Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is only the second race of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship, but for drivers and teams looking to continue a fast start from the season opener on March 14, a solid result this weekend will be critical to their championship hopes.
In years past, the look of the IRL schedule had three distinct shades: the races before the Indianapolis 500, the 500 itself, and then the post-Indy stretch that determined the championship. But as the league has shifted recently to include more road and street racing, and a fast start to the campaign has become more important than ever. With three street circuits (Sao Paulo, St. Petersburg, Long Beach), a natural terrain road course (Barber Motorsports Park), and a 1.5-mile oval (Kansas Speedway) making up the schedule before Indianapolis this season, the title contenders and pretenders are poised to be determined more quickly.
"The first three, four races of the season are the most important ones, because from there on, you can manage yourself for a championship," said Team Penske's Helio Castroneves, who is trying to capture the first title of his career. "That's what we're looking for. St. Pete, Barber, and Long Beach - those are the most important ones the way I see it for me to start heading for a good result for the championship.
"But obviously, you always have to account for 'Factor B' that's outside of our control. There's not much you can do about that. But it's part of the racing and hopefully, we won't have to deal with it this year."
However, "Factor B" may emerge anyway for Castroneves, and from his own team, no less. Will Power, the new Penske full-timer, cemented himself as a contender for the crown two weeks ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As a result of his triumph in South America, he holds the early points lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay, Vitor Meira, Raphael Matos and Dan Wheldon. But considering Power's street course acumen, the Australian may pad that lead considerably if he can collect a second straight win.
"I did not do as well as I would have liked there last year," said Power, who finished sixth in the '09 event at St. Pete. "But I think we will be better this year. I think qualifying is very important at this race, because at this track it is easy to get tangled up in someone else's accident."
The 1.8-mile street circuit at St. Petersburg has some great passing opportunities, but as Power alluded to, it also features potential hot spots for trouble. In years past, the left-hand Turn 10 at the end of the track's dog-legged backstretch has been a hot spot for trouble in particular.
But there are also other elements -- many other elements -- to deal with when it comes to street courses.
Power isn't quite sure how he manages to cope with them all, even though he's shown to be very adept in doing so.
"I'm not sure what it is about street circuits, but there's a lot more challenges on a street circuit than there are on ovals or road courses with uneven surfaces, bumps, different surfaces, grip level wise, and you've got a wall," he explained. "So you can't make a mistake. You've got to creep up on it all weekend. The track is constantly changing because the rubber goes down over the weekend and because it's just a street during the normal day, and it's just all these little details that count to be quick."
Meanwhile, Power's rivals over at Target Chip Ganassi Racing will look to take over the podium after Scott Dixon finished sixth and Dario Franchitti went seventh in Sao Paulo. Franchitti will be making his 200th start in American open-wheel racing (his 45th on a street circuit) and he'll be out to improve on his fourth-place run last year in St. Petersburg. Expect the two Target cars, as well as the Penske trio of Power, Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, the race's defending champion, to play their usual contender roles.
Outside of the Big Two, the Andretti Autosport gang leads the pack and could be led once more by Ryan Hunter-Reay, who finished second at St. Petersburg with Vision Racing last year. That program came together within the week of the event and now that Hunter-Reay has superior equipment with the Andretti team, a victory in St. Petersburg is a definite possibility for the American pilot.
"Brazil was a great result for the team," Hunter-Reay said. "Obviously, we feel it was a win that got away, so we are extremely determined to grab our first win together in St. Pete ... We just need to go into St. Pete with the same mindset as Brazil and just concentrate on doing a consistent and solid job all weekend."
Other regular dark horses include AA's Tony Kanaan, Luczo Dragon/de Ferran Racing's Raphael Matos, and Dreyer and Reinbold Racing's Justin Wilson. But another potential stunner is Alex Tagliani, who is looking to get over a tough end to his race in Sao Paulo with a great Sunday.
The Canadian was knocked out of the hunt in Brazil on Lap 29, when he was run into by Dan Wheldon while going into Turn 5. But while he'll have to climb from an early hole in the standings, it seems like Tagliani is enjoying the fact that he won't have to scramble to get ready for St. Pete this year.
"Last year, I literally found out that I was going to be driving in the St. Petersburg race on Wednesday before the event and I hadn't been in a car since Australia the season prior," he said. "I flew to St. Petersburg, jumped in the car and we qualified seventh -- just one position from being in the fast six, so we were pretty happy.
"I like the track and I think we can be very competitive and we know now where we stand as a team so there won't be any surprises. I've just had to be patient over these last two weeks since Brazil, and then when we arrive in St. Pete, we will do what we do best like we did in Sao Paulo."
But he and everyone else will likely have to go through Will Power in order to claim victory this weekend and keep him from putting more ground on them in the title chase. His teammate Castroneves is keeping that thought in mind after he finished a relatively quiet ninth in the opener.
"You gotta look at the bright spot - I have more points than last year [at the start of the season]," he said. "It's a good start. A top-10 is not bad, but we can't let my teammate start to take away from the championship."
Just goes to show that while it takes a long time to win a title, it's never too early to lose one.