St. Petersburg weekend, Saturday notes

Photo: Tony DiZinno
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – There is A LOT on the schedule today at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg today, with seven races (one Indy Lights, one Pro Mazda, two USF2000, two Pirelli World Challenge with one GT and one GTS and one Stadium Super Trucks race) plus, of course, Verizon IndyCar Series third practice and qualifying.

We’ll update this post throughout the day as the sessions drop in.

8:00 a.m. ET: The Team Pelfrey pacesetting continued from practice into qualifying in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, except with Pato O’Ward now topping teammate Aaron Telitz for the pole position for the first of two races at the Allied Building Products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

O’Ward, in the No. 80 car, set a best time of 1:11.572 to edge Telitz by 0.0758 of a second. Telitz outqualified his two USF2000 rivals from 2015, Jake Eidson and Nico Jamin of Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, as the trio makes their debuts.

O’Ward is only confirmed for the first two weekends, but his first career pole got his weekend off to a good start.

8:30 a.m. ET: Kyle Kaiser secured his first career pole position in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, ahead of the first race in the two-race Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Lucas School of Racing.

The young Californian took the No. 18 Juncos Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to the top with a best time of 1:05.8718, courtesy of a smart strategic decision to run multiple sets of Cooper Tires during the session.

“I’m absolutely ecstatic,” Kaiser told IndyCar Radio’s Rob Howden. “I’ve wanted this pole for a long time. The team gave me a perfect car. I think we’ll be great in the race, we did a lot of long distance running in practice. That’s why it’s so great to get the first pole.”

Talented rookie Felix Rosenqvist led teammate Zach Veach for second and third on the grid at Belardi Auto Racing. Rosenqvist came up just 0.0459 of a second shy of a debut pole.

“Yeah you can’t expect too much. You have to do what you can do,” he told IndyCar Radio’s Dave Furst. “We got a little bit screwed (on the red). But second is a good place to start. For sure it’s better to be on pole, but I’ll go for it.”

The aforementioned red Rosenqvist referred to was for an incident for Andretti Autosport’s Dean Stoneman, who reportedly had slight contact at Turn 8, per IndyCar Radio. It brought the session to a slightly early end.

Stoneman’s was the second incident of the session for the team as Shelby Blackstock also had front wing damage during the session. Nonetheless, he qualified fourth.

Team Pelfrey’s Scott Hargrove completed the top five.

The top 12 runners were separated by only 0.7956 of a second and will make for a stacked field ahead of today’s first race of the weekend, and the season.

10:40 a.m.: The first Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda race of the day, and the season, didn’t feature much green flag running whatsoever. In the green flag running that did occur, Jordan Lloyd controlled the race in the No. 21 Pabst Racing entry from pole to secure his first series victory.

A fairly sizable Turn 1 accident jumbled the field and took out a number of contenders, including Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing’s Parker Thompson, who’d started second.

Yufeng Luo scored a career best second place finish in the No. 23 Pabst car, while Robert Megennis was a big beneficiary of the opening lap fracas and leapt from ninth to fourth in the early stages. A further pass of JAY Motorsports’ Luke Gabin for third brought the driver of the No. 80 Team Pelfrey entry up to the final podium position.

Megennis described the carnage from his vantage point: “I went through down the straight, saw the field moving back and forth down the straight. I kept it calm and just tried to survive.

“Then I see all these guys stack up into each other. I came out in fourth. Got a run on Gabin into Turn 4. And was in third for the rest of the race. It was very relieving. With all the cautions, I could relax now.”

Gabin was fourth with Australian countryman Anthony Martin recovering to fifth after falling down the order in another Cape car.

Victor Franzoni, Clint McMahan (started 22nd), Dakota Dickerson, Nikita Lastochkin and Ayla Agren completed a surprise top 10, with Michai Stephens one spot outside the top 10 in 11th. Thompson recovered to 15th.

10:50 a.m.: The opening Pirelli World Challenge race of the weekend, presented by Cadillac, was a far cry from last year’s first race at St. Petersburg. Last year’s was caution-plagued with a deeper field from a standing start; today’s smaller field produced a caution-free 50-minute show after a rolling start.

As has been the case all weekend, EFFORT Racing was the story. Californian Michael Lewis bagged an authoritative first overall win in the series to add to his four GTA class wins from last year, prior to his promotion into the GT category. Driving the No. 41 Porsche 911 GT3 R, Lewis led home Alvaro Parente in the No. 9 K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3 by 10.113 seconds.

