St Petersburg was dominated by controversy over new-style restarts, with top drivers calling them dangerous while others hailed them for adding new excitement and overtaking opportunities.

The decision to move to double-file restarts for all IndyCar races in 2011 rather than just oval events was controversial even before the green flag came out at St Peterburg, and what followed – a multiple-car wreck at the first corner, followed by a series of starts and stops over the next 15 laps and wrist injuries to two of the midfield drivers caught up in incidents – offered plenty of proof to those who felt the new style was a major mistake.

“We need to make the show good,” said Tony Kanaan in calling for the change to be reconsidered. “I don’t think it’s good for the show to have the first 15 laps under the yellow. It’s crazy.”

Given the drivers’ concerns that the succession of early yellows would spoil the show for fans, the ABC TV network reported that the St Petersburg event delivered the highest overnight ratings since 2007 for a televised IndyCar race other than the Indy 500. The race’s “1.4 rating” is still a fraction compared with NASCAR, but a huge improvement on last year’s 0.32 rating for a rain-delayed event and 0.19 rating in 2009.

Although no one was injured during the first eye-catching multiple-car wreck on lap 1, some of the other less spectacular accidents later on in the race sparked by the new restarts did have repercussions. After the first restart bunched the field up again, Danica Patrick and Graham Rahal both had collisions with Ana Beatriz and as a result Beatriz was subsequently diagnosed with a fractured scaphoid bone (wrist) because of the violent motion of the steering wheel resulting from the impact. “I could feel that my hand was sore and as the race went on it started to bother me more,” Beatriz said afterwards. The injury will require surgery this week and consequently it’s doubtful whether she will race at next week’s second IndyCar event, at Barber Motor Speedway.

Patrick was involved in another collision after the restart on lap 44 which saw her clash with Beatriz’s Dreyer & Reinbold team mate Justin Wilson out of turn 1, and this time it was Wilson who ended up with a small fracture of his wrist bone. “As our wheels bumped my steering wheel wrenched in my hand,” Wilson said. “I knew at that point that I had broken something.” He will need to be fitted with a carbon-fibre brace, although it should not stop him competing at Barber.

The injuries add a pressing safety dimension to calls to reconsider the new restarts, which are rather more persuasive than general discussion of whether or not the restart accidents spoiled or enhanced the racing and the spectacle.

Tony Kanaan was one of those to benefit most from the new style restart, the outside line into the first corner enabling him to make up positions on his way to a third place finish in his début outing for his new KV Racing Technology team. “If you’re lucky then you make it, and if you’re not then you’re done,” he summarised.

Simona de Silvestro was an even greater winner from the new restarts, finishing fourth from 17th on the grid. No wonder she described the new system as “pretty fun,” as “it actually gave us a chance to make positions,” she said, adding: “Last year, we would start single file every time, it would be hard. You would be just following the leader. I think it made it exciting and I really enjoyed it.”

“I expected it. Everybody should have,” said Graham Rahal. “There’s so much adrenaline going on in the first race of the year and everybody’s pushing so hard it gets out of control.”

Other drivers were far less happy. Danica Patrick railed against the “f***ing restarts” over her car radio during the race (the expletive presumably bleeped out on US television, but clearly audible on the Sky Sports feed) and Ryan Hunter-Reay had to insert his own bleeps into his post-race interview to stop himself from using equally choice language after being put out of the race by Sebastian Saavedra during the restart on lap 14. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure this isn’t going to work,” he fumed. “It was just restart after restart after restart. I was hoping so badly we would just go green, but we didn’t. It’s a shame.”

The problem seemed to be the hard right-hand turn 1 off the start/finish straight, which channelled all the cars from the two-lane restart toward a single point on the apex. The midfield drivers simply weren’t able to find alternate routes through the corner, and attempts to run down the inside were invariable disastrous. But as Tony Kanaan pointed out, “This is a place where you have a lot of room” in comparison to other road and street circuits on the IndyCar calendar. “Go to a tighter place, like Long Beach, and Toronto … Think about it.”

IndyCar decided to revise the restart format after looking to the considerably more popular NASCAR format for ideas to help improve the series. NASCAR has been using double-file restarts since 2004 and last year extended them to all races; IndyCar tried out the format on ovals last year and opted to introduce them for road and street courses as well in 2011, as well as looking at new procedures for wave-arounds and “lucky dog” free passes to put a car back on the lead lap every caution.

