Chip Ganassi Racing returnee Ryan Briscoe made a late charge to top the time sheets in this morning’s third and final practice before qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Briscoe threw down a lap of 1:02.4236 in the No. 8 NTT Data Chevrolet, enough to beat out former Team Penske teammate and fellow Chevy man Helio Castroneves (1:02.4730) for P1 in the session.
“It’s tough conditions out there with the wind,” Briscoe said. “The car feels not great, but everyone is struggling with the balance. We’ve made quite a few setup changes and nothing really made the improvement.”
Honda-powered Takuma Sato continued his steady weekend so far in St. Pete, logging the third fastest time this morning at 1:02.5243 in the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. entry. Sato was P3 in yesterday’s morning session and then topped the afternoon session later on.
After him came another pair of Chevy drivers – KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais (1:02.5445) in fourth, and another Penske pilot, Will Power (1:02.5996), in fifth.
Simon Pagenaud, defending St. Pete champion James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan, reigning series champion Scott Dixon, and rookie Jack Hawksworth rounded out the Top 10.
Qualifying is set to begin this afternoon at 2 p.m. ET. In case you’ve forgotten or are new to the sport, IndyCar utilizes a form of the knockout-style format that begins with two groups of drivers (you can see today’s groups in Tony DiZinno’s notebook from last night).
Each group receives 10 minutes of track time to set their best lap, and the top six from each group will advance to the second round. The rest will make up the grid from 13th on back (Group 1 drivers make up the odd-numbered positions, Group 2 drivers make up the even-numbered positions).
In the second round, the 12 remaining drivers will get another 10 minutes of track time. At the end of that, the six fastest move on the final round – the “Firestone Fast Six.” Those unable to advance set positions 7-12 on the grid.
In the FF6, competitors will get 10 minutes of track time with a guarantee of five minutes’ worth of green-flag time. They also receive an additional set of tires to use in this segment. The fastest driver wins the pole, with the remainder setting positions 2-6.
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”