The wait is finally over. The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season officially began today with practice for this weekend’s season-opening race in St Petersburg. There are a number of storylines to keep an eye on this year, and many new faces that will factor in every race weekend. It began today, where 24 cars hit the temporary street circuit in sunny Florida. Ryan Hunter-Reay was fastest overall, as the hometown driver turned a lap of 1:00.8969 seconds on the street circuit.
The rest of the top five in today’s practice were pleasant surprises in Spencer Pigot, Marco Andretti, Colton Herta, and Max Chilton. There have been 15 IndyCar races at St Petersburg, and only twice has the pole sitter gone on to win the event. Team Penske has dominated this place, having earned pole position in eight of the last 12 events here, and have a total of eight St Petersburg wins. A big reason for that success can be attributed to Will Power.
The defending Indianapolis 500 champion has six poles at St Petersburg, and no other active driver has more than one. He has never started outside of the top six here. Power has led 247 laps at St Petersburg, and no other active driver has even led 100. His teammate Josef Newgarden has never led a single lap here, and his best finish in seven starts came last year when he came home in 7th position. He was 10th fastest today, just behind teammate Josef Newgarden.
Friday Combined Practice Results
There is another high-profile name that hasn’t led a lap in the last six races here. That would be defending series champion Scott Dixon. The Kiwi has never won at St Petersburg. He’ll have a new teammate this season at Ganassi, in Felix Rosenqvist. He is one of many talented rookies in the series this season. Rosenqvist led the morning practice session, but was 14th fastest overall on Friday, just behind Dixon.
Fellow Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson also has his sights set on the Rookie of the Year award, with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Herta will lead a one-car team in Harding Steinbrenner Racing whom looked good in the spring training tests. Patricio O’Ward was supposed to be his teammate there, but despite that not working out, the good news is that O’Ward just announced yesterday that he has secured 13 races with Carlin Racing, including the Indianapolis 500. Santino Ferrucci is the other full-time rookie who is back with Dale Coyne Racing.
Dixon is obviously a driver to watch this weekend, but two others to keep an eye on are Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan. Hunter-Reay has had top-seven results in his last five races here, but he has never won. The combined statistics at St Petersburg for Dixon, Kanaan, and Hunter-Reay are startling. They have 40 starts, 14 podiums, and 20 top-fives between them, but they also have a combined zero wins. Look for that to change on Sunday.
“We definitely made some changes between the sessions,” said Hunter-Reay. “At first, I thought it was a bit of a handful-it still is. We’re right on the edge of tipping it over, but it was a good outing. The car is pretty good. It’s a handful at the moment, I’d like it to be a little more polite in a few areas. We’ll keep working on it. It’s a good step but it’s only Day 1.”
There will be one final 45-minute practice session tomorrow at 10:45 AM, followed by qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, which begins at 2:30 PM.
Photos courtesy of IndyCar
JOSEF NEWGARDEN: “It was an OK day. Very busy, but good to be back on track. I think the Hitachi car has a lot of promise. We are working really hard with everyone, including Chevrolet, to make the most of this weekend. We need to find a little more speed, but the top 10 is good for both of today’s sessions, but we need to be a little further up. We will get to work on that tonight.”
MATHEUS LEIST: “Pretty good day here at the track in St. Pete. It’s good to be back in the race car and most importantly it’s good to be working with this team again. I think we made some gains today. We figured out some new things for the car, which might be helpful for the future and for this weekend, too. We’re looking forward to it. It’s good to be back driving the car on a street course – it’s an awesome track – and I’m looking forward to qualifying tomorrow.”
SCOTT DIXON: “The car has been OK to start. We just had a lot of traffic out there with the PNC Bank car. Traffic was just horrendous out there for one reason or another. We have some balance things we can work on to improve, but it’s definitely a top-three car as of right now.”
FELIX ROSENQVIST: “I think it was a really good first day in the NTT DATA car. The car felt good from the start. Everything is working smoothly. We’re just trying to get into the flow of it altogether. I was on the Firestone alternate tires this afternoon for the first time, and I learned a lot after screwing up a few laps. I think there is a lot more in the car and I’m excited for tomorrow.”
WILL POWER: “We got some work to do. We need to keep improving the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. It doesn’t feel that bad, but the field is so tight right now, you just can’t leave anything on the table this weekend. We just got to keep at it and see what we can find overnight.”
TONY KANAAN: “It was a difficult day for us, but we knew it could be good or bad. Matheus (Leist) had started with the car that we had known, and we went a completely different direction to try to find something, and obviously, it didn’t work. We fought all day with some of the setup changes; it’s been a characteristic, but I can’t get into details. The funny part was that actually, A.J. (Foyt) helped with this one, which was great. I think that’s just something when we’re a small team like this you’ve got to try it and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s too bad it didn’t work, but we still have tomorrow.”
GRAHAM RAHAL: “It was awesome to be back in the United Rentals Honda today in St. Pete. The first session went really well, we finished eighth and were very competitive. In the second session, we ran the red Firestone (alternate) tires very early. We decided as a team that I would do that this race and Takuma (Sato) would do it at the next one to try to help the team get better. Overall, it was a solid day. We will do some homework overnight and hopefully, be faster tomorrow.”
SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: “It was a tough, challenging day for the SealMaster Dale Coyne Vasser Sullivan team. We tried something different today that we worked on at Sebring. Different concepts, looking for solutions for the street course setup. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out the way we hoped. The car isn’t terrible, but it just doesn’t get us where we need to be. So, we’ll just hit the reset button and go back to something we are more familiar with. Hopefully, that will get us back in the top-10 tomorrow.”
