Penske’s quartet pushes each other en route to qualifying dominance

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ST. PETERSBURG – If there is an intra-team rivalry at Team Penske between its four drivers, it hasn’t yet come to the surface.

In the wake of an unprecedented 1-2-3-4 sweep in the team’s first qualifying session as a four-car operation, ahead of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, all four of “The Captain’s” men took the opportunity to praise each other rather than taking any shots.

Well, almost all the time.

“We’re having a good time,” said new recruit Simon Pagenaud, to which Juan Pablo Montoya replied, “Are we?” to much laughter.

Other than that, the compliments were flowing like the furious, fast lap times on the 1.8-mile street circuit.

“We basically worked a little bit harder than what we thought,” said Helio Castroneves, who qualified third behind polesitter and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power and Pagenaud. “I have three other very good guys in the team which is good because each one tries something different.”

“Really, we pushed each other so hard in testing,” added Montoya, who in fourth was actually the lowest placed of the quartet.

The Penske dominance rubbed off so much that it even caused a Freudian slip by INDYCAR PR ace Kate Guerra, who accidentally referred to KVSH Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais as a Team Penske driver in introducing him to the dais.

“I don’t drive for Team Penske… if I did I’d be slowest of them, and that wouldn’t be good,” Bourdais joked, after qualifying sixth and the best non-Penske Chevrolet in the field.

It was that kind of day.

Pagenaud praised the immediate and instant team chemistry.

“What Juan said is true,” said the Frenchman. “It’s almost easier for us because there is a lot of data available to us.”

Power continued his St. Petersburg qualifying dominance with his fifth pole in the last six years, and his 37th overall in IndyCar. He seeks his third win at the track Sunday.

For the others, though, the qualifying was a marked improvement over recent years in St. Petersburg.

Pagenaud – for whatever reason – has struggled in qualifying at St. Pete with starts of 16th, 19th and 14th in the last three years. The first of those three was actually a sixth place qualifying effort, but with a 10-spot grid penalty for an unscheduled engine change.

Montoya could be excused for an 18th place qualifying last year, in his first open-wheel race in eight years and his first IndyCar start since 2000.

Castroneves, a three-time St. Petersburg race winner, qualified only 10th a year ago, so he made a seven-spot leap year-on-year.

It’s likely game on between the Penske quartet on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET), although as Power noted, the timing of yellows can often alter the complexion of the race.

“It’s like a drive-through you get hit with if a yellow comes out and the pits close,” Power said, “so maybe I need to run away and hide.”

If Penske can end as they qualified, they’ll emulate the feat achieved by Andretti Green Racing – now Andretti Autosport – 10 years ago at St. Petersburg in 2005. The late Dan Wheldon led Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, to complete the only 1-2-3-4 race sweep in IndyCar history.

Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.