It was no April Fool's joke: the Indy Racing League's 21 IndyCar Series stars made right turns today on the 1.8- mile, 14-corner street circuit that includes part of the local general aviation airport. Helio Castroneves. Photo by...
It was no April Fool's joke: the Indy Racing League's 21 IndyCar Series stars made right turns today on the 1.8- mile, 14-corner street circuit that includes part of the local general aviation airport.
At the end of the sunny, mild and somewhat windy afternoon, Helio Castroneves had the best speed of all, turned during the second afternoon session. He led both engagements in the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota/Firestone machine at 102.721mph and will decide - one hour before single-car qualifying - whether he wants to be the first or last car out for a solitary timed lap, thereby determining the qualifying order.
"The car was very fast out of the truck," Castroneves acknowledged. "So far the weekend's been flawless. It's so good to be back on the street course; today's been a lot of fun and this track is a lot of fun," he said. "It's great to see so much support from the city and the package the IRL put together for this track is great."
As he was in the morning, Dario Franchitti was second-quickest in the #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda this afternoon, for second overall at 102.612mph. The Scot admitted "the track is getting quicker each session. It was not a bad lap," he shrugged recalling his quick tour. "There are some areas where we can make improvements. This is an interesting course to drive," Franchitti noted. "It's very technical."
Teammate and reigning IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan was third in both groupings and his afternoon lap of 101.487mph helped the Brazilian retain third spot in the #11 Team 7/Eleven Dallara/Honda. "It's good to turn right again," Kanaan sighed. "It was hard for the first few laps or so. I asked the team not to give me any brakes and to send me out on rain tires so I wouldn't [get into trouble].
"I'm glad to be back on the streets," Kanaan agreed. "Today has been both fun and exciting; it was a good day for us." Looking forward to the balance of the weekend and Sunday's race, Kanaan agreed that, while it's great for many of these drivers to be driving on a street course once again, "there's no real preparation you can do for this and people can get tired on Sunday. It's been a long time since [most of us] have done this."
Darren Manning's #10 Team Target Panoz/Toyota was fourth quickest this afternoon and for the day with a lap at 101.321mph. He raced here in 2003 while driving the CART series with Derrick Walker and that experience is helpful, the Briton believes. ""I'm pretty happy with the way today went. The car was really quick right out of the box but I feel like I left just a little on the table on my hot lap."
Vitor Meira turned the fifth best lap of the afternoon and day in his #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda at 101.308mph and said his car "felt really good today. The biggest challenge for me is keeping the car steady and shifting when I go across the bumps."
The sixth best speed of the afternoon and day was turned in by Bryan Herta's #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda at 101.141mph who noted, "We didn't get everything out of the car today; we had just put our new tires on when the track went yellow so we didn't get our new tire run in. There are still a few things we've got to improve," Herta said.
The fastest six drivers in single car qualifying will have a ten-minute shootout Saturday afternoon to determine the first three rows and, with eight of 21 drivers lapping this St. Pete course within a second there's no telling whether the quick drivers today will convert their fast speeds on Saturday.
Seventh went to the #9 Team Target Panoz/Toyota of Scott Dixon (101.131mph) who was grouped with the ostensibly slower group in the 30-minute afternoon session, where he led the balance of six drivers in his group to practice. "We ran a decent amount of laps today (52) and with a little less traffic in the second session we got a lot of changes made and improved our time quite a bit."
Kosuke Matsuura earned eighth in the combined practice speeds in his #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz/Honda at 101.108mph, working with the faster, second group. The sophomore IndyCar Series driver's background "is in road-course racing and I also have experience with city circuits." He set his quick time just before the final yellow of the day came out when Castroneves spun in turn 8, making light contact with the tire barrier and Matsuura thought, "If the yellow didn't happen, I would have finished around fourth today."
Rookie Tomas Enge's #2 ROCKSTAR Dallara/Chevrolet was ninth at 101.070mph while the Czech "progressed each session. It's been at least a year since I was driving on a street course and I enjoyed it out here." Alex Barron's lap of 100.911mph in his #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota rounded out the top ten and the California glowed, "I am super excited to be here; it's been a blast all day."
Dan Wheldon, who now makes his home in the city of St. Petersburg was 11th in his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda, while Scott Sharp took 12th with his #8 Delphi Panoz/Honda. Incredibly, it's been "about 10 years since I have driven an Indy car on a road course other than the couple of test days we did, so it is starting to come back and feels good," Sharp acknowledged. "We are making progress and really in the game here. This track has a lot of variety and I think it will be an action-packed race on Sunday."
Sam Hornish Jr., who was the second driver to bring out the caution flags this morning when he spun his #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota was 13th on the speed charts. "Not too bad for my first day on a street circuit," he said.
Tomas Scheckter, another who is working the rust out after being away from road and street course racing for an extended period was 14th-quickest on the day with his #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet and agreed he "had a big grin inside my helmet that nobody could see!"
Rookie Danica Patrick, a veteran of the Toyota Atlantic Championship took her #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda to a steady 15th place and noted, "as the car got better, I gained more confidence in each corner." Teammate Buddy Rice in the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda was 16th. "I really like this track; it has some high-speed areas, low speed areas and plenty of intermediate stuff. There will be some spots to pass and I think we'll be able to put on an exciting show for the fans."
Ryan Briscoe ended the morning session when he spun his #33 Team Target Panoz/Toyota and made right side contact with the turn 3 tire barrier did not practice in the afternoon and his morning speed left him in 17th place overall. "This is not how I wanted to start off my weekend," he admitted. Roger Yasukawa's morning spin at turn 13 resulted in front end damage that relegated his #24 Racing for Kids Dallara/Honda to the garage area for the balance of the afternoon; he practiced 18th.
Patrick Carpentier did not practice the #83 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota this afternoon, either; he had mechanical problems throughout the morning and turned only 14 laps; the team changed his engine for afternoon practice but never got the car running properly, so he sits in 19th place.
Two drivers who have marginal history on road and street courses bring up the balance of the field. Ed Carpenter's #20 Vision Racing Dallara/Toyota is 20th; A.J. Foyt IV, racing a Panoz/Toyota #14 combination this weekend was the caboose of the field. Paul Dana and Ethanol/Hemelgarn Racing withdrew from this event when their Dallara/Toyota's road course componentry did not come through with sufficient time to install and prepare.
There will be a third practice session in the morning and, an hour prior to time trials Castroneves will decide whether he wishes to see the field qualify in order of their fast laps or inverted, as per his choice. For the first time in League history, teams may use tire warmers for this Saturday afternoon qualifying session, adding another wrinkle to an intriguing array of circumstances.
Thunderstorms have been forecast for this evening and could linger into morning, forecasters state. The prospect of wet weather qualifying may sound like fun to the professionals accustomed to such things but could easily throw off many in the field.
Castroneves is certainly looking forward to the challenges ahead for the coming two days. "On new tires, it takes two to four laps to get temperatures up to optimum so I think we'll check out the situation with tire warmers in the morning," he acknowledged.
"Everyone seems to be controlling themselves out there pretty well right now with varied experience at this level. I think during the race it could be different, but I hope not," Castroneves laughed.