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Drivers work on new car’s demands at St. Pete opening practice day

by Mike Haag | Posted on Friday, March 9th, 2018

Simon Pagenaud sets up for Turn 10 during practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Joe Skibinski

 

Courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – The new Indy car lived up to the hype on the first official day of practice ahead of the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener.

Josef Newgarden sails down the backstretch during practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher

Twenty-four drivers found their cars – each equipped with the new universal aero kit for the first time this year – challenging and exciting to drive as they prepared for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It is the first of 17 races on the 2018 schedule.

FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG: Practice 1 resultsPractice 2 resultsCombined practice results

At the end of a pair of 45-minute sessions, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport sat atop the leaderboard with a lap of 1 minute, 0.8295 seconds (106.527 mph) in the No. 28 DHL Honda on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary course encompassing downtown city streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.

“In the past with more downforce, we actually had to go a little bit beyond our comfort level to get the lap time out of the car because there was so much downforce on it,” explained Hunter-Reay, who has twice finished second in the event. “That was the most awkward thing about today, trying to rein that back a little bit, try not to ask so much of the thing.

Matheus ‘Matt’ Leist dives into Turn 11 during practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Chris Owens

“That’s where it’s difficult,” he added. “It’s just sliding around. It’s overall lack of grip. … It’s good, though. It’s a new challenge. Got everybody on their toes. We’ll see who makes the most of it in the shortest amount of time.”

The universal kit was introduced this year following three years of aero kit competition between manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda. The universal kit is designed with a significant reduction in the downforce level that helps cars adhere to the track and corner better. Now, drivers are required to brake earlier and work harder to carry speed through the corners.

James Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was second fastest for the day with a lap of 1:00.8724 (106.452 mph). The 2013 St. Petersburg race winner echoed Hunter-Reay’s thoughts on the difficulty and challenge of the new car.

“It’s a very different beast,” Hinchcliffe said. “Having to reprogram your brain as to what normal is with this car has been a huge challenge everywhere we’ve gone (in preseason testing). Doing it for a street circuit for the first time has been a bit of an eye opener.”

Sebatien Bourdais sets up for Turn 10 during practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Photo by Joe Skibinski

Will Power, a two-time race winner and seven-time pole winner at St. Petersburg, was third on the overall practice chart with a lap of 1:00.9933 (106.241 mph) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Scott Dixon, who ranks fourth all time in Indy cars with 41 wins but has zero St. Pete victories, was fourth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (1:01.1004, 106.055 mph).

Josef Newgarden, in his first race weekend as the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, was fifth on the combined timesheet at 1:01.1012 (106.054 mph) in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. The top 17 drivers were separated by less than a second.

A third practice is set for Saturday morning, ahead of three rounds of Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying starting at 2:20 p.m. ET (streaming live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com). The streets of St. Petersburg will be the site of the Verizon IndyCar Series opener for the eighth straight year on Sunday, with live coverage starting at 12:30 p.m. on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Scuderia Corsa, Rahal Letterman Lanigan partner to enter Servia for Indy 500

Scuderia Corsa, owner of victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring as well as three consecutive championships in IMSA’s GT Daytona class, announced today it is partnering with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to enter veteran driver Oriol Servia in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil this May.

Servia, with 201 career Indy car starts including nine in the Indianapolis 500, will drive the No. 64 Honda as a teammate to RLL’s full-season drivers, Graham Rahal and reigning Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato.

“It is an honor to compete at ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,'” Giacomo Mattioli, owner of Scuderia Corsa, said in a released statement. “To be a part of this great racing heritage and tradition is something I always envisioned for Scuderia Corsa and running across the yard of the bricks this year is a thrill.” 

Servia’s best Indy 500 finish to date was fourth place for Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2012. He finished 21st in last year’s race, his fourth with RLL. He is confident the pairing of successful teams will bode well for him this year.

“Obviously both teams are very successful, winning teams,” Servia said. “I couldn’t be happier that they agreed. When you put two teams together, you never know how it’s going to come out. They both saw the advantage of taking this shot together, with our friends at Honda supporting, too. I couldn’t be happier.”

Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner and co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, sees the partnership as a win-win-win situation – that hopefully results in a win on May 27.

