Verizon IndyCar Notes & Quotes: St. Petersburg Friday

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ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – The first day of official on-track action is in the books for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series. Some news, notes and quotes after practice to follow.

  • All bar Practice 1 pace setters James Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson improved their times in Practice 2. Hinchcliffe and Wilson’s morning times left them sixth and seventh in the combined times.
  • Here’s qualifying groups for Saturday. Hard to call either one harder than the other at the moment…
  • Schmidt Peterson’s Simon Pagenaud, now sporting Environmental Rail Solutions aboard on his all-light blue No. 77 Honda this race, said left several tenths on the table struggling for front grip. Considering he was less than four tenths off the pace of overall leader Takuma Sato, that could be a dangerous sign for the rest of the weekend.
  • In his open-wheel return, Juan Pablo Montoya ended 19th on the combined time charts in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, albeit only nine tenths off Sato. “Obviously we wanted to be a little further up the speed charts, but we knew it was going to be a learning process,” he said. “This is my first time on this circuit, so we had to guess a little bit on the setups. Unfortunately we unloaded pretty far off.” I saw him at one point head-on through Turns 1,2 and 3, and the car looked to have stepped out on him. He’s still got that level of car control.
  • Best of the four Chip Ganassi Racing team drivers on the day? That would be 2009 St. Pete winner Ryan Briscoe, back in a full-time IndyCar seat for the first time since 2012. He ended, fittingly, eighth in the No. 8 NTT Data Chevrolet. “We made some good setup changes but we still have some work to do for tomorrow. I think we’re on the right track,” said the Australian. Teammates were ninth (Scott Dixon), 16th (Tony Kanaan) and 17th (Charlie Kimball) after all experimenting with different setups.
  • Jack Hawksworth led the quartet of rookies in the No. 98 BHA/BBM Honda in 11th. Carlos Munoz was 13th (No. 34 Cinsay/AndrettiTV.com Honda), Mikhail Aleshin 14th (No. 7 SMP Racing Honda) and Carlos Huertas 22nd and last (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda).
  • Huertas, though, was not out of his depth at only 1.8 seconds off the pace of Sato, and half a second behind countryman Sebastian Saavedra. Considering he’d never seen the track or sat in the Coyne car before Practice 1, a fine day’s work in all honesty. Additionally, he was substantially ahead of where Ana Beatriz was after Friday last year, although her car was evil handling to put it nicely.
  • We expect Mike Conway to be something of a miracle worker on road and street courses, but 20th in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet entry probably wasn’t what team or driver expected today. “We didn’t find as much as we wanted between sessions 1 and 2. We are struggling a bit to get the Fuzzy’s Chevy where we would like it in terms of time. We tried a lot of things today and we’ll study our data and see where we can improve for Saturday,” he said.
  • Paul Page made his return to IndyCar for the first time since 2004, his last year in TV for the open-wheel series. The legendary Page is the new voice of IMS Radio, and handled things well throughout the first two sessions back on the mic.
  • Mazda Road to Indy day 1 practice leaders: Gabby Chaves (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires), Spencer Pigot (Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires), Jake Eidson (Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda).
  • Pirelli World Challenge Friday practice leaders: Tomas Enge (GT), Nick Mancuso (GT-A), Jack Baldwin (GTS).

More to come after Practice 3 and qualifying on Saturday.

MRTI: Barber Motorsports Park Preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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After a month break, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is back in action this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with two of its series tacking the 2.38-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires have double-headers this weekend, with Pro Mazda returning to Barber after not running there last year.

The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg was a tale of two completely different stories, with two different winners – Pato O’Ward and Santi Urrutia – and more than a fair bit of chaos for Indy Lights, while Pro Mazda saw Rinus Veekay sweep the weekend.

Talking points for both series heading into Barber are below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia heads to Barber leading the Indy Lights championship on the strength of finishes of second and first in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia displayed great patience at St. Petersburg, finishing second in Race 1 and winning Race 2 after rivals like O’Ward and Colton Herta faltered. However, Barber has not been one of his better tracks, with finishes of 11th, 15th, and 13th in three of his four Indy Lights starts. Yet, he did win Race 2 at Barber 2016, so he has had success there before, and he will be one of the favorites heading into the weekend.
  • Pato O’Ward looks poised to be a title contender in 2018 and will look to avenge a somewhat disappointing outing at St. Petersburg. O’Ward had the speed to sweep the weekend, winning Race 1 handily and dominating Race 2, but a mistake late in the race saw him overshoot Turn 4 and briefly stall before he could rejoin, relegating him to seventh. If O’Ward can show the pace he showed at St. Pete, he might end up being the man to beat.
  • Colton Herta will look to rebound from a St. Pete weekend in which he flashed the speed that caught everyone’s attention last year, but also committed the same mistakes that ultimately prevented him from taking a championship. After finishing third in Race 1, Herta crashed while chasing then leader O’Ward in Race 2. Herta won Race 2 at Barber last year, and getting another win this weekend, along with staying mistake free, would go a long way to erasing his problems from St. Pete.
  • Aaron Telitz is also looking to rebound after a down weekend, as his St. Petersburg weekend lasted all of two corners across both races – he won the Pole for Race 1, but crashed in Race 2 qualifying, and the Belardi Auto Racing team could not repair the car to allow him to race. After the team borrowed a chassis from Carlin for Race 2, Telitz get collected with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni right off the start, and he crashed again, this time in Turn 2. Telitz finished on the podium at Barber in 2016, the year he won the Pro Mazda championship, and he’ll look for more of the same this weekend.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Rinus Veekay had a perfect weekend to open the Pro Mazda season. The Juncos Racing driver outdueled Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory, and then ran away with Race 2 to complete the weekend sweep. Veekay was expected to be a title contender after moving up to Pro Mazda in 2018, and if he can repeat his St. Pete performance, then he may leave Barber as the heavy favorite in the championship.
  • Not to be forgotten, Parker Thompson sits second in the Pro Mazda title chase, and looks to avenge losing out to Veekay in St. Pete Race 1, and then fading somewhat to finish fifth in Race 2. Thompson was the only driver to regularly challenge Veekay and Oliver Askew in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season, and he and Exclusive Autosport have adapted nicely to the new Tatuus PM-18. If they can show the same form at Barber, and then finish the job with at least one trip to Victory Lane, then it could set the stage for another titanic Pro Mazda championship fight.
  • Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend in St. Pete, finishing fifth and sixth in the two races. He swept the Barber races in USF2000 last year, and will need a similar performance to vault himself forward from his current place of sixth in the standings.
  • Carlos Cunha and David Malukas head to Barber third and fourth in the championship after solid St. Pete weekends – Cunha had finishes of fourth and third, while Malukas had finishes of seventh and second. Neither was necessarily looked at as a title combatant entering 2018, but repeat performances in Barber could vault them into title contention.

A full weekend schedule, including the Mazda Road to Indy sessions, can be viewed here.

**Note: NBCSN will broadcast Sunday’s Indy Lights race (Race 2 from the weekend) on Monday, April 23.**

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