The wait is over. The Verizon IndyCar Series officially kicked off the 2016 season today, with practice on the streets of St Petersburg. The first round of the 2016 championship begins this weekend, with the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg. The three-day event marks the 12th straight year that the open wheel series hits the streets of St Petersburg. Dan Wheldon led his three Andretti teammates across the finish line in the inaugural IndyCar event here in 2005. The clear skies and Florida sunshine provided the typical scenic atmosphere that usually accompanies the event.
There are 22 cars entered in the event, with RLL’s Spencer Pigot being the only non-full time driver in the field this weekend. Juan Montoya is the defending race winner, and his team (Team Penske) has won 7 of the 11 IndyCar races here. The team is hungry too, having not won an IndyCar race since last year’s Indianapolis 500 (292 days ago). Six of the last nine poles at St Pete have been taken by a Team Penske driver.
Chip Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan have both started all 11 races at St Pete, but neither of them has ever gotten a victory here. Dixon has finished in 2nd place three times, and Kanaan is starting his 250th consecutive race. The good news is that Ganassi has won four of the last 11 season-opening races. The four Rookie’s in this year’s field are oozing with talent. Conor Daly, Max Chilton, Alexander Rossi, and Spencer Pigot are making their IndyCar debuts at St Petersburg this weekend.
Simon Pagenaud led the first practice session, but all of the attention was on his teammate, Will Power.
Just five laps into the season’s first practice, Power made heavy contact with the wall exiting Turn 9 when his hand slipped while trying to make a brake bias adjustment. Fortunately, the 2014 series champion was unhurt and walked away from the crash. The Verizon Penske car wasn’t so lucky, suffering significant right-side damage. Video of the accident is below, courtesy of IndyCar.
Pagenaud’s fast lap that paced the field early on was at 1:01.7246 seconds. His other teammate Helio Castroneves was third quick, as both AJ Foyt Racing cars were in the top four. Jack Hawksworth was second, and Takuma Sato fourth. Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top five in session one on Friday. The top six were split among Honda and Chevrolet (three each) but six of the top nine spots belonged to Chevy.
As bad as things went for Power in the first session, he rebounded nicely in final practice on Friday. The Penske driver posted the fastest lap of the day, at 1:00.9431 seconds, which was just a tick behind the record lap that he posted here last year. All four Penske crews went to work after the crash earlier in the day, and got the No. 12 car repaired in time for the second session.
Scott Dixon was second fastest, where times really improved due to the warmer temperatures, and rubber build up on the track. Pagenaud, who led the first session, was third quickest, followed by Honda drivers Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Even though the top three cars were all Chevy-power, the next five (eight of next ten) were all Hondas.
Alexander Rossi was turning heads early on, getting as high as second on the time chart. He did have a small incident where he went off course at Turn 10, and eventually ended up 13th on the chart. There was a 40-minute red flag for a piece of concrete that came up near the exit of Turn 3, but the teams and drivers were able to get all of the practice time they were scheduled for.
IndyCar posted an awesome visor cam video from today’s action, with Hunter-Reay.
Friday Combined Practice Results
There will be one final 45-minute practice session tomorrow at 11:55 AM, followed by qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, which begins at 3:40 PM.
Practice Photos via IndyCar
Juan Montoya: “Overall it was a pretty good first day. I’m pretty happy that we were able to get in a lot of running with the Verizon Chevy and we worked on a lot of things. I had too much understeer in the car but we will work on that and make it better for qualifying tomorrow.”
Helio Castroneves: “The No. 3 Hitachi Chevy ran strong this morning. We decided to go a different direction in the afternoon and we learned a lot of things. We ran over something on track in the afternoon session but there wasn’t any damage to the car. The Hitachi boys will keep working on it and we’re looking forward to Saturday when we can improve even more.”
James Hinchcliffe: “First of all, I’m grateful to be back at the track and back in my first race weekend since May. The No. 5 Arrow Electronics crew guys did a great job prepping the car over the winter and we came out of the box pretty strong. The first practice was a bit rough, just getting used to the new tire and the new (aero) kit but we made some changes over lunch and seem to be at least at the sharpish end. There’s still a bunch of work to do so we’ll work hard overnight and hopefully have a strong qualifying tomorrow.”
Scott Dixon: “Pretty happy with today. St. Pete is a bit of a thorn in Team Target’s side. Second practice we made some wholesale changes and pretty good gains. Put the one set of new tires on, halfway through the run and actually got some traffic. I think the car has some good potential, which you can see. Hopefully we can carry that through to tomorrow.”