“I think it’s really kind of a great coming together of three very powerful forces,” Rahal said. “I look at Oriol being a part of the team as his really being able to contribute to refining the car, really creating a great setup.

“Now this year with Takuma and Graham, we have three very, very strong entries in the 500, three strong chances to win. That certainly is exciting.”

INDYCAR community ushers in 2018 season, honors 2017 champion

As the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season prepared to launch, INDYCAR took a final warm look back at a thrilling 2017 campaign.

The racing community gathered Thursday night at the Birchwood, a few blocks from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course, to welcome in the highly anticipated season featuring a new-look car, new teams and new challengers for the championship. It also provided the opportunity to honor last year’s champion, Josef Newgarden.

Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Company which owns INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, served as host for the event.

“People are stoked to be in St. Petersburg, Florida, and get to the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship,” Miles said. “There’s so much anticipation and excitement about this year and this series that it’s palpable.”

Miles celebrated the championship that Newgarden won in 2017, in his first season driving for Team Penske. Newgarden is already focused on 2018, with the competition debut of the universal aero kit on all cars taking place this weekend.

“In looking forward to 2018, I think we’ve got a pretty incredible opportunity as a series and a platform going forward,” Newgarden said. “I’m really excited about the new car. I think if you ask anyone in here, they’re pretty excited about what we have.”

Firestone extends St. Petersburg race title sponsorship agreement through 2020

Bridgestone Americas, Inc. announced on Thursday a two-year extension of its Firestone brand’s title sponsorship of the St. Petersburg race. This year marks the fifth year of Firestone as the race’s title sponsor.

“We are proud to continue our title sponsorship of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg through 2020,” said Lisa Boggs, director, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. “The streets of St. Petersburg are an ideal proving ground to showcase the durable, dependable technology built into Firestone tires. The support from the city and its residents, along with the team at Green Savoree Racing Promotions, has made this one of the marquee events on the Verizon IndyCar Series circuit.”

TAG Heuer renews as official timekeeper of Verizon IndyCar Series, Indy 500

TAG Heuer, the premier watch brand in the world of motor racing, announced a renewal of its contract as the official timekeeper of the Verizon IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 race for the next three years. 

“Motor racing is at the very core of TAG Heuer’s DNA,” said Kilian Muller, president and CEO of TAG Heuer North America. “It is vital that the brand continues its legacy of supporting the sport and what better way than partnering with the Verizon IndyCar Series, one of the most innovative and beloved open-wheel racing leagues.”

