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)

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.