Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power kicked off the "aero era" by recording the quickest lap time in today's initial practice session for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Power's lap of 1 minute, 1.4709 seconds in the No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet breezed past the 2014 Verizon P1 Award-winning lap of 1:01.8668 produced by Takuma Sato on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit.
Power was among five drivers, including Team Penske teammates Juan Pablo Montoya (1:01.6996) and Helio Castroneves (1:01.7000), to better last year's pole time, even without the Firestone Firehawk alternate tires that they'll be allowed to use in the three rounds of Saturday qualifications.
As a steady rain fell through the afternoon, no drivers turned laps in the companion session. Another practice session is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday preceding qualifications for the 110-lap race Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC).
Last year at St. Petersburg, James Hinchcliffe's lap of 1:02.9326 topped the first session.
"It was pretty straightforward for us. I think it's just understanding last year's mechanical balance of the car with the new aero stuff and just going through basic changes to see what they do," said Power, who won the season-opening race in March 2014 and earned the St. Petersburg pole four straight years from 2010-13.
"The kits produce massive downforce, low drag and the cars are absolutely glued to the track. Obviously, as we go along in the year we are going to learn more and more about what we need to push for wins."
Scott Dixon (1:01.7777) and Sebastien Bourdais (1:01.8439) also were quicker around the circuit than the 2014 pole time using the Chevrolet aero/engine package. Second-year driver Jack Hawksworth (1:01.8713) was quickest of the 12 Honda drivers.
Bourdais' track record of 1:00.928 (106.710 mph) set in qualifying for the inaugural Indy car race in 2003 could come under assault.
Both manufacturers developed aerodynamic bodywork platforms for street/road course and short ovals along with a speedway package under INDYCAR regulations. The Chevrolet and Honda aero kits also look distinctly different.
There are multiple combinations of components that crews can utilize to tailor the package to suit drivers and a particular racetrack to optimize performance. They've had two weeks of on-track testing available to decipher the characteristics of the road/street and short oval package. The speedway aero kits are scheduled to be delivered to teams April 1 and make their competitive debut at the Indianapolis 500.
"There's a noticeable speed increase from last year and that's from downforce without a lot of drag penalty," said CFH Racing driver Josef Newgarden, who was 10th on the time chart. "They're very efficient packages and Chevrolet and Honda have spent millions of dollars into making the best aerodynamic pieces that they can.
"Everything on the car is lot more refined and it's just faster. That's the big difference in plain terms."
Added 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay: "Racing, first of all, is all about innovation and development and that's what we have with the aero kits. The engine manufacturers have been tasked to put on as much downforce as efficiently as possible, and what you see is a complete transformation of this Indy car where Chevy has its own look and brand and Honda has its own look and brand and stamp on the car.
"The performance is up, track records will be broken this year, and they look like you need to wear protective gloves around them, so they look awesome. They look like they should, which is incredibly fast and somewhat scary."
Wilson joins Andretti Autosport for Indy races
Andretti Autosport announced that Indy car veteran Justin Wilson will drive for the team in the Angie's List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 9 and the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 24. Wilson, a seven-time race winner in 11 Indy car seasons, will drive the No. 25 Honda. Andretti Autosport is the reigning Indy 500 champion with Hunter-Reay.
"I know that the team has everything in place to do well and I'm really confident about what the group is capable of this year," said Wilson.
Added team owner Michael Andretti, "Having Justin on the team has been something we've been looking at for quite some time, so we're excited to finally make it happen."
Celebs have speedy experienceMario Andretti quickly zipped around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit much to the delight of his passengers Thursday in the Indy Racing Experience two-seater. Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Major Wright and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, "SI Now" host Maggie Gray and Anthony Sullivan, a/k/a the OxiClean spokesperson, were among the riders.
"My heartrate is above 200 right now. It's a thrill to have a legend, Mario Andretti, give me a ride," said Sullivan, who eagerly posed with the Bucs players for photos after his ride. "The most surprising thing to me was the speed, the poise, the control entering some of those turns. I thought, 'When is he going to brake?' It's a whole new appreciation for driving at that level."
