By: Tanner Watkins
March 9, 2019 | 3:00 PM
Saturday qualifications for tomorrow’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weren’t for the faint of heart, though it has been Will Power showing time and time again that he has the heart to get the job done. The Aussie broke through the three-round session to claim his 8th pole in St. Petersburg.
“I was really surprised when (Roger Penske) said P1,” Power admitted at the conclusion of qualifications. “We had the used tires and we had just been there all session, but it was a really neat lap.”
In the post-qualifications interview, Power noted that Team Penske and Chevrolet dedicated generous amounts of time during the offseason to improving their street course package. It seems that those efforts have paid off.
“Chevrolet has done a fantastic job with the engine – they worked really hard in the offseason,” added Power. “We have kind of gone back and had a really good look at our street course performance because it wasn’t good enough last year. We have definitely come back with a nicer car to drive, much more in the window, so great work from the whole team.”
The first round of qualifications – which broke the field of 24 drivers into two 12-man groups – certainly had its drama.
The second yellow flag of Group One’s session came just moments after the track went green once again, this time for Dale Coyne Racing rookie Santino Ferrucci. The driver of the No. 19 David Yurman Honda ended up in the tire barrier at the final hairpin when his machine went straight off on cold tires.
When all was said and done, an interesting crop of drivers had advanced to Round Two: Charlie Kimball (Carlin), James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt-Peterson), Alexander Rossi (Andretti Autosport), Felix Rosenqvist (Chip Ganassi Racing), Ben Hanley (DragonSpeed) and Josef Newgarden (Team Penske).
Left on the outside looking in at the conclusion of Group One’s stunted session were Simon Pagenaud and the two-time defending St. Petersburg race winner, Sebastien Bourdais.
Group Two’s first round session went off much smoother with zero green flag interruptions – though that didn’t signal the end of the drama.
After it looked like Takuma Sato had advanced to round two, along with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Colton Herta, Graham Rahal, Will Power and Jack Harvey, IndyCar Race Control issued a controversial ruling that bumped the Japanese driver out and New Zealand’s Scott Dixon in.
Race Control ruled that Sato had caused a local caution period during the session, eliminating his fastest lap by rule. Earlier in Group Two’s session, Dixon had also spun, but Race Control did not take Dixon’s fastest lap away since his incident was in front of cars on their out lap.
That set the stage for a hectic Round of 12, with many drivers embarking on two different qualifying runs during the 10-minute session. Teams would send their driver out on the Firestone primary tire first, then bring them back in for one final run on the alternate red-sidewall tires.
When the dust had settled on the second round of qualifications, the talk was centered around Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta. First, for posting the third-fastest time of the session and advancing to the Fast Six; second, for the post-session penalty that would see him face the same fate as Sato.
In an attempt to let Charlie Kimball by on a flying lap, Herta impeded the progress of the No. 23 Carlin Chevrolet by slowing on the racing line. Again, by rule, Herta’s fastest lap was disallowed and he would not make the Fast Six. That meant fellow rookie Felix Rosenqvist bumped up from seventh to sixth, joining Newgarden, Power, Hunter-Reay, Dixon and Rossi in the final round.
“I blocked him, simple as that,” Herta said matter-of-factly after the ruling. “I’m pretty mad but rules are rules.” The California native would later say that his P3 run in Round Two was somewhat sloppy, and he felt that the No. 88 Chevrolet had a pole-winning run in it for the Fast Six.
The Fast Six moved on without Herta, and continued to produce drama. As drivers set early times in the abbreviated six-minute session, Andretti Autosport decided to hold Rossi until there were just a few minutes left in an all-or-nothing run for the pole.
At the beginning of Rossi’s flying lap, the fourth-year driver overshot the apex of the Turn 13 hairpin and soiled his only attempt at a fast lap. With seconds left on the clock, Rossi narrowly missed crossing the timing line for one last attempt, and he would finish the session 6th.
Will Power did cross the timing line in time for one final shot at the pole, which was held tentatively by his teammate, Newgarden. In the waning seconds of the session, Power vaulted to the top of the board and held that position to the final gun.
For Power, it was another pole on the streets of St. Petersburg. For Newgarden, it was a missed opportunity after the No. 2 Hitachi team had made up so much ground from Friday.
“I’m only disappointed in myself,” said a dejected Newgarden post-qualifying. “I didn’t put together the best lap there when it really counted. We did a great job at getting into the Fast Six as a team, and 1-2, you can’t be dissatisfied. It is very positive for the whole group. Team Chevy did a great job, who worked really hard over the night for us and make sure we had what we needed, so thank you Chevy.
“But it is just hard to not be disappointed when you’re quick, and we had a little bit better tires. So when you had the preferred tire to run on, you want to capitalize and I just messed up that first lap. Overcooked it on the second, and so it was close, but it wasn’t good enough.”
With Power and Newgarden securing an all-Penske front row, Rosenqvist was the fastest rookie qualifier with a third place starting spot on Sunday. The Swede qualified ahead of his five-time championship-winning teammate in Scott Dixon, who will start alongside him in P4.
“It didn’t come easy, this session. It was a messy first group where we actually didn’t get a lap in at all – it was a lot of red flags,” said Rosenqvist. “Luckily we came through that, then I was seventh in the second group and somebody got bumped down. Luckily I made the Fast Six, so I think the NTT Data Honda really came alive – especially on the Firestone reds.
“Really thanks to my team at Chip Ganassi Racing to make this possible. It didn’t come easy – it was a lot of hard work to do this P3 in qualifying – but an amazing start, and with a little bit of luck I think we could be up there.”
As mentioned before, Rossi was unable to cash in on a clean Fast Six run and he will start sixth, and his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay will start alongside in fifth. The “Big Three” in IndyCar are represented with two drivers each starting alongside each other in the first three rows on Sunday.
NTT IndyCar Series teams will get one final on-track session on Sunday morning (9:20 a.m. Eastern) before the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg goes green at 1:30 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN. Stay tuned to Open-Wheels for a race preview and more leading up to the IndyCar season opener.
Header image by James Black/INDYCAR.