ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – For the first time of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the cars hit the track for practice. Since the season finale at Sonoma last September, the teams have spent the past six months testing and getting their new 2018 cars ready for the 17 race season.
On Friday, they had two practice sessions around the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg, Florida street circuit. Here’s the recaps.
The first session started off tame. That was expected though. Everyone was conserving their Firestone tires as well as feeling out the new track. With a new car that drives completely different than the ones before, Friday was a day of learning the unexpected. But, over the final 20 minutes, the pace was blistering quick.
Rookie Matheus Leist topped the first speed chart of the season, turning the fastest lap with under two minutes to go in the practice. The Brazilian circled the 14 turn track with a lap of 1:01.7231-seconds in his No. 4 Chevrolet. He was the lone Chevy in the top five though. Honda’s powered their way to the front otherwise.
Last year’s St. Pete winner Sebsatien Bourdais was second quickest in his No. 18 Honda. The Frenchman turned a lap of 1:01.7719-seconds. Two Andretti Autosport drivers were third and fourth respectively with Ryan Hunter-Reay (1:01.8812-seconds) and Alexander Rossi (1:02.0415-seconds) coming in next.
Scott Dixon rounded out the top five of the initial practice with a lap of 1:02.0560-seconds.
Rookies were surprisingly up front in the session, with Leist first and fellow classmate Robert Wickens sixth. Even Jordan King came in 11th. But, they as rookies, got an extra set of tires, so they were able to make an extra run after adjustments to lay down a hot lap.
AJ Foyt Racing was the talk of the session overall with Tony Kanaan joining his teammate up front in the top 10. Kanaan, was ninth fastest (1:02.3370-seconds) to give Foyt 1-9 in practice.
Even Ed Carpenter Racing was 10th and 11th themselves.
The veterans of the series rose to the top in the final practice of the day on Friday. Ryan Hunter-Reay paced the 24 car field with a lap of 1:00.8295-seconds in his No. 28 Honda. He’s had four straight top seven finishes in the season opening race, including three of which in the top four.
James Hinchcliffe was second in the session in his No. 5 Honda. Hinchcliffe, turned a lap of 1:00.8724-seconds to give Honda the top two speeds.
The defending pole sitter and winner of seven of the last eight St. Pete poles in Will Power was third with a time of 1:00.9933-seconds in his No. 12 Chevrolet. He and his teammate Josef Newgarden (1:01.1012-seconds) were the only Chevy’s in the top eight. Newgarden’s lap was good enough for fifth overall.
Scott Dixon rounded out the top five in fourth in his No. 9 Honda. Dixon, set a lap of 1:01.1004-seconds.
The lone incident of the session when Kyle Kaiser spun and barely scrapped the concrete wall. He would escape much, if any damage.
Good Day For AJ Foyt Racing
AJ Foyt Racing looked very strong out of the gates. While practice on Friday really means nothing, they certainly turned some heads. The reason why, is their two drivers couldn’t be further apart as far as experience goes. Tony Kanaan has 343 IndyCar starts. Matheus Leist zero. For the third straight season, they’ll also have two new drivers. After not winning a race since 2013, both Foyt and Kanaan fall into that category, the team was expected to have another rebuilding year. Instead, they were strong in all the tests this offseason and that translated well into a very strong Friday on the streets of St. Pete.
Leist, actually was quickest overall in the opening practice of the year, turning a lap of 1:01.7231-seconds in his No. 4 Chevrolet. That lap was turned late in the session. His Brazilian teammate and mentor now of Kanaan was actually in the top two or three for most of the session before being bumped down a bit in the end. Still, Kanaan finished P9 on the speed chart with a lap of 1:02.3370-seconds in his No. 14 Chevrolet.
In the second session, Kanaan was ninth again and Leist was 12th.
While it was far from a win, it’s a great start to the weekend and season at that for the Foyt camp.
Honda’s Looking Strong
Until the end of the first session, it was looking pretty even between the early advantage between Honda and Chevrolet camps. There were four Honda drivers in top eight and four Chevy ones too. Then, the final two minutes happened.
Honda, ended up with five of the top six speeds in the initial session and eight of the top 11 in the second session, including the top two and six of the top eight.
That confirmed what we’ve been hearing so far, Honda’s will be the early ones to beat. With the same car now, engine development and talent will rise to the top. So far, Honda teams have an early advantage.
There was one Dale Coyne Racing car (Sebastien Bourdais), two Andretti Autosport cars (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi) and one Chip Ganassi Racing car (Scott Dixon) in the top five on session No. 1. In the second session, you had two more Andretti cars (Hunter-Reay, Rossi), two Schmidt Peterson Motorsports cars (James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens), Chip Ganassi Racing (Dixon) and Dale Coyne Racing (Bourdais) in the top eight. Do any of those names honestly surprise you?
Penske has been the team to beat in St. Pete. They have a record setting eight Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete victories. No one else has more than two. They’ve also won nearly all the poles, with Will Power winning seven of the last eight season opening poles in St. Pete, including three straight. This was supposed to be their start to a run at a fourth championship in five seasons.
Instead, Friday saw the Penske trio struggle a bit compared to others.
In the first session, they were 7th (Simon Pagenaud), 8th (Will Power) and 15th (Josef Newgarden). In the second session, they were third (Power), fifth (Newgarden) and 13th (Pagenaud).
With how great they’ve been on the streets of St. Pete, it was a bit surprising to see them not on top of the speed charts out of the gates.
Ed Carpenter Racing Quietly Up Front
I think most believed this would be another season of rebuilding for Ed Carpenter Racing. After seeing Josef Newgarden take them to new heights, last year was back to square one. Spencer Pigot was running the street/road courses only while JR Hildebrand came back for a full-time seat for the first time in several seasons. It ended the way we expected it to.
Then, with Pigot switching over to the full time seat in replacing Hildebrand, his first full season in the series, and rookie Jordan King replacing Pigot in the part time role, it may seem like another quiet season for ECR is on the horizon.
But, if Friday’s practice session is any indication, they may be stronger than we think.
Pigot and King were 10th and 11th respectively in the opening session and 11th and 15th respectively in the second practice of the day. Like the case for Foyt, it’s not a win by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a promising start to the year that’s for sure.
Veterans Rose To The Top
With a new car, one that’s harder to drive, it’s not a surprise to see some familiar names on top of the speed charts on Friday. If you look at the overall speed chart, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Sebastien Bourdais and others are on top. Alexander Rossi, who’s in his third year, was even up front too.