The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg returns to downtown next week for the second time in six months. Because of the pandemic, attendance is limited to 20,000 fans per day.
Here are five key questions about this year’s event:
1. How does the schedule change affect the racing?
St. Petersburg served as the IndyCar Series’ season opener from 2011-19 before shifting to the finale last year because of the pandemic. It was going to host this year’s first race, but organizers pushed it back a month to try to boost attendance as more people became vaccinated. Instead, IndyCar’s season debuts Sunday at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park.
The extra race before St. Petersburg will obviously be beneficial for rookies, but what about the rest of the field? Two-time defending Grand Prix winner Josef Newgarden said some drivers start the year trying to prove something immediately, which can create early chaos. By moving to race 2, the Grand Prix might be a little calmer than usual.
“Hopefully that takes out the variable of maybe getting crashed into a little less likely,” Newgarden said.
2. How will Jimmie Johnson and the other high-profile rookies fare?
After retiring from NASCAR, the seven-time Cup Series champion is racing on IndyCar’s road and street courses for power team Chip Ganassi Racing. No other cars were on the track when he tested during the offseason, so he has a lot to learn about a very different type of car in a very different series. Johnson, 45, has kept his expectations muted, but his car owner believes he can contend for top-three finishes, if not a victory, this season.
“It’s certainly not impossible,” Ganassi said.
Scott McLaughlin is in his first full IndyCar season after winning three Supercars championships in Australia; he made his series debut at the Grand Prix in October and finished 22nd. Romain Grosjean, a veteran of 179 Formula One starts, has also jumped to IndyCar. All three are worth monitoring early.
3. Can Team Penske keep dominating?
Not even the 2020 curveballs could stop Team Penske’s success at the Grand Prix. One of its drivers (Will Power) won his ninth pole here in October, and Newgarden’s second consecutive victory gave the top-tier team 10 wins in the past 15 races in St. Petersburg. Power, Newgarden and teammate Simon Pagenaud will likely all be contenders again this year.
4. Is this the year Scott Dixon finally wins the Grand Prix?
Dixon at least got to celebrate some type of victory here in October when his third-place finish clinched his sixth series championship. But one of the most accomplished drivers of his generation has still never won the race itself, despite six top-three finishes (including three in the last four years). Will this be the year he moves from the bottom of the podium to the top?
5. Will one of the locals take the checkered flag?
St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais has high hopes after landing a full-time ride with A.J. Foyt Enterprises. The two-time Grand Prix winner said he has all the resources he needs to compete. The first two races will be big tests for him and his team. Belleair’s Colton Herta was third in the championship standings last year and will need to improve on last year’s 11th-place finish if he wants to challenge for the series title.
George Steinbrenner IV, a Clearwater Central Catholic alumnus, should have a shot at a nice showing as an owner. The new driver for his No. 29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda is James Hinchcliffe, the 2013 Grand Prix winner.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
When/where: April 23-25. Gates at intersections of 1st Ave SE and 1st St. SE; 2nd St S and 5th Ave S.
IndyCar qualifying: 1:45 p.m. April 24. IndyCar race: Noon April 25. TV: NBC
Notable: The event will host up to 20,000 fans per day. Advance ticket sales only.
More information and complete schedule here.