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Mechanical problems plague entries at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — The new cars and new engine manufacturers led to early exits in Sunday's IndyCar season opener at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Seven cars failed to finish the race because of mechanical problems, ranging from stalled Lotus engines to Chevrolet's battery issues and missing gears in Mike Conway's Honda.

The battery of Tony Kanaan's Chevy failed on Lap 22, sticking him with a 25th-place finish in the 26-car field. Other Chevy drivers said they had to monitor the engine's voltage carefully to avoid similar problems under cautions.

"It's a new car, new engine," said Kanaan, the 2004 series champ. "Unfortunately it happened to us."

Three of five Lotus machines bowed out, and only Alex Tag­liani finished among the top 15. The Lotus-powered cars of Simona de Silvestro and rookie Katherine Legge died on the track. St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais rose from starting 26th to third by Lap 68, but he dropped out after 73 laps.

Car problems also ended the day for JR Hildebrand's Chevy and Takuma Sato's Honda. Sato had a lead, for 11 laps, for the fifth race of his career before finishing 22nd.

Dario down: Dario Franchitti's quest for his fourth consecutive series championship started poorly.

His No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing car ran out of gas on the last turn.

"As I said to Chip on the radio, 'That just sums up our day,' " the defending race winner said. "We have a bit of work to do, obviously."

The four-time series champ finished 13th, his second-worst finish here and only his fifth outside the top 12 in the series since 2009.

Passing problems: The new car and fuel strategy appeared to limit passing.

"It's hard to overtake," said Justin Wilson, who finished 10th.

Runnerup Scott Dixon said he saw plenty of position changes on the track.

Wilson said the car's wider wings increased the grip but made passing more difficult. Pit stop strategy also played a role as some drivers tried to conserve fuel instead of race each other aggressively.

"It's definitely tough," James Hinchcliffe said of overtaking competitors in the new Dallara DW12.

"You don't want it too easy, right? You want guys to have to work for it. I think that's where we're at."

Hinchcliffe's debut: Hinchcliffe poked fun of his role as Danica Patrick's replacement in the GoDaddy.com car by wearing a woman's wig during driver introductions.

He followed that up by placing fourth, tying the best finish of his IndyCar career.

The GoDaddy.com car hadn't finished in the top four since Patrick's runnerup finish at Homestead in the 2010 season finale.

"We can just start building on this now," Hinchcliffe said.

Remembering Wheldon: Dan Wheldon's sister, Holly, waved the green flag to start the race in his adopted hometown. Some drivers had decals on their helmets to honor Wheldon, and race officials and fans wore orange ribbons. The track showed a short video honoring the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who died in a wreck during last season's finale in Las Vegas.

Miscellany: Simon Pagenaud was the top rookie. He was docked 10 starting positions, to 16th, for switching engines before qualifying but finished sixth. He joined Dixon as the only Hondas among the top eight. … Late-night TV host David Letterman attended as the co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. … In his anticipated IndyCar debut, former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello finished 17th, two laps down.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

Mechanical problems plague entries at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 03/25/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 25, 2012 10:14pm]
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