“It’s so special to be sitting here. I was sitting here in the GTA seat last year, so to get the win overall is incredible,” Lewis said. “I have to thank my team owner Chuck Toups for the opportunity to drive this year.

“This race was a tough one. There were a lot of battles. But it was a lap time battle. I pushed hard in the beginning. I didn’t focus on him too much. Apart from the first five laps, it was push, save my energy.”

Perhaps the bigger story that inadvertently overshadowed Lewis’ first win was the recovery drive from teammate and Round 1 winner at COTA Patrick Long. In the rebuilt No. 31 car, and in a race without the aid of a single yellow to tighten the field, Long drove from 19th to seventh, to secure valuable points for down the road. The EFFORT crew, with assists from Porsche and Alex Job Racing, completed a 128-hour repair job to make the drive even possible; Long, the ginger Porsche factory ace that he is, proceeded to do the rest.

“Shoutout to Patrick Long. He finished a strong seventh,” Lewis said. “Having his voice in my head before I got in the car for practice and qualifying helped. He would have been up there for the win.

“Patrick wasn’t able to qualify the car. For him to finish seventh was incredible. Just from the communication in COTA, I knew the team was preparing to build the car. They’d figure it out from there. Our crew, engineer and Stefan Pfeiffer and Erin Gahagan (team manager) did everything they could to get the car fixed, and they did so.”

Splitting the EFFORT pair were Parente as noted, the Cadillac Racing teammates of Johnny O’Connell and Michael Cooper, Austin Cindric in another Flying Lizard-run K-PAX McLaren for his first PWC top five, and Jon Fogarty in the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing McLaren.

Martin Fuentes (GTA) and Sloan Urry (GT Cup) won their classes for their third and second wins of the year, respectively.

11:45 a.m.: Not much at all to report from the opening Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires race of the season. Pato O’Ward led Team Pelfrey teammate Aaron Telitz for a one-two finish, with Jake Eidson coming third for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.

The top five drivers finished in the same order they started. Garett Grist gained two spots to climb from eighth to sixth, same as Jorge Cevallos did in seventh.

There were no cautions and O’Ward, who secured his first career series win, was the third polesitter of the day to win in as many races.

12:45 p.m.: IndyCar third practice report is in a separate post, linked here. ‘

4:00 p.m. Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying is underway and will follow in a separate post. We’ve also had several interviews, including one with Chip Ganassi, with details of which will come later.

Meanwhile, here’s the wraps of the first Indy Lights and second USF2000 race. The Stadium Super Trucks also ran, with Sheldon Creed beating Tyler McQuarrie and Matthew Brabham.

Felix Serralles has emerged at the head of the queue following the opening Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race of the season and the weekend, the Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Lucas School of Racing.

The driver from Puerto Rico started seventh and broke the logjam of polesitters winning races thus far on Saturday at St. Petersburg.

Driving the No. 4 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, Serralles launched up to second on the start behind Zach Veach, who leapt from third to first in the No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing entry.

Veach led with Serralles – formerly of Belardi before switching to Carlin – before slowing on Lap 17. Serralles secured the lead on Lap 18 and surged ahead, with Scott Hargrove advancing up to second in the No. 3 Team Pelfrey car.

Kyle Kaiser, the polesitter, finished third after falling to fourth on the start. Pro Mazda champion Santiago Urrutia and RC Enerson, both of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, completed the top five.

Veach, who slowed and lost several laps, dropped to 16th and last – an unrepresentative result as he led 17 of the 30 laps. Teammate Felix Rosenqvist ended seventh after a slow start in the No. 14 car, having qualified second.

Pabst Racing won its second race of the day in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, with its second of three drivers securing his first career win at the Priority Marine Construction Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Andersen RacePark.

Yufeng Luo, who was second in the morning, snatched the lead from Jordan Lloyd on Lap 17 of 21 in the 30-minute race to take the No. 23 car to the win.

Jordan Cane, the 14-year-old freshman phenom, completed the podium as another Team Pelfrey driver in third in the No. 81 car. Robert Megennis ended third in race one; he finished eighth in race two.

Parker Thompson rebounded from a tough morning to end fourth for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, with Luke Gabin fifth for JAY Motorsports.

The USF2000 field is off for a little more than a month, until Barber Motorsports Park in late April.

More to follow.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.