And just like that, we are back at it. I was talking to a friend today and we both felt the same way – this off-season felt like the longest one ever and yet somehow, the practice sessions on the Streets of St. Petersburg, seemingly snuck up on us. It’s here. The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season is officially underway!
This is the first time in 3 years that I haven’t been in St. Pete’s to cover the race weekend, but I look forward to being back – and with the news yesterday that we are set to race on their Florida streets in both 2017 and 2018, you can be assured I will be trackside for those. The same things that are keeping me in the Midwest this weekend – work and personal commitments – will also keep me covering from afar for the series return to Phoenix in a few short weeks. I am looking forward to starting my season with Live Full Throttle on the pavement in Long Beach next month. I’m so glad to be back in the swing of things and I can’t wait to hear those cars in person again. But enough about me, let’s get that focus where it should be… on the coast of Tampa Bay.
The beautiful 80-degree sunny weather helped set the stage for two IndyCar practice sessions yesterday. Simon Pagenaud, driving the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet for Team Penske ranked fastest in the morning, with a lap time of 1:01.1796. He ended up third overall on Friday, expressing cautious optimism, “On the racetrack, we’ve really just been trying to keep up with the changing conditions. It’s not easy but we’ll keep working at it and see how we do in qualifying.” This is the Frenchman’s sophomore year with Team Penske and fifth year as a full-time driver in the series. Pagenaud rounded out the Top 5 in St. Pete in both 2014 and 2015, which is also his best finishing position at the street circuit.
Pagenaud’s teammate Will Power had a rough start to his morning and the season when he had a hard impact with the wall – the accident stemming from a bump the car hit while Power had his hand off the wheel to adjust braking bias. With the car traveling at such a high speed and approaching a curve, the unexpected jarring proved too much for the 2014 Series Champ to correct. Power came through the incident unscathed and ready to get back on track. With a repaired car and changes to setup throughout the afternoon session, he found himself running the fewest laps of anyone on Friday and yet, still at the top of the leaderboard, less than three-tenths of a second behind the track record with a 1:00.9431 lap. Oh and by the way, that track record of 1:00.6509 was set by Power last year in the segment 2 of qualifying, earning him the pole position.
Could we see that record broken again this afternoon? Absolutely. But I’m not just talking about Power out-doing his own record. The reigning IndyCar Champ, Scott Dixon, could very well be the one to take the Verizon P1 award and reset the fastest track time. He was second overall in speed yesterday, charging around the track with his new-old livery. The bolt is indeed back, as we learned back on IndyCar Media day in February, and it’s looking for victory lane this weekend in Florida. Dixon’s best lap was less than fifteen-thousandths of a second behind Power yesterday – and you can be sure the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing team is focused on bringing their Chevy to the front of the field during Saturday’s knock-out rounds and of course through the Firestone Fast 6 group. Dixon commented that the car definitely has potential at this track, which has been “a thorn in Team Target’s side”. Dixon’s best finish in St. Pete is P2, which he’s achieved three times. This season, the Kiwi wants to grab the win that has remained elusive to him throughout all 12 years of the event.
Make sure you don’t miss a minute of the action:
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Schedule for Saturday, March 12
Final Practice: 11:55 a.m. ET
Qualifying: 3:40 p.m. ET
Practice Sessions Livestream: IndyCar YouTube, IndyCar Race Control
Practice Sessions Radio Broadcast: IndyCar.com, IndyCar Radio, IndyCar Mobile
Qualifying Sessions Livestream: IndyCar YouTube, IndyCar Race Control
Qualifying Sessions Radio Broadcast: Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (Sirius 212, XM 209), IndyCar.com, IndyCar Radio, IndyCar Mobile
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Photos courtesy of John Cote/IndyCar and Phillip Abbott/Racer