Sebastien Bourdais: “I think the Hydroxycut KVSH Racing car is pretty good. We are struggling a tiny bit with the balance…trying to get the lap together. Then we got some traffic on that last run of tires. It seems like we have a very small window of operating range where you have one lap to pull it off and after that it just fades away pretty quick. So we will take a look at the data tonight and decide what we want to do. It is definitely going to be quite difficult this weekend. You can tell that there are going to be a lot of cars fighting for the same spot, so we are going to have to work hard.”
Will Power: “The No. 12 Verizon Chevy definitely had a bad start with the accident this morning, but full credit to the Team Penske guys to get the car back out there, so I could get some laps and get my head around the track and so on. It was a good session. Ran in circles with the setup. Finished P1, pretty happy.”
Takuma Sato: “Glad to be back in St. Pete—great atmosphere and the fans are so enthusiastic so I always enjoy this track. This year we have a new package again and the car feels fast and is fun to drive. Looking from the outside, it is quite a competitive field—the pack is very tight. But we had a very good first day and hope to have an even stronger day tomorrow.”
Graham Rahal: “I’m pleased with the performance of the Steak ‘n Shake car there in the end. The guys did a great job getting the changes we needed done over the lunch break and putting us in a pretty good spot. We’ve got a little bit of work to do but all in all we are closing the gap.”
Spencer Pigot: “It was good to be on track in St. Pete getting my first laps around the track in an Indy car. Everything feels pretty good. We tried a few things that we can improve on for tomorrow and hopefully we can move up in the pack. This was a totally different experience for me in an Indy car. The speeds are obviously a lot higher but just the size of the car makes you really feel how close you get to the walls. I’ve got to kind of readjust my distances with the bigger car so that was probably the biggest thing to get used to. Tonight I will study all of the data, look over the video and see where I can improve compared to Graham. I will try and visualize it and come back tomorrow and hopefully put it into action.”
Conor Daly: “We made a big step forward from Session 1 to Session 2. It was just difficult because we didn’t start in the zone that we thought we would. We just had to work from a bit of a deeper hole than we’d like, which is fine. We tried something but it didn’t work and that’s OK. The field is so close, there are six cars in the same tenth of a second so we need six or seven tenths to be in the top 5 which is not a lot, but these days it is. We just need a few more things, a few more pieces to the puzzle. It’s cool in an Indy car driving here. It’s different, I’m still getting used to it. For us, it’s just about getting the car dialed in and we need to do some work on that but that’s why we have a full race weekend.”
Josef Newgarden: “It was nice to get back on track and get back to working with the guys. It’s always fun for me getting to go to a race weekend and go through the process. It really is a process when you show up to a track. It’s how you change the car practice to practice, how you continue to develop it through qualifying and then how you race it. I think we started off a little slower than we wanted to, I think we’ll be solid tomorrow. We have a lot of smart guys. We can figure it out and be in good shape for qualifying.”
Simon Pagenaud: “So far it’s been a good start to the weekend. I am super proud to represent HP Enterprise. They are new to the team and they’re here this weekend and I’m so excited to race for them here in St. Pete. On the racetrack, we’ve really just been trying to keep up with the changing conditions. It’s not easy but we’ll keep working at it and see how we do in qualifyingtomorrow.”
Marco Andretti: “(The afternoon session) was pretty messy, actually. We sort of got derailed trying something new with the Snapple car, and in doing that it, messed up my last new tire run. I think before that I was top six. I think Honda made a step forward and today shows the potential, but from a team standpoint we are still working to get up there and to be the first Honda.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay: “Not really the first day we’d like to see here. We just ended up with too much imbalance in the car – lacking grip. We need to put our heads together tonight and come out with a better package because we have a good half-second to find tomorrow. Nonetheless, it’s good to be back at the Firestone Grand Prix here in St. Pete. We’re looking forward to the weekend and hope to get the DHL Honda up front.”
Jack Hawksworth: “The ABC car was really good all day. We did some good running in both practices so it was a very successful day for us. I think we’ll just rub it tonight and give it a bit of a tune but there’s not much work to do.” (About being further down in the second practice): “I just didn’t get a lap in at the end—there was so much traffic. I think we have a very good car so I’m not worried.”
Alexander Rossi: “This afternoon session was a big step forward for the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda from this morning, in terms of little issues, me knowing the track better, and us understanding the car. This is only our third day out working together, so every time we go on track is a little bit of a learning experience still, but I would say the progression from morning to afternoon was very positive. We’re still not really close to where we want to be but we took a step in the right direction and we will keep working this evening to do the same tomorrow.”