ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The scene is set. Practice is in the books. So is qualifying. The time is now for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Here’s what’s transpired so far this weekend around the 1.8-mile street course.
Last year’s pole speed was 1:00.3210-seconds. The record was 1:00.0476-seconds set back in 2018. Without much change between last year’s car and this, plus the Aeroscreen still having that added additional weight, no one really expected the record to be seriously threatened this weekend.
But, it was.
In order to get out of the first round of qualifying, you had to eclipse the 1-minute barrier meaning all 12 cars had to best the four year old record.
Colton Herta broke it first going 59.4662-seconds in the first group of the first round. Will Power broke it next at 59.3929-seconds in the second group. Power, then broke it again in Q2 at 59.3466-seconds. That lap held off even during the Firestone Fast Six.
“No, I was surprised actually,” Power said of the record pace this weekend. “I didn’t even know what they did last year, and when they said that was the lap record, I was like, oh, okay. Yeah, I didn’t know that. That shows how far these cars and engines have come. They’re pretty fast.”
Turn 9 A Problem Spot So Far
We wondered if maybe Turn 9 was a bit different from last year to this. Jack Harvey got into the inside of the corner and that move pushed his No. 45 Honda hard into the outside concrete barrier at turn exit.
Alex Palou suffered the exact same fate. We’ve even seen several other drivers scrape the wall in that corner too.
The thing is, most drivers have said that the corner is the same, it’s just that they’re having to get everything out of these cars that you have to push it as hard as ever and by doing so, this is what happens.
Penske Win Coming?
They’ve been winners in 5 of the last 8 years and 2 of the last 3 times at that, and now swept the front row. Does this translate to a win on Sunday? The thing is, only three times has the pole winner won this race but the most recent was a year ago by Herta. The last time?
2010 by Will Power.
Still, all three cars are in the top nine of the starting lineup and could truly have a big day coming on Sunday afternoon.
“Yeah, definitely. We had a bad year last year, so certainly came into this season determined but with a lot of work behind that, a lot of work and understanding,” Power said. “When you have a struggle, a year of struggle, you always come back and have a pretty close look at what you were missing.
“That’s kind of what we turned up with here.” Missed out on qualifying last year, so I was very determined to make it to the Fast Six was the first thing. Well, make it to the Fast 12, honestly, and then the Six. So we got there, just one short of pole, man.”
Ganassi’s Weekend Improvement
Friday’s practice session was a concern out of the Ganassi camp. They only went 15-17-19-24 in the opening practice session to the season. On Saturday morning, they’d surely be back to their rightful spot on top of the speed charts right?
Palou crashed but he was seventh. Johnson had several problems and was 25th out of 26 cars. Marcus Ericsson was 15th yesterday and 13th today. Dixon, was 19th and now 20th.
By no surprise, none of their four cars made the Fast Six. However, they still showed improvement. Johnson, will still start last (26th) but the other three at least made it out of the first round.
Dixon and Ericsson will share Row 4. Palou will roll off 10th.
Dixon, is 0-for-17 in St. Pete but does have four runner-ups including three podiums in the last five years. He’s within striking distance of another podium in coming from seventh.
Ericsson, was seventh in each of the last two years and starts eighth. Palou, was only 13th and 17th in his last two years at St. Pete so he’s one I’m not sure what we’ll see out of Sunday.
Still, Saturday’s qualifying was an improvement from practice.
Last Year’s Championship Front Runners Struggling
Alex Palou won last year’s title. He was only 17th and 7th in practice including a crash on Saturday morning. He’ll start 10th on Sunday. Josef Newgarden was second in points. He was 14th in both practices and only qualified ninth.
Pato O’Ward was third in 2021 but 20th and ninth in practice and rolls off 16th.
Scott Dixon was fourth a year ago and was 19th and 20th in practice and will come from 7th on Sunday.
All four are favorites to be in the top five in points again this season but so far, they’re struggling to start 2022.
Pagenaud’s Switch To MSR Paying Off
The car that Simon Pagenaud is racing this weekend qualified second and finished fourth in last year’s race. Pagenaud, finished third for his seventh top seven in the last nine St. Pete tries a year ago. Now, he takes over Harvey’s No. 60 Honda with Meyer Shank Racing.
So far, he’s picking up where they left off in 2021.
Pagenaud, qualified sixth after being fourth and third in practice so far. I like his chances for a sleeper podium on Sunday.
