Team Penske swept the top four positions in the Firestone Fast Six, led by Verizon P1 Award winner Will Power, during qualifications for Sunday's Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion recorded a lap of 1 minute, 0.6931 of a second in the 10-minute session on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg temporary street circuit in the competition debut of aerodynamic bodywork supplied by Chevrolet and Honda.
In the first two rounds of qualifying, Power set and reset the track record that Sebastien Bourdais (1:00.928) held since the inaugural St. Pete Indy car race in 2003. Power lowered the standard to 1:00.8344 in Round 1 and bettered it with a lap of 1:00.6509 in Round 2. Had he had a clean lap in the waning seconds of the Firestone Fast Six, the driver of the No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet said he likely would have made it three in a row.
It was the 37th career pole (sixth on the all-time pole wins list) for Power, who previously was the top qualifier at St. Petersburg in 2010-13. He won the race in 2010 and again in 2014 on the way to his first series championship.
First-year Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud was 0.0321 of a second behind Power in the Firestone Fast Six to qualify second. Helio Castroneves, the only three-time race winner at St. Petersburg, qualified third (1:00.8356) and Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth (1:00.8532).
"It was tight. Full credit to the team. I'm stoked to get pole," said Power, who won from the fourth starting position in his 2014 series championship season. "It just shows the work we've done over the winter. It's four good drivers that will battle it out (3 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC).
"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."
Takuma Sato, who earned the Verizon P1 Award in 2014 with a lap of 1:01.8668 in the Firestone Fast Six driving the No. 14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing car, was the quickest qualifier of the Honda contingent in fifth (1:01.1496) and Bourdais qualified sixth (1:01.1545) in the No. 11 Team Hydroxycut-KVSH Racing Chevrolet.
Stefano Coletti qualified 17th in the No. 4 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet as the top rookie.
Power makes it two on monument, looks for three
Will Power affixed a plaque bearing his name to the Victory Circle monument near Turn 10 of the St. Petersburg track today and promptly pointed to the next available space on the granite block.
"My name is on there twice now. Let's see if I can make it three," said Power, who added the new plaque commemorating his victory in the 2014 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after winning the 2010 race.
A Buckshot by any other name
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Jakes is British, by way of Leeds, England. But now, thanks to his team, he has "a good, old-fashioned, American" nickname.
"They call me 'Buckshot,'" Jakes said with a laugh as he pointed out the corresponding sticker on the rear of his helmet. "It just came out of nowhere."
In his previous Verizon IndyCar Series seasons from 2011-13, Jakes was informally known as "Jakesy." Now, with James Hinchcliffe as his teammate and both sharing the same first name, something had to change.
"With two Jameses flying around, the engineers thought it would get complicated," Jakes said. "My engineer (Dan Hobbs) has a NASCAR background and thought it would fit."
The Captain is ready for season to set sail
Roger Penske is the winningest owner in Indy car history, with 174 race victories that include 15 Indianapolis 500 triumphs. Even with all that success behind him, the Team Penske owner is excited for what looms ahead this season.
"With the new aero kits creating a different look and feel for the cars, there is a lot of energy and anticipation around the start of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series," Penske said. "We know how competitive the series has been in recent years and with some talented young drivers added to the mix this year, it has all the elements to be a very exciting season. This is the first time we will run four cars at Team Penske, with Simon Pagenaud joining Helio (Castroneves), Will (Power), the series champion, and Juan (Montoya), we know the level of competition will be even higher among our own team. After a long offseason, we are all definitely ready for the green flag at St. Petersburg."
Karam on the mend
Sage Karam, competing in his second Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend, is still recovering from a hand injury suffered March 16 during the preseason Promoter Test at Barber Motorsports Park. Karam said he felt "about 90 percent" in the seat of the No. 8 GE LED Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Chevrolet on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit.
MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 27 Snapple Honda): "We're not even close. I thought our potential was a little better than that. We've been struggling with understeer - can't get the car to turn - which, for outright pace, is not good. But maybe for the race that's a good situation to try and look after the (Firestone) reds."
SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 11 Team Hydroxycut-KVSH Racing Chevrolet): "Just really proud of the KVSH boys. It's one of those days where it can go either way. For the first time since '03, I got out of the (first qualifying) group and got in the (Firestone) Fast Six. OK, we got off to a good start. Pretty proud of that. The car was pretty good. We started the weekend really in a hole. It might not have shown in the lap times, but we were not happy with the car. It was pretty rough. So to come out and make the Fast Six, it's a good achievement. It's definitely better than where we started last year. We'll see how we can race. But there was definitely something in that last lap. I got a bit greedy. I was up a tenth and a half (of a second), I went for it, went to the escape road and probably ruined Simon's lap. It is what it is. But very happy with the progress we made and looking forward to tomorrow."
HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet): "The Hitachi car has been pretty consistent, I have to say. We basically worked a little bit harder than what we thought. I have three other very good guys in the team, which is good because each one tries something different. In the end of the day, you're just pushing to the limit. So it's a perfect testament of great teamwork. Having 1, 2, 3, 4 (in qualifying) shows we're pushing to the limit, all four of us. I think each one wants to be in front, but at least for the team it's a good problem to have, having all four guys fighting for the pole position. I'm very excited at this point because we work in a way that hopefully we are going to have a result like that. That's our goal. Our goal is to go out there and try to win a race. The best day for each car? We will find out tomorrow."
STEFANO COLETTI (No. 4 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet): "It was a disappointing qualifying for my first INDYCAR race. I have been struggling with the car all weekend. The things we thought we learned at the Sebring test earlier in the week, we found out did not work here. Despite the limited track time we have had, I was able to learn the track pretty quick and it's a lot of fun. We will work on the car tonight and make some changes and hopefully, tomorrow I will have a good race car and have a good result for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race."
SIMONA DE SILVESTRO (No. 25 Andretti Autosport Honda): "Eleventh is OK, for sure. I would have liked to be a little bit more up front. But being back here in INDYCAR, it's definitely been a busy week. We just tested a little bit at the beginning of the week, and just getting to work with everybody here at Andretti Autosport has been great. I think to qualify where we are, it's OK for the race. Hopefully we can improve tomorrow." (On the biggest thing she's noticed since her return to the Verizon IndyCar Series) "Well, definitely the aero kit; it changes the car quite a bit. I think that's the biggest thing. You have to change a little bit how you're driving and even kind of understand what the car needs to be fast. I think we're all learning that, and hopefully we'll make even more improvements tomorrow."
FRANCESCO DRACONE (No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda): "It was a pretty hard day. 'Quali' was difficult to set the pace needed but the car was much improved from practice sessions. The team is doing a great job. Having the red tires for the first time was challenging for me, having never used them. The track is getting faster and faster. The balance seemed to get better on the red tires so I am looking forward to more laps on those. Tomorrow we are going to go for a good pace and try to avoid mistakes. It has been a challenge for me all weekend because I'm driving a new car for the first time on a circuit I have never driven. All of the drivers here in Florida are at a very high level."
LUCA FILIPPI (No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka CFH Racing Chevrolet): "The lap times were very close and I felt good in the car, especially the last few laps. I thought we were doing quite well, but actually the times were so tight I missed the first cut and did not make it to Round 2. We ran the first few laps on used tires and I didn't have a good read on the condition. Tomorrow is a long race, we'll think about the strategy and try to get the best out of it. I think we will be strong for the longer run."
JACK HAWKSWORTH (No. 41 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Honda): "For some reason we were struggling under braking -- the rear of the car was pretty loose and we didn't have any traction so we need to find out why and start again tomorrow. Obviously on the first day we had a pretty competitive car so we need to understand what's going on and come back better tomorrow. Fortunately we have the morning warmup where we can validate what's going on."
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda): "I'm obviously pretty gutted not to make it out of the first qualifying session. That's not what I'm used to or what this team is used to. Certainly there are some areas for improvement, but it's not due to lack of trying. We've been working so hard this weekend and over the last couple of tests to get the Arrow Electronics car dialed in. It's just a little bit far from where we need it right now, but it's not a long way. When you look at the times, it's just a small change that will give us what we need to jump up a few positions. We'll look at it overnight and learn a bit more in warm-up tomorrow, but we've got a bit of a strategy advantage with an extra set of (Firestone) reds. Not to say we wouldn't rather be a little further up the grid, but that's the situation we're in and hopefully we're going to come together with a good package tomorrow. With some quick driving, good pit work, good strategy, we'll get up there."
CARLOS HUERTAS (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda): "Obviously I was hoping to start higher than I am. I got into the 1:01's, which I was happy about, but it wasn't enough. It is so tight out there and when you look at the times there isn't much between advancing and not advancing. I think we are still struggling with setup some, which makes it even harder when it is tight. We need to work tonight and concentrate on tomorrow. I hope we can make some changes tonight and can be faster for the race tomorrow."
RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): "In many ways we rebounded today from yesterday's practice, but it was a disappointing qualifying run. From the first laps, I didn't really feel we had the balance and the grip level to contend for the Verizon P1 Award, so we need to go back and find some more grip. We're just a little shy on overall grip at the moment, and hopefully tomorrow we can put it together for warm-up and get this DHL Honda up front. It's a bit of a frustrating day here because we've been in the Firestone Fast Six here in the past. We'll look to regroup for tomorrow."
JAMES JAKES (No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): "It was a very difficult day, to be honest. It's a shame but we're making progress with the No. 7 SPM MediaTech car. We have a little bit more work to do. Hopefully we can have a good race tomorrow and move forward. Our goal is to get some solid points and develop a good baseline to continue the season with."
SAGE KARAM (No. 8 GE LED Chevrolet): "It's pretty frustrating. That was the expectation for me - to go to the next round. It's a good car. It's the first time I've driven on red (tires), so it's a learning experience for me. Every lap, I felt like I was getting better and better, and I was starting to brake later and later. I was starting to lose the tire a little bit. I think that's one of the things the rookies are going to face here this weekend is that we've never driven red tires. We have to learn them. We're going to go to the next race and have a better understanding for it and be able to qualify better. The GE LED car for Chip Ganassi Racing is a pretty good car now. I think we have a good race car and can race our way to the front."
JUAN PABLO MONTOYA (No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet): "It's good. I'm kind of disappointed with that lap, to be honest. It's funny because from my previous session I was three-tenths (of a second) up coming to Turn 10. It's the last corner. Just had to lift on the exit. Mad, but still ran a decent lap. I don't know, for the team I think it shows how hard we work over the winter. I think it shows as well having Simon (Pagenaud) onboard and being a four-car team, I think it's been really, really good. Running the Verizon car has been amazing. I don't know, like we said yesterday, what could be better: 1, 2, 3? It was a 1, 2, 3, 4. To be honest, I think all the year is going to be like that. We've just got to make sure we don't beat each other."
CARLOS MUNOZ (No. 26 AndrettiTV/Cinsay Honda): "It was OK. I'm just a little bit frustrated - I could have gone into the next phase. Everyone's really close here, so you really have to set up every piece (of the car) together (to get it right). It's a shame, but tomorrow's a long race, so we'll see what happens."
JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 67 Hartman Oil CFH Racing Chevrolet): "I'm relatively happy. You're in the front end of the grid. There are 24 cars, so starting in the top 10 is strong around this place. This is generally a very difficult place on tires, so the further up you start, it's always better. We're going to have to look after them better tomorrow. I think we're kind of burning off our rears a little too quick. So in the morning warmup, we'll have to maximize that and make our tires live. It's such a long race and you have to be able to make them live. If you don't, people keep sneaking up behind you out of the hairpin and you get dive-bombed going into Turn 1. I think that's what we're working on to maximize for tomorrow. As far as today, we struggled in the practice earlier and I think we made a huge leap forward. Now we're in the top 10 and we have to work our way a little bit more, try to get into the top five and challenge the guys up front."
SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet): "It's very fast. I'm super happy, to be honest. It's incredible to start this way with Team Penske. We have a lot of pace. The car is fantastic. Thanks to everyone for searching and developing so much. The 22 crew is brand new and is doing a great job. It's fantastic to be a part of the Penske family. I'm really proud. Today was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed qualifying."
WILL POWER (No. 1 Verizon Chevrolet): "It's been a really good offseason. I think just the way the team is, the teammates, it provides a lot of motivation. Obviously winning the championship makes it a very pleasant offseason. You're not sitting around wondering why you didn't win again. Yeah, I'm enjoying it. I was really satisfied to get pole here today. All the practice sessions are working towards that, literally one lap that gets you pole. It's a session where everyone gives it everything they've absolutely got. When you get pole, it's very satisfying. It's really difficult these days to do that. You don't see anyone getting more than three or four poles during a season now. It's the same for wins. Anytime you're at that end of an INDYCAR field, it's awesome."
GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): "We just seem to struggle with power down. We were only a couple of hundredths (of a second) away from advancing to Round 2. So if we can figure out how to maximize power down and get off the corner well enough, we will be in a better position. In fact, the lap before my best lap was a tenth (of a second) better down the front straight and that's probably the tenth we needed to advance. It's going to be a long day of work tomorrow starting from 15th. I think we'll be OK in the race, but starting from where we are is going to make for a long day."
TAKUMA SATO (No. 14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Honda): "It's a new season. Very exciting with Honda and Chevrolet presenting new aero packages. For the fans, cosmetically different, too. We obviously need to maximize performance. Over the course of the winter testing, I think we were quite satisfied with the result today. Proud to have the A.J. Foyt Racing car in the top six. Jack had a little issue, but we'll find out."