‘What They’re Saying’ from Friday practice at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a smooth enough first practice session today, and we were really just trying to figure out the new car and how it handled here on the streets of St. Pete. We started to work some things out in Session 2 and we’re starting to feel really good about the Hitachi Chevrolet. We still have some work to do, but I know the Hitachi Team Penske guys are the best in the business. Team Chevy is doing a great job giving us all we need, so we’ll be back it for practice and qualifying on Saturday.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “The whole day was pretty good, I think. The first practice we were P1, so I was impressed with myself (laughs) and probably the team was, as well. It was a good start to the weekend, and I think the second session went good as well. We probably had a car to finish in the top-five, but I just had too much traffic when I was on reds. P12 is still good I think. I’m looking forward to the weekend and the season. Probably tomorrow is going to be a better day than today, and we’re going to be up there with the top guys.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “The 2018 car is very different, I can tell you that. I think you’re going to hear that a lot over the weekend and a lot over the year as we go to the racetracks the first time with it. St. Pete, it’s always interesting on Friday, super low grip, a lot of different series out there laying rubber down and all the rest of it. Some interesting challenges today, a lot to learn with the new car, our side personally with the new team, new personnel on the team I should say. But, yeah, a solid start to the day.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): (How this first experience compared to his practice session experience at Road America in 2017) “It’s a lot more relaxed. That Road America thing was so last minute. I got a phone call on a Thursday to ask if I was even in North America, flew out, and arrived in Chicago at 1 a.m., two-hour drive to Elkhart Lake, two hours of sleep, and the whole day was just stressed and rushed. I couldn’t really enjoy it. Whereas now, I got the proper Thursday set-up day preparation, running through the whole program today was a lot more relaxed. I feel a lot better about it. I’ve had a really good day in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda. You couldn’t ask for much more than to be top ten in both sessions today. Hopefully that can be a trend for the rest of the weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a tricky start to the weekend for us. The car is just very different from what we had last year. The car is skating everywhere and that last session I think we just got a little bit unlucky with traffic in the PNC Bank car. I think we’re right there and the car has the speed, we just need to get out of traffic a bit and we hope to show that tomorrow in qualifying.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a tough day today, but it was the same for everyone with the new car here at St. Pete. I think we all probably had less grip than we thought we would and that was the case for me in the NTT DATA car. It’s a new challenge, but one we’re up for. I don’t think our speed was reflective of the car we have, we just got caught in traffic. I don’t think we’re too far off though. A few changes for tomorrow and we’re right back up there.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “The Verizon Chevy was very good today – it was definitely a good start. I think we’re very close to getting the car where we need to be. We’ll work on fine tuning things, but we’re headed in the right direction. This new car is so fun to drive. It goes so much faster on the straights and it’s very quick in the turns as well. I think it’s definitely going to make for some entertaining racing this year.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It was a decent first day. The biggest accomplishment we wanted to do was have the ABC Supply team running all day. We did that and everybody stayed calm. We had a very good first session and I knew people were going to step it up (in the second session), so now we just need to keep our heads together. It was a decent second session, we’re there. The goal obviously is to win races, but we came here to be realistic and I think if we are in the top 10 for this first race and what we’re building, it would be really good. We’re there right now (inside top 10), so we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “We went down a path in testing at Sebring, and unfortunately Sebring is a high grip circuit, which we knew, and I think it just misled us. I fully believe that overnight we will find some changes and get ourselves pointed in a much better position. We are struggling with the rear of the car ,which is very strange. We did at our first test, as well, but in general I think it hasn’t been an issue to this magnitude. We have a lot of work to do. Obviously Taku (Takuma Sato) did a good job putting a lap in and I just didn’t. We are going back to the drawing board for tomorrow and make the United Rentals car quicker.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “It wasn’t a bad day. We made a change for the second practice and we didn’t go in the right direction. A lot of guys improved on reds (Firestone alternate tire) and we got a red flag when we went out on reds. Then I didn’t get any laps that were representative because there was traffic in front of me. You probably have one lap, maybe two if you don’t hit it too hard, but with the red flag and the traffic, it was game over. On the blacks (Firestone primary tires), it’s not bad. It’s just we are looking for front grip and we haven’t found a friendly way to do it.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda): “We had a good morning session, I was really happy with how it went. Then I struggled a bit more in the afternoon session with the heat and there was a lot of traffic that I wasn’t able to put a lap together. We know where we are with the car, I know where I need to get better, so I’m pretty confident we’ll be fine come practice tomorrow. It’s really exciting driving on the St. Petersburg track aboard an Indy car. It’s a handful with the new universal aero kit, but I’m really enjoying it and I’m sure it’s going to be a really close qualifying and race for everyone.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “There’s not too many dissimilarities between this car and the ones I used to drive (Formula 2, 2015-2017). There is a lot of crossover, which has made it a lot easier to jump in and drive the car. However, there’s so much to learn procedurally. I have to learn the circuits, the way the tires behave, the way the mechanics work. So there’s a lot more going on than just driving the car. I’ve not driven any of these circuits before, so it will be a new experience each weekend. There’s always going to be learning, right up until the end of the season. I do feel comfortable within the car and driving it, which is a positive because the goal is to be as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Autogeek Chevrolet): “We are better than what came out on the time sheets. Where we struggled the most as getting clear track. There was a lot of traffic and a lot of cars, so it was really tough to get clear space when the tires were at their best. We missed that today, so hopefully we will be able to get clear track in Practice 3 tomorrow morning and really see where we stack up. There are still a few areas where we need to do some work and find some more speed, but overall, the Autogeek car feels pretty good.