In preparation for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had a pair of practice sessions today to get their cars handling for tomorrow’s qualifying session and Sunday’s race.
At the end of the pair of practices, it was Takuma Sato topping the charts with a lap of one minute, 2.5615 seconds in his No. 14 ABC Supply car for A.J. Foyt Racing. Sato picked up his first career win last year early in the season and was strong in the first half of the year before falling off in the second half.
“I am very excited to back in St. Petersburg and excited to be on track,” Sato said. “The conditions were not very representative as usual for St. Petersburg, but still the car worked really well, and we made good progress during this session. I am happy with the balance and the boys and the team worked really well today. Let’s hope this continues and we will work on speed for tomorrow.”
With new sponsor on board, Graham Rahal was second quickest in his No. 15 National Guard Honda as he looks to be more competitive this season. Rahal said earlier in the week with the added funds and new people on the team, he expects them to contend for race wins. St. Petersburg has treated Rahal well in the past as it was the sight of his first career win.
“Overall for our first day out I think it was a great day,” Rahal commented. “For us to be that competitive right off the bat feels awesome. I’ve got to say most of all I am proud of these National Guard guys because it was only 48, maybe 72 hours ago that we had a big trailer fire and our guys did an incredible job getting everything switched back over in Indy. It was a rush, it was absolutely a rush to get down here. I am proud of them and as dad said last night to them “through adversity comes a team” and I think we have a great group of people and I think that is going to show this year.”
Honda is debuting their new twin-turbo motor this week in hopes to match the performance of Chevrolet’s twin-turbo motor that debuted last season. So far, so good with them sweeping the top two spots.
Will Power was third quickest in his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet for Team Penske as he hopes to get off to a better start this year than last. He was followed by his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves.
“Overall, it was a good job by the Hitachi guys today and it was good to get back out there after a long offseason,” Castroneves commented. “We avoided any issues and Mother Nature was messing with us a little bit. We improved a lot over the course of the day and put things together for a good session in the afternoon. That was a much smoother practice and we will continue learning and improving in the Hitachi Chevy as we go along.”
Simon Pagenaud rounded out the top five, followed by last year’s race winner James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Ryan Briscoe, last year’s champion Scott Dixon and Sebastian Bourdais. Jack Hawksworth was the highest rookie in 11th.
Juan Pablo Montoya, making his first open-wheel start in awhile, was 19th out of 22nd on the speed chart.
“Not a bad day today with the No. 2 Verizon Chevy,” Montoya commented after practice. “Obviously we wanted to be a little further up the speed charts, but we knew it was going to be a learning process. This is my first time on this circuit so we had to guess a little bit on the setups. Unfortunately we unloaded pretty far off. In the second sessions we picked up a big understeer. At that point we really quit focusing on speed and just tried to get the car driving better. I learned quickly that there are places on the track where the penalty of missing it is much greater than the gain, so from a track-learning perspective I’m much better off than I was when I got here.”
There will be a quick practice in the morning at 10 a.m. EST followed by Verizon Pole Qualifying at 2 p.m. EST.