The threat of rain during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race weekend has been on weather forecasts all week and, to the chagrin of several Verizon IndyCar Series drivers, precipitation played a starring role during the final two rounds of knockout qualifying.
Round 1 began dry and delivered a new track record, surprisingly from rookie driver Jordan King instead of one of the series’ stalwarts in Group 1 like Simon Pagenaud or Ryan Hunter-Reay.
As Group 2 took to the track, it became clear that conditions were quickly deteriorating. Will Power, who owns seven poles in nine starts at the 1.8-mile street circuit, was unable to come within a half second of King’s time.
The second round of qualifying — out of which the top half advances to the Firestone Fast 6 — had a direct impact on several of the series’ most accomplished drivers.
“Mother Nature kind of got us today,” said Pagenaud after qualifying. “The Menards Chevy was really good for qualifying but in the second round we just didn’t execute with our tires the right way for the rain we saw toward the end.
“We should have put on the red Firestone tires early on and that would have helped in the end. Instead, we struggled to stay on track when it was wet and we couldn’t advance.”
Tire strategy wasn’t the only challenge for drivers as the track continued to lose grip with the wet surface wreaking havoc for those speeding down the long front straight.
“The track felt good the first few laps, but then when the rain came it was all too late,” said Dixon. “Turn 1 was especially bad with the painted runway there.
“There were several cars that went off there, including myself in the PNC Bank car. So I think we just misread it there.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay nearly lost out on a bid for pole but advanced to the Firestone Fast 6 thanks to a penalty issued to Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi, who was judged to have interfered with another driver’s qualifying.
Even though Rossi’s misfortune benefitted Hunter-Reay, the 11-year St. Pete veteran was tested by the conditions combined with the unique nature of the streets of St. Petersburg layout.
“It was like running on ice,” said Hunter-Reay. “Somehow those runway strips — we’re sitting so low in the car. You can’t really place your car and try to get around them because they’re so wide you have to get over them, and you can’t see them until you’re on them.”
“It was definitely tricky out there. I’m surprised we didn’t end up with any cars in the wall.”
Though James Hinchcliffe didn’t find the wall with his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, he found himself stuck in seventh as Round 2 came to a close while teammate Robert Wickens went on to secure his first pole.
“We got caught out by the rain there and only had one lap to get it done and transfer into the top six, which we only missed by a couple hundredths of a second,” said Hinchcliffe. “I’m pretty disappointed as the car is quick and Robbie proved that.”
With 43 Indy car poles between them, Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Dixon and Pagenaud couldn’t make it 44. With expected starts of sixth, seventh, ninth and 11th, respectively, all four drivers will have a chance to add to their combined win total on the St. Petersburg streets — which currently stands at just one thanks to Hinchcliffe’s victory in 2013.
Weather permitting, the race is expected to go green at 12:40 p.m. EDT on Sunday.