Kirkwood, AJ Foyt Racing Impressive So Far
We have 6 rookies here in St. Pete this weekend and five of them didn’t make it out of the first round. That’s not shocking in the sense INDYCAR qualifying is difficult. But, for Kyle Kirkwood to do so was eye opening.
He qualified his No. 14 Chevrolet 12th. That comes after being 12th in practice on Friday and 8th on Saturday.
The American driver was first and fifth respectively in USF2000 competition in 2018, 14th and 2nd in 2019 during Indy Pro 2000. Last year in Indy Lights, he was 1st and 2nd again. Now, he has a shot at being the top rookie if he can keep his No. 14 Chevrolet clean the rest of the way.
His teammate exceled too. Dalton Kellett had a career best qualifying effort of 14th in his No. 4 Chevrolet too. Their third car in Tatiana Calderon will roll off 25th.
Should Cars Stop Slowing On Track Looking For A Banker Lap
One problem that’s creeping up lately is that cars slow on track during practice in search for a clean lap. I get it. I truly do too. There’s no real gain by trying to do a qualifying practice and having cars in traffic. It gives us false data.
However, on a track of just 1.8-miles and 26 cars looking for real estate, what you saw between Grosjean and Sato is more common than you think. The only real reason for this incident was a traffic jam in Turn 10. Several cars were slow in that corner, all looking to let the car ahead of them get a clear gap.
But, when other cars at wanting to go at speed, you get contact.
“Well, there was just no flags on the track, and I think we should have flags when these cars are that slow to corner,” Grosjean said. “Yeah, that’s all. I just think if I had known there were like four cars — because you cannot see. I know there was one on the left, one on the right. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know there were some in front.
“If there’s only one, the guy should accelerate. Obviously there were more, but I think just a white flag to tell us that, and I just think you shouldn’t be driving that slow on the racing line, that’s all.”
What can INDYCAR do? Do you cut the session in half between two groups? Do you make everyone go all out any time they’re on track?
“Sorry, but I think that the alternate start-finish line, I probably don’t agree with it,” Scott McLaughlin said. “I think it should just be the start-finish line. I said that before; it happened at Portland a couple times, and I caught Grosjean — Romain in a peculiar spot. I feel like coming around a blind corner, everyone is trying to get a lap started. That’s the only point we can really start our lap to get a good run. It does choke up there and it’s just — you don’t see. Unless we get a flag, you don’t see.
“I’m probably a big fan of probably moving the line depending on what track we go to. That’s just my personal opinion.”
Will Power says though that there’s not much more that needs to be done. It’s up to the drivers and teams to get this sorted out.
“I mean, we’re splitting the field, so everyone should be able to get a clean lap,” he said. “It’s up to the guys to sort it out. You know when you’re leaving the pits in a line of cars that you’re going to have to give the guy a gap. I just think it’s ridiculous when some of these guys go out and try to pass the line of cars that are all trying to get their gap to start the lap.
“Practice you’ve got the whole field, so you’ve got to try to sort it out. Sometimes it’s a bit rough, but that’s just the way it is. We don’t run on the longest tracks here. We have some short street courses, and yeah, it’s a game. Not much you can do about it. The only way you can fix that stuff is have less cars. But I don’t think anyone wants to split practice up.”
Due to that incident in practice between Sato and Grosjean, the two are now feuding.
“It’s a shame,” Sato told the broadcast on Saturday morning. “Everybody is trying to make a gap. We were just slowing down, and I had to hit the brake coming through 9. Grosjean, I don’t know what he was thinking. He was reckless. I don’t know what he was thinking. He could clearly see the cars in front.”
Grosjean, admitted that the two have spoken but they’ve, “agreed to disagree, so that’s fine,” Grosjean said.
Favorites For The Race Separating Themselves
With the way things were shaping up, the Fast Six on Saturday was on the wall. Scott McLaughlin was eighth on Friday but quickest in the 45-minute morning session on Saturday. Grosjean was fastest on Friday but crashed on Saturday. His car had speed. Power was third and fifth respectively in the two practices. Herta, was second in each. Pagenaud was fourth and third himself. VeeKay, was ninth and sixth respectively so it’s not as shocking as it seems to see him in the Fast Six. He’s been strong all weekend.
Rossi was the only outlier. He was sixth and fourth but never made it out of the first round and will start 13th.
Still, the top cars so far this weekend are McLaughlin, Power, Herta, Grosjean, Pagenaud and VeeKay.