ST. PETERSBURG, Fla – The start of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season looks a lot like the beginning of the 2018 one. That’s a great sign for Honda and some of their rookie drivers.
In qualifying for last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete, four of the top seven starters belonged to Honda. Furthermore, three of the top four starters were rookies too.
Rookie Felix Rosenqvist practices on the streets of St. Pete on Friday – INDYCAR Media Site
Granted, some of that could hinder on the fact that when we showed up to the 1.8-mile street circuit last year, this car was new to everybody. Everything we’ve learned prior to 2018 was thrown out the window. The braking points were different. That led to finding different sightlines. Setups were changed. That’s why rookies had a bit of an advantage because they didn’t have to train their minds to race differently at St. Pete. What they didn’t know didn’t hurt them like it would in other years.
But, 12 months later, rookies are strong and Honda’s are fast. A lot like last year.
In session No. 1, two of the top three speeds belonged to rookies. Felix Rosenqvist topped the speed charts in the first practice of the 2019 season in his No. 10 Honda. The Sweden native circled the track with a lap of 1:01.8215-seconds. His countrymate and fellow rookie counterpart of Marcus Ericsson was P3 with a time of 1:02.0811-seconds in his No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Rosenqvist’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate of Scott Dixon was P4 with a lap of 1:02.1309-seconds. The defending series champion is 0-for-14 in St. Pete but does have six top seven finishes in his last seven starts in the season opening race.
Two Andretti Autosport teammates rounded out the top five. Ryan Hunter-Reay was second (1:02.0636-seconds) while Alexander Rossi was fifth (1:02.1470-seconds). Hunter-Reay ended 2018 with two straight top two finishes including a win in the season finale at Sonoma. He has five consecutive top five finishes at St. Pete. Rossi, finished third in this very race a year ago too.
Takuma Sato, who won the penultimate race of the 2018 season gave Honda a clean sweep of the Fast Six on Friday in being sixth on the speed charts in his No. 30 Honda.
That shouldn’t come to a surprise as Honda’s won all five races on street course tracks a season ago. Penske, is 1-for-10 over the last two seasons on these types of circuits and could only muster 7-10-12 in session one.
In session two, it was more of a Honda domination.
Hunter-Reay picked up where he left off from the end of last year and to start the first session, topping the speed charts with a time of 1:00.896-seconds. He finished second in the penultimate race at Portland last season and won the season finale in Homestead. In the first practice day, Hunter-Reay was second and first respectively as well.
He had company from his teammates up front. Marco Andretti (1:01.035-seconds) was P3 while Rossi (1:01.138-seconds) was sixth. An Andretti alliance car in Colton Herta (1:01.077-seconds) was fourth to give Honda four of the top six cars on the speed chart.
Spencer Pigot was second quick with a speed of 1:00.981-seconds) while Max Chilton was fifth (1:01.117-seconds).
Chip Ganassi Racing Has Strong Cars
CGR has just one trip to victory lane in the 14 year history of the event. Dario Franchitti took his car to victory lane in the 2011 race. Other than that, Ganassi hasn’t contended much for wins in the annual season opener.
Maybe that changes this weekend.
Felix Rosenqvist led the way in the opening session and was 14th in session two. His teammate Scott Dixon is remarkably 0-for-14 in St. Pete, but here he was being fourth and 13th respectively himself. Despite being 13th in the final practice of the day, Dixon still says that his No. 9 Honda is a podium type of car.
“The car has been OK to start,” said the defending series champion. “We just had a lot of traffic out there with the PNC Bank car. Traffic was just horrendous out there for one reason or another. We have some balance things we can work on to improve, but it’s definitely a top-three car as of right now.”
Rosenqvist, has never been involved in an Indy Car race weekend before and here he was on top in the first session. The only reason he wasn’t higher in the second session was what the Swede calls “driver error.”
“I think it was a really good first day in the NTT DATA car,” the rookie said. “The car felt good from the start. Everything is working smoothly. We’re just trying to get into the flow of it altogether. I was on the Firestone alternate tires this afternoon for the first time, and I learned a lot after screwing up a few laps. I think there is a lot more in the car and I’m excited for tomorrow.”
