalized January 6th for an undisclosed amount of money.
2020 also marks the beginning of the aeroscreen era. Red Bull Advanced Technologies collaborated with Dallara to build a combination windscreen and halo device to deflect debris away from the driver’s head. Reaction among the IndyCar fanbase has been mixed, with many happy at the increased safety aspect, but others are upset at the inability to see the drivers’ heads and at the aesthetics of the bolted-on device.
NBCSN will broadcast the 2020 season opening race for the NTT IndyCar Series starting at 2:30 p.m. ET with the green flag an hour later.