Wet conditions proved no match for Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Robert Wickens who snatched the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg pole away from Will Power on his last lap of the Firestone Fast 6.
The question of whether or not track records would fall with the new universal aero kit was answered by Ed Carpenter Racing’s Jordan King in Group 1.
Once his No. 20 Chevrolet was fitted with Firestone alternate tires, King’s best lap was a 1:00.0476, besting Power’s record from 2016 by 0.0182 seconds. King was joined in the top six that advanced to Round 2 by Alexander Rossi, Wickens, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Defending series champion Josef Newgarden missed out on transferring, only able to lay down a 1:00.4584 to place his No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet seventh in Group 1. Zach Veach, Ed Jones, Jack Harvey, Charlie Kimball and Rene Binder also failed to advance.
Times for Group 2 were a half-second slower than Group 1 as a light rain began to fall and complicate the year’s first qualifying sequence.
Power was the fastest of the group, advancing to Round 2 with rookie Matheus Leist, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Gabby Chaves and Takuma Sato.
Rahal was stripped of his two fastest laps and barred from advancing to Round 2 for bringing out the red flag by spinning at Turn 10. Marco Andretti received an identical penalty for qualifying interference as judged by the race stewards.
Sebastien Bourdais, Spencer Pigot, Max Chilton and Zachary Claman De Melo also failed to advance to Round 2.
Slick conditions continued during Round 2 with drivers struggling to avoid losing control as they traversed the painted areas on the airport runway that serves as the circuit’s front straight.
Wickens, who laid down a fast lap early before parking the No. 6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, topped the session with a 1:00.5428.
Fighting the wet surface in Turn 1, Simon Pagenaud nearly spun and stalled his No. 22 Chevrolet in the final minute, bringing out the red and checkered flags.
Rossi was inside the top six as the session came to a close but was penalized for qualifying interference which kept him from advancing. Following the penalties, Power, King, Leist, Sato and Hunter-Reay joined the Wickens in advancing to the year’s first Firestone Fast 6.
Hinchcliffe, Chaves, Dixon and Kanaan failed to move on to the final round along with Rossi. Dixon’s streak of contesting every Firestone Fast 6 since the 2016 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma came to an end, with the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s session being negatively impacted by Pagenaud’s spin.
Firestone Fast 6
The third round of qualifying featured three rookies alongside three of the more experienced drivers in the 24-car field.
After six minutes of fighting wet conditions, Wickens emerged as the fastest of the six drivers on his final lap. His 1:01.6643 pushed perennial St. Petersburg pole winner Power to second, besting his time by 0.0703 seconds.
Wickens’ pole is the seventh for Sam Schmidt’s IndyCar team and first since Mikhail Aleshin qualified on top at Pocono Raceway in 2016. The achievement also marks the first pole for a rookie at St. Petersburg since Bourdais in 2003.
Power will start on the front row next to Wickens while AJ Foyt Racing’s Leist will share Row 2 with fellow rookie King. Sato and Hunter-Reay qualified on Row 3 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Andretti Autosport, respectively.
Sunday’s on-track action will begin at 8:45 a.m. EDT with a 30-minute warm-up session ahead of the 110-lap Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, set to go green at 12:40 p.m. Live television coverage will open on ABC 10 minutes earlier.