Manufacturer competition returned to the IZOD IndyCar Series Sunday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with Scott Dixon leading the way for 10 Honda-powered entries, finishing second to Helio Castroneves after 100 laps around the temporary airport/street circuit on the Florida Gulf Coast.
Dixon and eventual winner Castroneves were two of only a handful of racers who chose not to pit during an early-race full-course caution, and their strategic gamble paid off as both were then able to complete the race distance with only two pit stops, while the rest of the field needed three to make the finish.
Behind the leaders, Simon Pagenaud recovered from a post-qualifying, 10-position grid penalty - due to a precautionary, but unscheduled engine change on Friday - to finish sixth in his debut race for Schmidt Hamilton Racing. The former American Le Mans Series champion for HPD now takes an early lead in the IndyCar Rookie of the Year standings.
Charlie Kimball made the biggest move though the field in today's contest, finishing ninth after starting 22nd in his Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Just behind Kimball, Justin Wilson recovered from a long stop after running out of fuel just before his second pit stop to round out the top-10 finishers, passing fellow Honda driver and series rookie Josef Newgarden on the last lap.
Defending three-time series champion - and 2011 St. Petersburg race winner - Dario Franchitti ran out of fuel just a quarter mile from the finish line, dropping him to an unrepresentative 13th-place finish.
The IZOD IndyCar Series continues next week with the first permanent road course of 2012, the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, April 1 at the scenic Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Ala.
Scott Dixon (#9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) started 6th, finished 2nd: "Today was tough. Just the fact it was the first race since Dan [Wheldon] passed away, in his hometown, made it a sad start to the season for everyone. But once we got underway, the race strategy played right into our hands, although at first I didn't think it would and I certainly had some choice words for the team on the radio in the early laps! But we had a great start, and excellent restarts, and it's really good to have a strong finish in St. Petersburg after so many disappointing runs here previously."
Simon Pagenaud (#77 Schmidt Hamilton Racing Honda) started 16th, finished 6th: "This was a good start to the season for us, it's important to be able to surmount your difficulties over the course of a race weekend, and we certainly were able to do so today. The team did a fantastic job in the pits, gaining positions every time. That got us to the front, and I helped by not making any mistakes. This was an encouraging start for our team, but there is still much more to come from us."
Erik Berkman (President, Honda Performance Development) on today's race, his final event prior to taking on new duties as President of Honda R&D Americas: "We had a beautiful day and a great crowd, which is always good to see at one of our signature events here in St. Petersburg. And everyone behaved themselves at the start! There was some good racing going on throughout the field, and it was interesting to watch the different fuel strategies play out. I'm happy Honda had a podium finish today with Scott Dixon, but the real goal we achieved is the return of manufacturer competition. There doesn't appear to be a huge performance difference between the three manufacturers, and that bodes well for the season ahead."