The Verizon IndyCar Series opens its 2016 season with Monday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg in Florida, a 110-lap event covering 198 miles on the 1.8-mile (2.88-kilometer), 14-turn temporary street course.
The series will be in Long Beach, California on April 18 and close the year on September 19 in Sonoma, also in California. For the first time in five years, the open-wheel series will not compete at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, also in California.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who drives for Team Penske, is the defending race champion. He was in title contention until the season finale at Sonoma, when Scott Dixon won and secured a tie in points. Dixon earned his fourth championship by virtue of more race wins — three to Montoya’s two.
Dixon, who has thee runner-up finishes in the Florida race but no wins, tied Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti for second on the all-time Indy car title list. AJ Foyt is the leader with seven championships. Dixon is also fifth on the all-time Indy car win list with 38.
“Saint Petersburg is one of the best places to kick off the season. All the different classes of cars that race there and all the variety of things to do in Saint Pete make it pretty fantastic for a lot of people,” Dixon said. “I live in Indianapolis and we finally get to have some sun and get to hang out in some warm weather.”
“The track itself is always fantastic racing with big braking zones going into Turn 1. It’s also very wide, great for starts, restarts and overtaking throughout the race. I think it’s definitely been some great racing over the years and this year I expect the same,” he added.
The race will mark the debut of former F1 competitors Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi. Conor Daly and Spencer Pigot are also Sunoco Rookie of the Year award candidates. Daly has competed in six series races and makes his full-season debut with Dale Coyne Racing. Pigot was the 2015 Indy Lights champion and has won at the track five times in Mazda Road to Indyseries.
Chilton will compete in a Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing along with Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball. Rossi will drive a Honda for Andretti Autosport along with Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Montoya is part of the four-car Penske Chevrolet team that will also include Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud.
Additionally, the overtake assist (‘push-to-pass’) for each car has increased by 20 horsepower to 60, but may be engaged a total of 10 times during the race.
Another interesting aspect of the race is it will mark the debut of former team owner and driver Sarah Fisher as a pace car driver. Fisher, who made 81 Verizon IndyCar Series starts from 1999-2010, will share duties with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.
Rutherford has scaled back his duties for 2016 to a pair of races — the April 3 race at Phoenix International Raceway and the 100th Indianapolis 500 on May 30.