The first IZOD IndyCar Series race of the season takes place south of the border - way, way south - on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, for the first annual Sao Paulo Indy 300. It will be the first American open-wheel race in Brazil since CART ran on the Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway from 1996 to 2000. It will also be the first street course race for IndyCar outside of North America since the non-points event in Surfers Paradise, Australia, at the end of 2008.
The new track has posed problems for the whole field, with the narrow concrete frontstretch causing most cars to fishtail and a handful of drivers slapping the wall elsewhere on the track. Scott Dixon led the field in final practice, with Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan not far behind. The biggest surprise of the session was Alex Tagliani, with a brand new team, in fifth. Drivers that had problems on the track included Briscoe, Bia Figuereido, Hideki Mutoh, and Danica Patrick.
Qualifying was eventually postponed until the morning of the race at 7:25 AM EST, replaced on Saturday by another practice session as teams and the series tried to figure out what to do about the concrete surface.
Adding to the challenge, the forecast calls for potential rain on race day. Add up all these variables on a new track, and nobody knows quite what to expect for this year's season opener.
The field contains seven Brazilians, almost all of whom are racing IndyCars in their native country for the first time. Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves had three starts at Fittipaldi apiece; Kanaan's best finish was fifth in 1999, while Castroneves never finished better than 23rd in his native country.
Dixon has been fast in every practice session, pacing the field in the intended final practice session and leading inthe early stages of the extra session. Kanaan, too, has been quick, despite trashing the quality of the track to the Brazilian media. These two should lead the fight for victory come Sunday.
As for a dark horse, street course ace Alex Tagliani has shown great speed in practice despite coming to the track with the startup FAZZT Race Team. Keep in mind that Tagliani almost won last year's race on the streets of Toronto, leading 21 of 85 laps. The new team also features some experienced personnel, including longtime Walker Racing team manager Rob Edwards.