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The morning session went pretty well for us on the Menards Chevy and we were trying some different things in the afternoon and it didn’t really work out. We made some changes with red Firestone tires to see if what we did last year would still apply this year and we learned that it just didn’t transfer. Late in the afternoon session we lost traction late in Turn 2 and the car spun. Thankfully we only brushed the wall and minimized the damage. The Menards Team Penske guys will do a great job fixing it up and we’ll be ready to go for tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “We’ve learned a lot every time we’ve been on track in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet, whether it’s been testing or during today’s two practices. When you’re starting from scratch informationally, any time you do a lap you make progress. We actually made quite a bit of progress today and we learned a lot. We have a good direction to head tomorrow, and obviously tomorrow is when it counts with qualifying, so we need to try and maximize the setup on the car. I know the guys at Carlin have already made a monumental effort to have such a trouble-free day on our first day at a racetrack for a race weekend, and I know tonight we’ll work to make it even better for tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “Overall it was a productive day. We didn’t really get to show how good our car was. We got caught up in traffic all through the second session. It seemed like every time we put a set of tires on we seemed to run into someone on track. We’re happy with where things are. Obviously with Ryan (Hunter-Reay) being quick, it shows where our cars have some good pace. Hopefully we have a cleaner track tomorrow. There are a few things I need to go back and work on tonight, but I think we have a good shot of getting the Group One Thousand One car in the top 12 during qualifying and we’ll see where we can go in the race from there.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “I think it was positive day for the team overall – it’s a good way to start the weekend. We actually did our best time on our third attempt on Firestone Red (Alternate Tires) because of a multitude of issues. I think the pace of the NAPA AUTO PARTS car is pretty good – we’ll work on it overnight. Everyone is going to learn a lot  tonight, so we’ll have to take a step ahead with them. All-in-all I think it was a positive start to 2018.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Finishing first overall today is not a bad way to start the season. We’re still in the early days and will need to all put our heads together at Andretti tonight and figure out how we’re going to make these cars go faster tomorrow. I think everybody left today feeling like they left something on the table, ourselves included, but it’s nice to see the No. 28 DHL Honda up at the sharp end – right up in front. Hopefully we can carry that momentum into tomorrow and see what we have for qualifying.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It always feels great to get on track for the opening race of the season. I love the atmosphere of St. Petersburg. There are already a lot of fans here on a Friday; it’s fantastic. We didn’t quite have as good of a first session as we wanted. A few things about the car were a little bit unexpected. Practice 1, I couldn’t do as many laps as I wanted. The second practice was a good improvement. We still need to work hard on some things but hopefully we can improve again for tomorrow.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “We ended the day on a positive note with valuable lessons learned. I improved quite as the day progressed. My time improved substantially from the first practice today. We tried a new set up with more front wing, which did not work out for me. Ultimately, I lost it at the high speed corner, but luckily there was no contact. We made a good step forward and we will see what tomorrow brings.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “We got a lot of miles in today for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. It was the first day of a milestone weekend for the team, being their first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series race weekend. We kept the car running and got loads of information, but we aren’t quite where we want to be yet. With this being our first race weekend with the new team, Charlie (Kimball), and I just have to make sure that we’re giving as much feedback as possible to help ourselves learn as quickly as we can. Obviously we’re sort of on the back foot, being a rookie team, but I believe in Carlin and what the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet can do.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM MSR w/SPM Honda): “I think the day went pretty well. We have a good pace right now and there is definitely more to come out of the car. The first session was a solid run and gave us lots of room for improvement which I think was a good starting spot. There were areas where I was improving every lap and now I just need to put my quickest lap together. Overall, I feel like it is a pretty solid start for where we want to be. I haven’t driven here in a few years, so things have changed a lot on the track but it’s just like I remember it. It’s quick and a bit wild in places but overall it was a lot of fun.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Our first official day as a full-time team in the season opener at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete. We started not where we wanted, but we quickly realized what our issues were, addressed them and got them sorted for Practice 2. Now we can have an optimistic outlook on the weekend and work from here to get the best result we can in our debut.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Ruoff Home Mortgage / Curb Honda): “It was a decent first day. We were on for a top-three lap time there when the red flag came out, so we’re happier than the times look. We’ve made big improvements from Practice 1 to Practice 2. We just have to maintain our progression. I’m happy with the car on the Firestone reds (alternate tires), which is where we need to be. I feel pretty confident in the Ruoff Home Mortgage / Curb machine moving into tomorrow.”

About the Author

Mike Haag has covered motorsports in San Antonio and South Texas for more than 30 years. In addition to working for the San Antonio Express-News for nearly 28 years, Mike also has co-hosted TrackSmack with Dawn Murphy for 15 race seasons. In addition to being a writer, Mike also teaches English at Floresville High School.