Dario Franchitti pointed out that the double-file restarts had been pushed for by the powerful team owners – so it was somewhat poetic justice that they were now left with the bills for collision damage and doubtless wondering whether it had been a good idea after all. By contrast, IndyCar’s plans for the NASCAR-style “lucky dog” have been postponed because of heavy resistance to the idea.

The introduction of double-file restarts in NASCAR was viewed with some initial concern by that series’ drivers but ultimately went through and has been well-received without any of the controversy now being seen in IndyCar. So why is the new system so problematic to IndyCar and not NASCAR?

“There’s zero room for error,” said Will Power. “We can’t bump like NASCAR,” he continued, predicting that as a result “there’s going to be people getting knocked out every single restart.”

“It’s different in NASCAR when they are going into a corner that move slowly, accelerate slowly and brake slowly,” said Hunter-Reay. “I think this decision has to be revisited.”

It’s certainly true that in stock car racing, bumping and grinding is just a way of life and the modern breed of cars can put up with a certain amount of this with impunity. But that’s not the case with open wheel racing, where fragile front wings will be damaged at the slightest touch, immediately affecting downforce and braking and resulting in knock-on accidents. Front wings can also slice through the tyres of cars ahead of them, while the exposed wheels can ‘fuse’ on contact with those of other cars and cause the whole car to be launched into the air, as seen on Sunday with Marco Andretti being sent over the top of Scott Dixon’s car.

In the world’s premier open wheel racing category, Formula 1 still opts for exclusively single file rolling restarts but the initial start of the race off the grid is still double-file – and as the weekend’s season opener in Australia there were several incidents and collisions through the field during the first lap, although nothing that caused a major accident, injury or brought out the yellow as well at St Pete. Even so, two drivers (Michael Schumacher and Jamie Alguersuari) ended up in the pits for repairs to collision damage, and another (Rubens Barrichello) ended up running off into the gravel as the field tried to get through the first corner of Melbourne’s road-hybrid track.

So perhaps it’s true that open wheel cars and double-file restarts don’t mix, at least on street courses with demanding first corners. But surely if IndyCar is serious about presenting its drivers as “the best in the world” able to take own all-comers from every other motorsport formula in the world at the $5m prize challenge at Las Vegas, then its drivers should be able cope with a system that’s used in NASCAR without complaining about it – and that they need to find a way to learn, adapt and cope with getting round the first corner without hitting anyone?

“Is the problem the double-file restart? Is it the late acceleration? Or, is it just people not paying attention?”, said race winner Dario Franchitti. “Not that they are not paying attention, but not respecting each other, just being crazy and going for gaps that aren’t there. Which one is it; we have to figure that out. And then we can change it,” he said, pointing out that the drivers had to take some of the blame for what happened at St Pete this week and not simply blame the new system.

“We need to clean up our acts and drive a little smarter,” agreed Graham Rahal.

Newman/Haas driver Oriol Servia suggested that the problem may be even more localised to St Petersburg than widely thought. With the first turn being on part of the track usually used as part of an airport, the inside line was particularly dirty with lots of oil and paint impeding braking which may have contributed to the mayhem. “The two-wide restarts were not a problem for me,” he said, pointing out that “if you look at the replay, it wasn’t just the restarts, it was the start itself too and we always start two-wide. It’s was just that the inside line here is one of the dirtiest of the season.”

Another factor may have been changes to the acceleration zone for this year’s St Petersburg event, which was moved closer to the start-finish line and more under the control of the starter rather than left to the drivers to go at their own discretion. The result seemed to be a packed, jumbled mess that was five- and six-wide and with cars lunging down the inside into the first turn. With Race Control showing an odd reluctance (possibly because of time concerns) to abort any restart no matter how messy it became, collisions were inevitable.

Rahal certainly felt that the next round at Barber would be very different. “It won’t be like St. Pete because it can’t be,” he said. “We won’t have the same issues.” The first corner at the Birmingham, Alabama circuit is a downhill left-hander that suddenly breaks right into a big, sweeping circle – meaning that track position is more crucial for the second turn rather than being an all-or-nothing attack into the first.

IndyCar officials, team owners, drivers and fans will certainly be watching very carefully when the green flag flies at the start of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 10.

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