Team Penske announced that the Hitachi Group has extended its team sponsorship through the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Helio Castroneves will drive the No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet in nine races this season, including the season opener at St. Petersburg. Hitachi also will be an associate sponsor on the three other Team Penske cars. ... Mazda Road to Indy drivers Zach Veach, Neil Alberico and Spencer Pigot visited patients at nearby All Children's Hospital on Thursday. It's an annual event coordinated by Racing For Kids, which also donated televisions and video game equipment to the hospital. ... Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires driver Michael Johnson of JDC Motorsports remained at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg under ICU observation with fractures to the hip and pelvis, following a crash in the opening practice session this morning.
POST-PRACTICE DRIVER QUOTES:
WILL POWER (No. 1 Verizon Chevrolet): "It's awesome to be at an event where times actually count. Obviously not today, but tomorrow and Sunday. Good testing, and obviously, Team Penske has definitely made ground over the winter over the other teams. I think it's going to be a pretty interesting four-way battle amongst the team and Scott Dixon is right in there as well. I expect those five to be the championship contenders." (Comparing the performance of the car at St. Pete from last year to today): "I think it's just (about) understanding last year's mechanical balance of the car with the new aero stuff and just going through basic changes to see what they do. It was pretty straightforward for us. I think we rolled off pretty good with all four cars." (Which is contributing more to Chevrolet's dominance, the engine or the aero kit?): "I think it's both. I think they're better with the engine and the aero right now. It's hard to say which is more. I think they did a very good job with the aero kit, Chevy did."
JUAN PABLO MONTOYA (No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet): "It's a long offseason for us, but to be honest with you, the last couple months have been pretty busy for us doing a lot of testing and preparation for this. It's fun for me, second year back and I feel a lot better than last year. I think we have gained a lot over the winter with the car and I think it made a lot of difference." (On comparing how his car performed here last year and today): "Last year was a tough year for us at the beginning. We knew that. Normally I'm really good at remembering everything about every track and last year I think this was such a blur for me. I was so overwhelmed with everything that I didn't really pay too much attention to details. But I felt really good straight away (this year) that all of the work we did over the winter with the car made me really, really happy. I'm really comfortable with the car." (Did all four Team Penske drivers try different things today?) "Each engineer knows what their driver wants and it seems each one is doing his own thing. We have the data there, we have all the information. If somebody makes a change that works, we all know about it. We all drive so different. It's not so much the driving, it's the feeling that we want out of the car is so different. You look at us driving, it looks pretty similar but what we want the feel to be is very different. To get that feel, we achieve it in very different ways."
SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet): "Pretty happy with the first day on the Penske Truck Rental Chevy. We were fast out of the box and we also made some improvements through first practice. For us, we've been getting up to speed as a group and so far everything is going pretty smoothly. I'm really looking forward to qualifying tomorrow to see what we can do."
RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): "There was some promise in our early speed; the DHL Honda was up at the top of the time charts there for the first couple of runs, but as the session went on we just didn't get the most out of the car. We need to do some changes to react to the balance that we now have. On our new tire runs we had yellow flags in the corner so I had to slow down. I think at best we could have been P9, P8. A lot of the front runners ran three sets of tires instead of the two sets that we ran. Hopefully with our changes we can move forward tomorrow." (On aero kits): "Racing, first of all, is all about innovation and development and that's what we have with the aero kits. The engine manufacturers have been tasked to put on as much downforce as efficiently as possible, and what you've see is a complete transformation of this Indy car where Chevy has its own look and brand and Honda has its own look and brand and stamp on the car. The performance is up, the speeds - the track records will be broken this year, and they look like you need to wear protective gloves around them, so they look awesome. They look like they should, which is incredibly fast and somewhat scary."
MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 27 Snapple Honda): "We struggled today with brake issues, so we only had one real run there at the end of the first session. We think we have a direction on where we need to go but a lot of work to do in Practice 3 tomorrow, and then on to quals. Looking to move the Snapple car up the charts."
