ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The NTT IndyCar Series is off to a fast start to their season. Last weekend, Pato O’Ward shattered Sebastien Bourdais’ five year old track record at the Barber Motorsports Park. The Arrow McLaren SP driver turned a lap around the 2.3-mile Alabama road course with a time of 1:05.5019-seconds in No. 5 Chevrolet in the second round to place himself in the Fast Six. In that final session, O’Ward bested everyone with a time of 1:05.8479-seconds which was good enough for his second career NTT IndyCar Series pole.
By comparison, Bourdais’ previous best lap was 1:06.6001-seconds set in April 2016. In all, 15 of the 24 drivers qualified faster than the previous track record.
Now, we come to the streets of St. Pete for this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Once again, the track record could fall for a second straight week.
In the lone practice session on Friday, the drivers were already flirting with it. Josef Newgarden paced Friday’s 45 minute practice session with a lap of 1:00.8029-seconds. His teammate Will Power (1:00.8102-seconds) was P2 while Simon Pagenaud (1:00.8992-seconds) was P5.
Andretti’s Colton Herta (1:00.8348-seconds) and Alexander Rossi (1:00.8653-seconds) were third and fourth respectively. Scott Dixon (1:00.9152-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six while the McLaren SP drivers of Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward was seventh and ninth respectively.
The track record lap of 1:00.0476-seconds set in 2018 by Jordan King may be in jeopardy then. Newgarden was only .8-seconds off and he did so without the luxury of the Firestone Reds. What happens when you put the alternates on Saturday afternoon?
“Yeah, I think so,” Herta said on if they can break the 59 second barrier on Saturday. “I think we’re a 60.8. I think Josef did a 60.80. Still have a little bit to go, but you kind of expect six, seven 10ths from the reds if you nailed the lap. So we’ll see.”
Newgarden agreed saying, “it’s possible.”
Herta said the biggest time gain on the reds is probably that four through nine section.
“Obviously turn one, you get quite a bit,” he also said. “I never feel too much in straight line braking from the reds. It’s more when you’re rolling off the brakes, you have such mega-traction on the reds for the first lap or two. That’s probably the biggest part, that kind of turn four to turn nine.
“Basically what I’m saying is half the track. You’re going to find time everywhere. I guess half of the track you’ll find the most.”
Newgarden said that he is picking up a little everywhere but it’s all dependent on the track and the reds.
“Sometimes we see a big separation, sometimes we don’t,” said the Team Penske driver.
“I think here you get a little bit everywhere. I noticed it in braking capacity. But it’s a little bit everywhere. You’re talking that final bit of braking, which for sure is probably the best.”
Another worthwhile note is that from first to fifth was just .096-seconds differential and .1 from 1st to 7th. The top 20 cars were separated from less than a second as well. That’s meaningful in the sense that 13 of the last 15 Indy Car races have been won by a top 10 starter with 9 of the last 10 overall from a top 3 starter.
Getting into the Fast Six is so crucial to winning most weekend. With such a small gap from first to 20th already, the speeds are going to have to push the track record in order to have a better chance of winning on Sunday.