IndyCar ready to fire it up in St. Pete

Will Power, left, and Ryan Hunter-Reay battled until the final race for the 2012 championship, won by Hunter-Reay. They're odds-on favorites to be in contention again, starting Sunday at St. Petersburg, Fla. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's been more than 10 years since the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, run under CART sanction on Feb. 23, 2003.

Much has changed in American open-wheel racing over the last decade, but the man who was the surprise breakout star of that 2003 event will be back in St. Pete this weekend when the IZOD IndyCar Series gets its 2013 season rolling.

Sebastien Bourdais, then a 23-year-old rookie, stunned the establishment by taking pole position with a half-second margin over Paul Tracy. The young Frenchman didn't win at St. Pete, but he went on to win three races during his rookie season, followed by four consecutive Indy car championships under Champ Car sanction.

Since then, he's run two years as Sebastien Vettel's teammate in Formula One and anchored Peugeot's Le Mans sports car program, but he's back in America for his first full season of Indy cars since 2007.

Meanwhile, the St. Pete GP regrouped after a year's absence and since 2005 has been one of the most consistent events on the IndyCar Series schedule. Now sponsored by Honda, St. Pete has established itself as the opening event of the IndyCar campaign and is popular with fans and drivers.

Bourdais, with that extensive international pedigree that includes 31 Indy car race wins, is just one of a dozen drivers who have the ability to win races this year in what looks like the deepest Indy car field front to back since the mid-1990s.

There's a good chance that a Frenchman could steal the show again at St. Pete this year, because there a trio of them entered in Sunday's 110-lap race.

There's Bourdais, who returns to Jay Penske's Dragon Racing team, this year with a Chevrolet engine confirmed for the full season.

Then there's the French pairing of Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, where Allen McDonald has taken over lead engineering duties.

"It's the French Connection out there," said Bourdais, laughing. "I think Tristan has obviously shown great speed in testing and Simon is right on. They are both with a good team. Hopefully we can mix it up."

Pagenaud, 28, is viewed as the most likely next first-time winner in the IndyCar Series. Though last year was his second full season racing Indy cars, he has experience dating to 2007 in the Champ Car series, where he was Will Power's teammate at Walker Racing.

Pagenaud is highly regarded as a development driver and he should fight it out with Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti as the best of the Honda-powered drivers.

"We want to be at the front of the field," Pagenaud said. "I have a lot more knowledge about the cars and tracks this year so I have raised expectations of my performance as well.

"I consider street circuits my specialty, and I feel like that's where our team has the best chance for success," he added. "I really think we'll have a good package in St. Pete and I can't wait to have more driver data and information for the engineers with the addition of Tristan."

Vautier, 23, is the defending Indy Lights champion. He was very quick in his first Indy car tests with the Schmidt team and, like Bourdais in 2003, he could be a big surprise as a rookie. He is the only rookie driver in the field of 25.

For the first time in 10 years, the defending series champion's car will carry No. 1. Ryan Hunter-Reay is the first American Indy car champion since 2006 and he can't wait to get his championship defense under way.

"It's my home race and we've finished everywhere on the podium there except on top," said the Florida native, who leads Andretti Autosport's Chevy-powered four-car attack. "That's something we need to take care of.

Hunter-Reay It's my home race and we've finished everywhere on the podium there except on top. That's something we need to take care of.

-- Ryan Hunter-Reay

"We are definitely optimistic," he added. "I'm very encouraged how everything has been going as a team and feel we have a good direction heading into St. Pete. I'm happy to be going back to racing and getting on with the job."

Chevrolet won 11 of 15 races in 2012, including six by Team Penske. The team has cut back to two full-time entries this year, for defending St. Petersburg champion Helio Castroneves and perennial championship contender Will Power.

Power continues as the choice of many to win this year's title despite coming up short in the final race the last three years running.

"We worked on changing a couple little details but I don't think we're too far off," Power said. "It's different every year and I hope I'm in contention in the end and have a chance at it."

Honda struggled with drivability issues in 2012, especially on street courses, so St. Pete will give an early indication if the engine manufacturer battle will be more closely balanced than a year ago.

It will also be interesting to compare qualifying lap times, to get a gauge of how much teams have been able to develop their Dallara DW12 spec cars with a restrictive rules package and limited testing. Power holds the mark of 1 minute, 1.3721 seconds.

The race has been lengthened from 100 to 110 laps in an effort to eliminate fuel economy runs. At least three pit stops are expected over the course of 110 laps.

Races at Long Beach, Milwaukee and Mid-Ohio will also have distances adjusted.

"Changing the distances at these races will hopefully eliminate the strategy of saving fuel from the drop of the green flag," said Beaux Barfield, IndyCar Series race director. "That will enable our teams and drivers to race hard for the full distance and improve the event's entertainment value for the fans."