By: Tanner Watkins
April 6, 2019 | 4:30 PM
In a wild qualifying session that saw both Andretti Autosport and Team Penske miss out on the Firestone Fast Six, it was Takuma Sato and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing who won the pole for Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
Sato formed the first part of a Rahal Letterman Lanigan 1-2 as his teammate Graham Rahal will start alongside him on the front row tomorrow afternoon. The teammates were separated by just a tenth of a second for the top lap, with Sato turning in a lap of 1m8.5934s and Rahal’s best lap coming in at 1m8.6971s.
In total, five Honda drivers made the Fast Six while Spencer Pigot continued to shine for Ed Carpenter Racing. The ECR No. 21 machine was the only Chevrolet representative in the final round, qualifying sixth with a time of 1m9.6074s.
Scott Dixon (1m8.8081s) will start third for Chip Ganassi Racing, James Hinchcliffe (1m8.8476s) rolls off fourth tomorrow for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and Sebastien Bourdais (1m9.0189s) slotted in fifth for Dale Coyne Racing.
Considering the choppy, red-flag filled practices that preceded Saturday afternoon’s session, qualifying was incredibly calm. Each round of qualifications went off without a stoppage and allowed for some storylines to play out naturally.
In Round One’s first group of 12 drivers, Pigot flexed his muscle by topping the time charts while rookies Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci also advanced. Honda drivers Sebastien Bourdais and Jack Harvey found their way into the second round while Alexander Rossi was the only Andretti Autosport driver in group one to advance. Marco Andretti just missed the cutoff while Zach Veach was slowest in the first group.
As the second group in Round One took to the track, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Firestone alternate compound tires were starting to show some strength. The red-sidewall tires had been a question mark for much of the weekend with varying levels of grip and balance catching drivers out.
In group two, Dixon led the way with Rahal, Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay also advancing. Will Power found his way into the second round as well, though he was the only Team Penske driver to make the top-12 cutline. Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden weren’t quick enough to make the second round, and they will start 14th and 16th, respectively.
After strong runs in Saturday morning practice, the Carlin duo of Max Chilton and rookie Pato O’Ward also missed moving on to the second round.
In that Round of 12 battle, drivers worked in a mix of laps on Firestone alternate compound tires as well as the primary compound. The alternate compound would prevail in the group of 12 drivers that featured 10 Honda representatives and only two Chevrolet competitors.
At the end of round two, Hinchcliffe had continued his dominant run from the last two practice sessions to lead Pigot, Dixon, Sato, Rahal and Bourdais into the Fast Six. That left heavy hitters like Power, Rossi, and Hunter-Reay on the outside, ensuring a rare Fast Six shootout without any representatives from Andretti Autosport or Team Penske.
Additionally, Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta missed the cut for the final round, as did fellow rookie Santino Ferrucci and Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey.
In the Fast Six shootout, Rahal stood atop the board for much of the five-minute session. The Ohio native relayed after the session had concluded that his No. 15 OneCure Honda works best on the primary compound tire, a stark contrast to the setup and preferences that his teammate Takuma Sato enjoyed in the Fast Six.
Sato waited until the dying seconds of the session to cut loose on one last flying lap, edging Rahal by just over a tenth of a second to snatch the pole away from his Honda teammate. Dixon and Hinchcliffe closed the session a couple tenths off the pace while Bourdais and Pigot seemed content with their third row starting spots.
The 42-year-old Sato continues to impress, holding off Father Time by winning the Indianapolis 500 at age 40, taking victory in the Grand Prix of Portland last season at age 41, and winning his first pole award since 2017 today. After climbing out of his car, Sato proclaimed today’s breakthrough to be a “dream result” for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew.
The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will go green tomorrow at 4:00 PM Eastern, live on NBCSN and the IndyCar Radio Network. The 90-lap race will be preceded by one morning warm-up session at 12:10 PM Eastern, which can be seen live on the NBC Sports Gold IndyCar Pass.
Stay tuned to Open-Wheels.com for continued coverage of the action from Barber Motorsports Park!
Header image by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.