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Pigot delivers fiery start, but suffers fiery end, in St. Petersburg

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The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is a case of “what might have been” for Verizon IndyCar Series sophomore Spencer Pigot.

The Ed Carpenter Racing driver started 13th, avoided the spinning car of Graham Rahal and the wounded cars of Charlie Kimball and Carlos Munoz, and then made a series of great passes to run fifth during the opening stint.

However, it all came undone under the second caution period. The caution itself was going to hurt the team’s strategy, but a much bigger problem emerged when smoke began billowing from the left-rear corner of his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

The left-rear brake rotor had begun to malfunction and eventually exploded as he entered his pit stall. He rejoined the race after losing several laps while undergoing repairs, but the team eventually retired the car when it became apparent they wouldn’t gain more positions by continuing.

Still, despite the disappointing result, Pigot was upbeat about the overall performance.

“It was fun!” he told NBC Sports afterward. “The pace was there, we definitely made improvements Saturday night into Sunday. All the hard work we did in the off-season is starting to pay off and we’re fighting a lot higher up the grid, which is what the goal was in the first place.”

Pigot is also boosted by the continuity with Ed Carpenter Racing. Last year, he made his debut in the Verizon IndyCar Series with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, but was only on a three-race deal and had nothing confirmed beyond the Indianapolis 500.

He joined the Ed Carpenter-led team at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit, but switching teams mid-season is hardly ideal. The switch was made all the more difficult by a change in manufacturers. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing runs Hondas, while Ed Carpenter Racing runs Chevrolets. The manufacturer shift meant his learning curve was compounded even further and he struggled to find pace all year.

Returning to Ed Carpenter Racing allows the 23-year-old to build on relationships he built with the team. And while he is not yet a full-time driver (Pigot is running the road/street races for the No. 20 effort, with Ed Carpenter again assuming driving duties at the oval races), competing with the same team and knowing he’ll run most of the races make him much more comfortable.

“It’s nice to know I’m pretty much going to be in every race this year. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. The goal is to obviously be here full-time and this is the first step. I’m very happy to be back with the team and they did a great job this weekend.”

While the Verizon IndyCar Series is off until the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 7-9), Pigot will not sit idle. He will rejoin Mazda Racing’s program in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at at next week’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. He will again be a co-driver on the No. 55 Mazda RT24-P entry, partnering Tristan Nunez and Jonathan Bomarito.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.