ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - March in St. Petersburg usually equates to spring break. For the Verizon IndyCar Series, it's where everyone goes to get back to work.
Auto racing's longest offseason ends Sunday when the Indy cars take to the track for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (3:00 p.m. ET, ABC). In an era of change for the IndyCar Series, the St. Pete race is one constant, serving as the season opener since 2009 and already locked into place for the same weekend in 2015.
Street races have come and gone in the past 30 years, but St. Pete is a rare example that has demonstrated some staying power. Originally conceived by the people who have made the Long Beach Grand Prix a Southern California institution since 1975, the St. Pete GP has grown slowly but steadily over the last decade and established itself as a popular venue to start the IndyCar campaign. The biggest change this year is a new title sponsor, with Firestone replacing Honda.
If the St. Pete event remains substantially the same, the IndyCar Series itself has received a modest makeover this year, starting with a new title sponsor of its own -- apparel manufacturer Izod is out, and telecommunications giant Verizon Wireless is in, which should draw additional attention to the series.
Popular veteran driver Tony Kanaan is now in a Target Ganassi Racing car, replacing his friend Dario Franchitti after the accident that ended Franchitti's career six months ago in Houston. Another former Indy car champion returns, as Juan Pablo Montoya joins the rival Team Penske squad.
One change that has the potential to backfire on IndyCar is the adoption of a new points system. The IndyCar championship has featured amazingly close finishes every year since 2006, yet an overhaul has been ordered.
The three 500-mile races on the slate (Indianapolis, Pocono and Auto Club Speedway) now pay double points (100 vs. 50), and the point payout for Indianapolis 500 qualifying has been bumped up substantially.
The upshot is that there are now nearly as many points available for oval races (492) as for road and street races (500) despite there being twice as many road races as ovals (12-6).
But street courses such as the 1.8-mile track in downtown St. Petersburg remain the bread and butter of the series, constituting eight of the 18 races on the 2014 IndyCar schedule, including six of the first 10. A good result at St. Pete could set the tone for a strong start to the season.
That's something that isn't lost on defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who doesn't count St. Petersburg as one of his more successful tracks. The New Zealander has finished second three times at St. Pete, but he also has three finishes of 16th or lower.
"The last couple years, we've struggled out of preseason development, kind of gone down the wrong road," Dixon said. "Last year, I think we qualified 20th or something [at St. Petersburg], so to come back with a fifth place was definitely a big race for us.
"For me, it's preparing a little bit better, maybe not veering off as much as we did last year, and try to have a clean race," he added. "We've had speed there in the past and I've made my own mistakes, even leading the race. If we just sort of go in, not put too much pressure on it, and start the season strong, we can definitely do that."
Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe is the defending race winner. It was the Canadian's first career IndyCar Series victory, and the first of three wins for him in the 2013 season.
"Whatever we did in 2013 here means absolutely nothing in 2014," Hinchcliffe said. "That's pretty much in the books behind us. There's added attention when you come back to town as the defending winner. But you have to have the same mindset and try to accomplish the same thing again."
Last year, the St. Petersburg race was extended by 10 laps to a total of 110, putting additional stress on drivers and equipment.
This is the first race for a new generation of engines from Chevrolet and Honda. The basic architecture of the 2.2-liter V-6 carries over, but twin turbochargers are now mandated (Honda previously used a single turbo) and the plenum and other areas have been opened to development.
Engineers report a modest increase in power, which is impressive given that the minimum engine life requirement has been extended 25 percent to 2,500 miles.
"That's been a pretty good challenge," noted Mark Crawford, large project leader for the Indy car engine at Honda Performance Development. "These are highly stressed engines with an output of over 100 horsepower per cylinder. The loads on the components are pretty high.
"If you compare it to the days when we could change engines essentially at will, these engines are completing six to 10 times the mileage between engine changes," he added. "The development and engineering that goes into hitting the 2,500-mile mark rivals the kind of effort we put into performance engineering when engines had to run just one race."
Despite having to engineer a new twin-turbo installation, Honda performed well out of the box. Honda drivers ran 1-2-3 in the first official practice session of the season and locked up the top two positions Friday afternoon, led by Takuma Sato of A.J. Foyt Racing.
Chevrolet dominated the first year of the current turbo formula, winning 11 races to Honda's four in 2012, and powering champion driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. The numbers were closer in 2013, with Chevy holding a 10-9 advantage in wins but Honda powering Dixon to the title.
This year, the Andretti and Ganassi teams have switched engine manufacturers, with Ganassi moving from Honda to Chevrolet and Andretti vice versa.
"We're pretty bullish," said Chris Berube, Chevrolet program manager for the IndyCar Series. "We're very proud of the strength and depth of our team lineup. Our offseason development went well, but it's one thing to win the dyno race and another thing to win on track.
"The rivalry with Honda pushes the engineers to gain a competitive advantage, and that's what it's all about," he added. "It certainly makes it more exciting for the fans."