The grid is set for the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg, opening salvo of the 2012 IZOD indyCar Series.
Qualifying for 26 cars was held under warm, breezy and humid skies, with clouds dipping in and out of the Firestone Fast Six process.
As in the past few years, the Indy cars have thee rounds of knock-out qualifying to determine the grid for road/street course races.
With new DW12 cars from Dallara, new 2.2-liter V-6 turbocharged engines from Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus, there has been plenty of conjecture as to who would take the top spot for Sunday's 100-lap race around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street/airport course next to Tampa Bay.
Well, the department of redundancy struck here this afternoon as Will Power secured his third straight pole on the St Pete circuit in his No. 12 Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Fiestone Indy car. Power's lap of 1:01.3721 at 105.585 mph easily beat his time and speed from last year of 1:01.9625 at 104.579 in Firestone Fast Six qualifying.
"I was actually surprised at the lap time on used tires," Power said. "The Chevy was obviously the strongest engine; we made a couple of adjustments for the Fast Six and the car was really good. I was able to get pole."
Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe starts next to Power in his No. 2 car, turning 1:01.5357 at 105.305 mph. "It's a greet effort to get the season started with this kind of speed," he said. "We've been really busy testing this year with the new DW12 and the new Chevy engine. It's been a lot of fun, a lot of hard work as well, getting to this point. I'm absolutely loving it." It wasn't totally smooth sailing for Briscoe as he had a battery voltage problem and had to change the battery before Q3.
Third on the grid, Ryan Hunter-Reay turned 1:01.631/104.631 in his No. 28 Andretti Autosport Chevy-powered DW12. "We had to work on it this morning. We weren't really happy with it, so to see where we ended up in the end is not only a testament to the crew, the team, but also the teamwork, the (three) drivers sharing information."
His teammate James Hinchcliffe in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport machine was fourth-quickest after being fastest in the second knockout session at 1:01.4491. His Firestone Fast Six time and speed of 1;01.9701/104.567 didn't exactly please the 2011 rookie of the year, who missed this race while waiting for his sponsorship to come through last year. ""After being quickest in Q2, you're almost disappointed with fourth but for us, it was a fairly straightforward session. We made a little change to find more speed; I made a little bit of a mistake on my quickest lap, so maybe there's a tiny bit left in there."
If you're thinking there's Chevy domination here in Firestone Fast Six qualifying, you'd be right as Helio Castroneves, a two-time race winner at this track and a former pole winner, starts fifth in his No. 3 Penske Chevy-powered car after turning 1:01.9987/104.518. In the second session of knock-out qualifying, Castroneves smacked the Turn 9 wall; he also had radio problems throughout the session. "I went over the limit of the car," he said. "I thought it was over but in seven minutes, the guys switched out the entire (rear) suspension and we were able to go back out there."
Simon Pagenaud, who'll have to start 10 spots behind his 6th place qualifying effort due to an unapproved engine change yesterday, was the sole Honda driver in Firestone Fast Six qualifying today, turning 1:02.1095/104.332. Like Hinchcliffe, the Frenchman is making his first start at this track. "We made a little gamble in the last session and went out on the [harder compound] black tires instead of the softer reds; we had to try something different because we knew we would be penalized for yesterday's engine change. It did not work for us but it was worth the risk," he stated.
That moves Scott Dixon to sixth, with Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal completing the top 10. In that group all but Andretti and Kanaan drive Honda-powered cars. Newcomer Rubens Barrichello qualified 14th (Chevy) but moves up one spot, while the quickest Lotus-powered car belongs to Alex Tagliani, who qualified and will start 17th in the No. 98 BHA Indy car.
As you might expect, GM Director of Racing Mark Kent was "very pleased" with the qualifying effort. "It's nice to see a lot of Chevrolet cars up front and it's a reflection of all our work together. We've been learning together and this is a great reward. I would have been happy to take pole and this top-five result is over-achieving," he said.
While qualifying gives teams, drivers and manufacturers props for today, the race tomorrow should be a reflection of the tactics teams that don't have the best grid position will use to change their lots in life. As reigning three-time consecutive champion Franchitti said after not making the Firestone Fast Six today, "Our setup wasn't where it needed to be, obviously. We'll keep our heads up and get our work done. We still have some tricks up our sleeve."