ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Will Power was chatty and smiling, sitting cross-legged on the pit wall. It was not the expected reaction after a two-time winner of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg finished 10th in a resoundingly mundane day for a team that had won the race eight of 14 times heading into today.
The racing was fun and difficult and he was confident his team would be fine, so there was apparently no need for a dour mood.
“I just think for starters, the series is very, very competitive, just very good guys everywhere,” Power said after Sebastien Bourdais won the race for the second consecutive year. “You make a mistake and you’re going to suffer for it, as you saw today.”
Penske’s Simon Pagenaud had shaken off a 13th-place result in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet a half hour after the race as he glided his scooter into the team paddock to drop of his dry cleaning. Not a good day, he said, but again, no reason to panic.
This season, they agreed, promised to be difficult, but one race, even one the team has dominated, should not be taken as a benchmark for the next 16 and the championship to be decided at Sonoma Raceway come September. This was a collection of unfortunate events for him, Power and defending series champion Josef Newgarden, who was seventh in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet after contact with another car impacted his run.
“I think it’s a one-off, really. I think we had the pace. We all just had different problems,” Pagenaud said. “We had a (tire) gun problem on the first pit stop. We were seventh (at the time). It wasn’t bad considering qualifying, so we recovered, but then we restarted 20th. It just didn’t work.
“I feel bad for my crew because it wasn’t a human mistake. It’s a mechanical problem. It’s disappointing, but we did the best we could. It’s just impossible to pass on the straightaway. You can follow really close, but it doesn’t draft anymore. So, I spent my time in the back there and not being able to have any opportunities.”
Power’s race unraveled quickly when he lost control of his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet in Turn 2 of the first lap as rookie pole sitter Robert Wickens, he said, “just turned so aggressively and he hit my front” after Power pulled alongside.
“I went into him trying to miss him,” Power said. “He left me no room. We touched. That’s why I spun.”
Team Penske’s season certainly isn’t in disarray, but it figures to be different than after Bourdais won at St. Petersburg a year ago. Newgarden won the team’s first race in the third event of the season at Barber Motorsports Park last year, his first of a series-best four on the way to his first championship. Pagenaud won twice and finished second in the final standings; Helio Castroneves had one win and finished fourth; Power three triumphs and finished fifth. Graham Rahal was the only non-Penske driver to win multiple races (two).
Power said the new universal aero kit raced for the first time today has “massively” equalized competition. Bourdais’ team co-owner, Dale Coyne, said that it has “very much so” and hopes it can help mid-level teams contend for championships in addition to wins.
“That’s always the goal,” Coyne said. “It’s a big hill to climb but we’re going to work our way up it.”
Though Pagenaud, who led Team Penske with a second-place finish at St. Pete last year, predicts “lots of different winners” this season, neither he nor Power see an erosion of the team’s power yet.
“We certainly need to do some work, for sure,” Pagenaud said. “Everybody’s very competitive and I think it’s very tight. So, I think that anything we can gain today is very good. First race, I think we have a good understanding of what we need, and we’ll go forward. This is a team that never sleeps, so I’m not worried about the future.”
But the season, like the opening race, Power said, will be a test.
“It’s just typical of a spec car, just very good competition,” he said. “I think there was no expectation to come here and kick everyone’s ass. I can tell you that. We knew from testing and just from the fact that it’s one make (of chassis and aero kit), it’s going to be tough.”