SANTINO FERRUCCI: “Our No. 19 David Yurman, Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda was a little loose today. We were just struggling to find some front grip, but we were also trying something a little different coming into practice today. We learned a lot and I’m looking forward to going into tomorrow’s practice and qualifying to see what we can do after we look at all the data and make some changes for tomorrow.”
ED JONES: “We had some issues with brakes in the first session, so that made things a bit more difficult, but we sorted that out before this afternoon. We made good progress in the second session but ran quite a bit different to my teammate. It was good to do that with the two cars, so we can figure out a better package. Spencer (Pigot) did a good job; we can follow more his direction tomorrow and make another jump going into qualifying.”
SPENCER PIGOT: “It was a good day for us in the Autogeek Chevy. I was really happy with the way the car felt this afternoon, on reds (Firestone alternate tires) in particular, so it’s nice to have that knowledge going into qualifying. We’ll go back tonight and see where we can still improve, but so far we are happy with all of the progress we’ve made.”
SIMON PAGENAUD: “It’s been a good day. I’m pretty confident with the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet. It feels good and it’s competitive. It’s just really competitive at the moment in the series. On the red tires (Firestone alternates), we understand some things we need to do for tomorrow in qualifying. It was actually a good practice session because we realized what we had wasn’t good for qualifying, so I think tomorrow we will have a better understanding of what we need, and we will go forward.”
CHARLIE KIMBALL: “It was a good first day, honestly, but we have a lot more to accomplish here at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend. It’s good to come back with Carlin in their second year because we’re able to learn not only from what we accomplished here last year but what we were able to accomplish throughout the entire 2018 season. We’re just so much further ahead than we were coming into this race last year and it showed today with our results. Coming out of the second practice with a top-10 finish is very promising, especially heading into tomorrow when it really counts with qualifying. I feel good about where the No. 23 Tresiba Carlin Chevrolet ended the day today and I’m thrilled with how we kicked off our first day of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.”
ZACH VEACH: “Overall, I’m really happy with today. The last session was not what we wanted at all – we took a big gamble on some changes and it was the wrong way. Then I got a little too greedy and got into the wall a little bit. We’re ready for tomorrow, though. We have the speed in the Gainbridge car to run in the top six, which has given me a lot of confidence. We just have to put it all together.”
ALEXANDER ROSSI: “It was a productive Friday. I think the team, in general, is pretty quick, obviously. It’s amazing how close it is. It’s going to take a lot of work tomorrow morning to ensure that we are in the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow afternoon. A couple hundredths (of a second) make a huge difference in terms of the (starting) position that you are in, so I think we have a good baseline. We will work to improve it some more this evening.”
RYAN HUNTER-REAY: “We definitely made some changes between the sessions and at first I thought it was a bit of a handful and it still is. We are right on the edge of tipping it over. It was a good outing. The Firestone reds (alternate tires) came in real quickly, as the Firestone reds usually do. The car was pretty good. It is a handful at the moment, I’d like it to be a little bit more polite in a few areas. We will put our heads together as a team and work with Honda to get this No. 28 DHL up front, but it is a good first step.”
TAKUMA SATO: “I’m happy with our progress today. I think it was a productive day. We continued to work on the car through Practice 1 and 2 and continued to show solid performance on the black tire. When we ran the red Firestone (alternate) tires, it was a little out of balance, so I wasn’t able to improve the lap time. Nevertheless, the important thing today was to gather data. We were mainly working on the rear end and Graham (Rahal) was working on the front end. We split the program, so hopefully, we can both be better for tomorrow. I think it was a very good day.”
MAX CHILTON: “It was a bit of a rollercoaster of a day. We weren’t where we wanted to be this morning, and then this afternoon we made some big jumps forward and finished the day where we knew we should’ve been all day. It was nice to finish out the day of a race weekend in the top five, and hopefully, we can duplicate that same result 24 hours from now when it really counts in qualifying. The good thing for us is that the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet works on reds (Firestone alternate tires), which is where you need it to be to qualify well. It was obvious after today that everyone did a great job at Carlin over the winter, but we still have a long way to go this weekend.”
JACK HARVEY: “We definitely are doing better than last year, although the timing sheet doesn’t show it. We have a clear direction path for tomorrow and will have some other things to try out. I think what James (Hinchcliffe) did was very achievable for us. My pace on the blacks (Firestone primary tires) was really good. We had a much better day than what the time sheets showed. A lot of it is comparing what our teammates did and us all trying different things that we had spoken about. Right now, we are trying to shift the whole balance in one direction, which I’m hoping that James went in that direction, and if he did, it showed well. The potential for what we have is very good so we will see what we can achieve in qualifying.”
COLTON HERTA: “Today ended pretty well after we had a bit of a rocky start in the first practice where we couldn’t show our true pace. I was able to then give it all I had, and we could show our true pace in the second practice. I’m very happy with the Harding Steinbrenner Racing guys and my engineers, Nathan O’Rourke and Andy Listes, made some great changes in between sessions. We worked very cleanly and effectively, so we were able to get a lot of productive track time.”
MARCO ANDRETTI: “The U.S. Concrete car feels good – and we think we may even have a little bit more in it, so we just have to execute tomorrow. The car feels a little bit like Detroit, if we can just execute in qualifying, we can get it. So that’s going to be our goal, but I think we’re close.”