RLL Balancing 2 Different Setups
Part of having teammates is that you can work through multiple checklists together. See, prior to last year, that was a detriment to RLL and Graham Rahal. They said multiple times that they just didn’t want to add a car for the sake of adding one. They didn’t want to take anything or any resources away from Rahal’s No. 15 Honda, so why spread themselves thin? The second car was to add to Rahal’s program.
When the resources came and Rahal started having success, the only way for them to improve was to add a teammate. See, Rahal had to do all the setups by himself. It would take the entire race weekend to get things dialed in. Even then, they sometimes missed it.
This weekend, is proof in the pudding. On Friday, Rahal worked on one half of the car, his teammate Takuma Sato the other.
“It was awesome to be back in the United Rentals Honda today in St. Pete,” said Rahal who was eighth and 11th respectively in practice on Friday. “The first session went really well, we finished eighth and were very competitive. In the second session, we ran the red Firestone (alternate) tires very early. We decided as a team that I would do that this race and Takuma (Sato) would do it at the next one to try to help the team get better. Overall, it was a solid day. We will do some homework overnight and hopefully, be faster tomorrow.”
Sato, was sixth and 12th himself and gave the team some good notes to apply to both cars tomorrow.
“I’m happy with our progress today,’ Sato said. “I think it was a productive day. We continued to work on the car through Practice 1 and 2 and continued to show solid performance on the black tire. When we ran the red Firestone (alternate) tires, it was a little out of balance, so I wasn’t able to improve the lap time. Nevertheless, the important thing today was to gather data. We were mainly working on the rear end and Graham (Rahal) was working on the front end. We split the program, so hopefully, we can both be better for tomorrow. I think it was a very good day.”
Carlin Improved Between Seasons
Carlin may have had to run a limited budget for Charlie Kimball this year, but one thing is sure, the team upgraded this past offseason. See, in 2018, Carlin had never raced on any of these tracks before. The only time they even seen them were in Indy Lights competition. But, to set up an Indy Car on tracks without any past data from, they knew it would be a challenging year.
Now, after 17 races under their belts, they knew they could come in 2019 with much more data. It’s showing.
The organization was strong in the COTA test and they picked up where they left off on Friday.
Charlie Kimball was eighth in the second and final session of the day while Max Chilton was fifth. Last year, they were luck to get into the top 20.
“It was a good first day, honestly, but we have a lot more to accomplish here at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend,” Kimball said on Friday. “It’s good to come back with Carlin in their second year because we’re able to learn not only from what we accomplished here last year but what we were able to accomplish throughout the entire 2018 season. We’re just so much further ahead than we were coming into this race last year and it showed today with our results. Coming out of the second practice with a top-10 finish is very promising, especially heading into tomorrow when it really counts with qualifying. I feel good about where the No. 23 Tresiba Carlin Chevrolet ended the day today and I’m thrilled with how we kicked off our first day of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.”
Chilton, was equally as happy.
“It was a bit of a rollercoaster of a day,” said the England native. “We weren’t where we wanted to be this morning, and then this afternoon we made some big jumps forward and finished the day where we knew we should’ve been all day. It was nice to finish out the day of a race weekend in the top five, and hopefully, we can duplicate that same result 24 hours from now when it really counts in qualifying. The good thing for us is that the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet works on reds (Firestone alternate tires), which is where you need it to be to qualify well. It was obvious after today that everyone did a great job at Carlin over the winter, but we still have a long way to go this weekend.”
Penske Still Searching For Speed
The Penske drivers were in the media center on Friday morning talking about how much that they needed to improve on street courses from 2018 to 2019. See, they were good pretty much everywhere else. Street courses have become a detriment to them.
They said St. Pete would be a good measuring stick to see how much they improved in that area. If Friday is any indication, they don’t look much different from last year.
They were only 7-10-12 in session No. 1 and 9-10-17 in the second session.
All three drivers were left saying that they felt like they have some speed in their cars, but they need to find more overnight.