GOOD START FOR HAMILTON AT ST PETE'S
New Zealand racing driver Mathew Hamilton has had a good start to his weekend at the second round of the 2006 Indy Pro Series at the St Petersburg street circuit meeting in Florida.
This morning (NZ time/Friday US time) he set the seventh fastest time in the first practice session, and the 10th fastest time in the second session, to be 10th overall heading into qualifying tomorrow (Sun NZ time/Sat US time).
His performance in the first session was particularly meritorious because it was the 23-year-old Christchurch driver's first time driving a single seater racing car on a converted street circuit, and afterwards his team found that one of the car's rear shock absorbers was not functioning properly.
It's been a year of firsts for Hamilton, with his first race on a high-speed oval last weekend and his first race on a street circuit this weekend.
Despite that the young Christchurch driver says that his first impressions of the 'St Pete's' street course were good.
"It's pretty cool," he said of the 2.88 km circuit through the streets of the small Tampa Bay city, known as 'The Sunshine Capital' of the United States."When I first went out there I thought it was a bit of a concrete jungle, and it is quite bumpy, but I'm quite enjoying it."
With compatriot Wade Cunningham hospitalised with appendicitis on Thursday US time, the number of Kiwi drivers competing at this weekend's big 'double-header' meeting at St Petersburg is down to two, with Hamilton in the Indy Pro Series and 2003 Indy Racing League champion Scott Dixon in the IRL races.
Dixon ended the day second fastest of the IRL drivers behind Dario Franchitti with Tony Kanaan third and Helio Castroneves fourth.
Like many of Wade Cunningham's friends and supporters back home in New Zealand, Mathew Hamilton says he found it hard to believe when he first heard that Cunningham - the defending Indy Pro Series champion - had been hit by appendicitis.
"It's really rotten luck, especially this weekend, when it is a double header with double the points on offer," he said.
Understandably, Cunningham's team boss Brian Stewart also said today that he was 'extremely disappointed' that his number one driver was not going to be competing at the meeting.
"We were looking forward to this track," he said this morning. "Last year we led 18 laps here and with another year's experience I figured we would set the pace. We went to Sebring earlier this week and he (Cunningham) was really, really fast."
In Cunningham's absence the two practice sessions were dominated by 2005 US Star Mazda series champion, US-based Brazilian Rafael Matos. Matos, who participated in the early season testing session at the Homestead-Miami oval, has signed to compete in the rival Champ Car Atlantic championship and is doing this weekend's Indy Pro Series meeting as a warmup to next weekend's Atlantic series opener at Long Beach.
In the first practice session Matos headed second-year Indy Pro Series racer Nick Bussell and 2004 Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 Series champion Bobby Wilson, while in the second he headed 2005 Cooper Tires Formula Ford 2000 Series champion, and last weekend's Indy Pro Series pole-sitter and third place-getter Jay Howard.
This weekend's meeting sees the Indy Pro Series cars practicing on Friday, qualifying on Saturday morning and racing on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning (US time).
There is then an early break in the calendar of almost eight weeks until the third round of the series at the annual Indy 500 meeting at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday May 26.