Takuma Sato wins pole for IndyCar at St. Petersburg

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After starting on the front row in last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Takuma Sato has gone one spot better this year to win the pole for tomorrow’s Verizon IndyCar Series season opener.

Sato, driving the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda for A.J. Foyt Racing, turned in a lap of 1:01.8686 on the last of his seven laps during the Firestone Fast Six to win the fourth IndyCar pole of his career and his first since last fall’s Houston doubleheader.

However, winning the pole hasn’t meant success for Sato on race day.

When he won his first IndyCar pole in 2009 at Iowa Speedway, he crashed and finished 19th in the race. Following his second IndyCar pole in 2011 at Edmonton, he finished 21st in the race after being hit by Ryan Hunter-Reay while running in second.

And in Houston last October, he won pole for Race 1 only to finish 17th after finding the tire barrier late; he would keep going until Lap 82, when he exited with handling issues.

Needless to say, the ex-Formula One pilot would like something much different tomorrow.

Tony Kanaan will start alongside Sato on the front row for his first race as a member of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The Indianapolis 500 champion’s best time in the FF6 was almost three-tenths of a second off of Sato’s.

But considering that Kanaan didn’t have a great qualifying record last season on road/street courses for KV Racing Technology last year (four Top-10 starts in 13 road races), he’ll certainly take P2.

Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay will start third on the grid for tomorrow’s race, joined in Row 2 by Team Penske’s Will Power, who had won the pole at St. Petersburg in each of the last four years.

Kanaan’s TCGR teammate and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon will line up on the inside of Row 3 in fifth position. Next to him will be another Andretti driver, Marco Andretti.

With a field this stacked, you had to figure that some big names would be having to start from the back tomorrow and that’s proven to be the case.

Among those that missed advancing out of the first round included Penske newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya, who is making his return to open-wheel racing this weekend; four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais; and Simon Pagenaud, regarded by many as the biggest threat to win the title this year that isn’t with Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti.

Also failing to advance from Round 1 was defending St. Pete champion James Hinchcliffe, who spun in his group session and made contact with the Turn 4 wall. That triggered a red flag, costing him his two fastest laps, and he’ll have to rally from way back.

On the other hand, a pair of rookies made some noise today. While Andretti’s Carlos Munoz and Bryan Herta Autosport’s Jack Hawksworth narrowly missed out on the FF6 thanks to a last-lap run by Dixon in Round 2, they’ll still roll off a solid seventh and eighth respectively on the grid.

Qualification Results – Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Pos./Car-Driver/ Time/Speed

FIRESTONE FAST SIX
1. 14-Takuma Sato, 1:01.8686, 104.738 miles per hour
2. 10-Tony Kanaan, 1:02.1637, 104.241
3. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, 1:02.2167, 104.152
4. 12-Will Power, 1:02.3955, 103.854
5. 9-Scott Dixon, 1:02.4454, 103.771
6. 25-Marco Andretti, 1:02.9595, 102.923
ELIMINATED IN ROUND TWO
7. 34-Carlos Munoz (R), 1:03.3955, 102.214
8. 98-Jack Hawksworth (R), 1:03.5738, 101.929
9. 8-Ryan Briscoe, 1:03.6206, 101.854
10. 3-Helio Castroneves, 1:03.6635, 101.785
11. 17-Sebastian Saavedra, 1:03.8374, 101.508
12. 20-Mike Conway, 1:03.9618, 101.310
ELIMINATED IN ROUND ONE
13. 11-Sebastien Bourdais, 1:15.8337, 85.450 (Group 1)
14. 77-Simon Pagenaud, 1:12.3741, 89.535 (Group 2)
15. 7-Mikhail Aleshin (R), 1:15.9111, 85.363 (Group 1)
16. 19-Justin Wilson, 1:12.5890, 89.270 (Group 2)
17. 18-Carlos Huertas (R), 1:16.8105, 84.363 (Group 1)
18. 2-Juan Pablo Montoya, 1:12.6994, 89.134 (Group 2)
19. 27-James Hinchcliffe, 2.34.4862, 41.945 (Group 1)
20. 83-Charlie Kimball, 1:13.0048, 88.761 (Group 2)
21. 15-Graham Rahal, No Time, No Speed (Group 1)
22. 67-Josef Newgarden, 1:13.1170, 88.625 (Group 2)

MRTI: Juncos signs Carlos Cunha for Pro Mazda campaign

Photo: Juncos Racing
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Juncos Racing continued to bolster its entries in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires by signing Carlos Cunha to pilot a third Juncos Pro Mazda entry for 2018. Cunha, who finished third in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season on the back of seven podium finishes, joins Rinus VeeKay and Robert Megennis in Juncos’ Pro Mazda lineup for 2018.

Cunha previously tested with the team at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in October and joined Juncos for the Chris Griffis Memorial test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November, testing cars for both the Pro Mazda and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires teams.

“It’s great to become a part of Juncos Racing,” said the 18-year-old Cunha. “I am really excited to start the 2018 season with Juncos Racing. This fall we did some testing together and from there I was able to see how focused everyone on the team is and I even felt like I became a part of their family in no time. I am confident we will get great results together next year and I look forward to learning and growing more with the team. It will be a huge pleasure and also a great responsibility to carry the number one on my car, thanks to (2017 Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni) and I hope to deliver it back to the team at the end of the year!”

Team owner Ricardo Juncos added, “We are excited to add Carlos to our Pro Mazda lineup. From the moment we started testing with him in early October, we knew he would be a great fit for our team. Carlos has been very quick in testing and even had an impressive showing in the Indy Lights car at the Chris Griffis test back in October. He had a great run this past season in the Pro Mazda series and we are confident he will carry that momentum into the 2018 season.”

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