SIMONA DE SILVESTRO (No. 25 Andretti Autosport Honda): "First session went OK. I think as a team we are not quite where we want to be, but we are going to work really hard. For me, it was good to be back in the car; it felt okay out there, just looking at a few changes and hopefully we'll do another leap forward. It's great to be back here in St. Pete."
CARLOS MUNOZ (No. 26 AndrettiTV/Cinsay Honda): "We're back in St. Petersburg. The second session was rained out, so our day didn't go as planned. We have a bit of work to do. The first session tomorrow is for 45 minutes and then qualifying, so we'll see how it goes. The important thing is qualifying, so now we are thinking and working towards that."
SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 Target Chevrolet): "Things weren't too bad with the Target car. Generally the car felt pretty good. We had a lot of understeer and missed a bit on the aero setup but we'll continue to get there. It's not like we're seconds off the pace. I didn't really get a chance to put a good lap together either and there was a lot of traffic to deal with. I was glad we got some running in before the rain so all in all a good start to the weekend for us. I can't wait to get the season started here in St. Petersburg."
TONY KANAAN (No. 10 NTT DATA Chevrolet): "It's unfortunate that we had to battle with some electrical issues during that first practice session and then weren't able to get out for the second session with the rain. We had some things we really wanted to work on and with the issues first thing out, we just weren't able to get any full runs in. We'll get back out there tomorrow and work through a few things and then be ready to go for qualifying."
SAGE KARAM (No. 8 GE LED Chevrolet): "Although we only got to run one session today due to rain, I feel we got a good foundation under the GE LED car for tomorrow. The goal was to just get comfortable back in the car today and not make any mistakes. We weren't working on outright speed today. We wanted to get some good laps in, get some good data to go off of, and some more experience under my belt. This is a learning process and we'll start looking to improve on speed tomorrow when the weather cooperates a bit more."
CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 83 NovoLog FlexPen Chevrolet): "The Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing crew is pretty happy with today. We have some improvements to make to the No. 83 NovoLog FlexPen Chevrolet but overall it was a good start. There are probably three to four spots on the track where I need to be better coupled with the car being better, but there are a few spots where I feel really strong. So if we can just keep those strengths and fix those areas that need to be improved I think we'll be on par."
HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet): "It was a good, solid starting day for the No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet team. I was really disappointed to see the rain come because we still have some more things to try in hopes of picking up more speed, but we will have to go to work tomorrow. I'm excited about the speed in the car and I think we can challenge for the win, for sure."
STEFANO COLETTI (No. 4 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet): "It was great to get out on the St. Petersburg track with all the other drivers. It was only practice and not a racing situation, but it was competitive and gave me an opportunity to learn the track and work on some things. It was a lot of fun. We know what we need to do to make the No. 4 KV Racing Technology car better, but unfortunately, because of the weather we didn't get out for the afternoon session. The weather report is good for tomorrow, so we will make some changes for the morning practice and hopefully that will give me a really good car for my first Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying session."
SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 11 Team Hydroxycut-KVSH Racing Chevrolet): "We had a pretty good day in the No. 11 Team Hydroxycut-KVSH machine. We thought we had learned a lot of things at the Sebring test earlier this week, but they didn't quite carry over. So, we back pedaled quickly and went back to a more conventional street course setup that we know better. I didn't manage to do the perfect lap, but it put us back in a position that we are familiar with, in the top-five. We obviously couldn't make any progress in the afternoon session due to the rain. But looking forward to tomorrow, hopefully we will put it all together and have a good qualifying for the first race of the year."
GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): "We would have liked to have gotten back on track for the second session to see if we could improve, but it didn't make sense to run in the rain because the weather the rest of the weekend looks good so there was nothing to be gained. I thought the car was decent in the first session, but we have a little work to do to make some improvements. We are in the thick of it, but we need to find a little more speed to leap us up to the next group of guys. I feel okay about the day though. If we find ourselves a couple of tweaks, we can shuffle ourselves up the grid. There is more work to be done Saturday and I'm looking forward to getting out there."