For the first time in the series history, the Verizon IndyCar Series is set to tackle the NOLA Motorsports Park road course. The 2.74-mile, 13 turn road course should prove to be an excellent event for both drivers and fans, based on the speeds shown through pre-season testing.
Team Penske enters the weekend with momentum on their side, having swept four of the top-five spots at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Juan Pablo Montoya led the way, scoring the victory in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It marks his second victory since returning to open-wheel competition, following his win last year at Pocono Raceway. The Colombian expressed excitement for this weekend’s event, based on how impressed he was of the facility at the test.
“The grip level is amazingly high, especially with the new aero kits,” he commented. “I can’t wait to see what it’s like on the ‘red’ Firestone tires. It’s going to be very interesting with everyone flying around. I’m very proud of how my No. 2 Verizon Chevy team came out of the gate strong this season. It’s only been one race, but compared to how we struggled last year at the start it’s a night-and-day difference. It’s just the difference a year makes. We are working just as hard and we haven’t made any radical changes to the team. It just comes down to experience.”
In Team Penske’s quest for their 176 IndyCar vicftory, it may be Will Power leading the way. Power is the reigning series champion, was quickest during testing, and showed the best speed during the St. Petersburg weekend. However, he finished runner-up to Montoya after losing time during the final pit stop exchange.
“You have to acknowledge what an amazing job Chevrolet and all of the engineers at Team Penske have done in the off-season,” he said. “They have a lot to be proud of with the way we performed as a team at St. Pete. There is no reason to think that it won’t carry over to NOLA this weekend, not only because of the testing we did there in the off-season, but we have typically run very well at the new venues over the last couple of years. NOLA is wicked fast and what it takes to get around that place really suits my driving style. The grip is very tight and it should promote great racing.”
There’s also a chance for Helio Castroneves to get his first win of the year, or possibly Simon Pagenaud, who joined the organization over the off-season.
The rest of the competitors will be trying to stop the domination from Team Penske, and the biggest defense could come from Chip Ganassi Racing. Tony Kanaan broke up the all Team Penske sweep, finishing third at St. Petersburg. It marked his sixth podium finish in the last eight races, dating back to last season.
“It was great to start the new season with NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing with a podium finish in St. Pete and be able to break up the Penske cars from sweeping those top four spots,” he said. “It obviously isn’t a win, but we’ll take the third-place finish and use it to build on. We’ve had some really good test days at NOLA Motorsports Park and we’ve been able to get solid data with all four cars running and testing different things. It’ll be a lot of fun getting out onto a new track and seeing what all the teams can do when we’re starting from a more equal playing field with track experience.”
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg marked the competition debut of aerodynamic bodywork kits designed, manufactured and supplied by Chevrolet and Honda. In the first event, it looked as though Chevrolet has the upper-hand, sweeping the top six spots. Honda has gone back to the drawing board slightly, receiving approval from IndyCar to strengthen their kits in the front nose area a little more so they don’t break easily. It’ll be interesting to see whether Honda can close the gap this weekend. That charge will be led by Ryan Hunter-Reay, who finished seventh at St. Petersburg for Andretti Autosport.
“We are coming off a positive test (at NOLA) a few weeks ago and are looking forward to the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana,” Hunter-Reay said. “The weather could play a major factor, and it’s something we are keeping an eye on as we consider setup options. Wet conditions will be extremely tricky at this particular track… but sometimes big risk equals big rewards.”
While these drivers enter the weekend with momentum on their sides, there are other drivers that are wishing they had it. Dale Coyne Racing tops that chart after both Francesco Dracone and Carlos Huertas failed to finish the season opener due to mechanical issues related to steering.
“I tested there for two days and I like the layout of the circuit,” Huertas said. “It will be interesting to see how much overtaking this circuit is going to provide and the tire wear should come into play in the race. I hope to have a good weekend and that my 2015 really starts in NOLA.”
Dracone was one of four rookies in the field at St. Petersburg, and none of those rookies had a good showing. Gabby Chaves topped the list finishing 17th, followed by Sage Karam and Stefano Coletti finishing 19th and 20th, respectively. Karam wasn’t originally scheduled to run this weekend’s event, however it was added to his schedule at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“We did a lot of off-season testing with the aero kits at NOLA, so I feel I’m much more prepared for a track like this than St. Petersburg,” Karam expressed. “I’ve turned a lot of laps and miles at the track so far so I’m feeling pretty good about it. I think the race is going to be good. NOLA is a fast track and you’re going to see a lot of mistakes, and in turn a lot of passing opportunities. It’s a very physical track as well. The fans in Louisiana are going to get to see some raw speed with this layout. I would watch for passing in Turns 1 and 10.”