ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Takuma Sato won the pole at St. Petersburg for Sunday’s season-opening IndyCar Series race, where Tony Kanaan will make his debut in his new Target/Chip Ganassi Racing ride starting alongside him on the front row.
Sato circled the street course in 1 minute, 0.01 seconds Saturday in the rain-delayed qualifying session to put his A.J. Foyt Racing entry out front. It was a stellar debut for Honda and its new twin turbo engine.
“It’s a fantastic day. I can’t really ask any more for the start of the season,” Sato said. “A.J. said ‘Very well done,’ and he was very happy, and making him happy is a very difficult thing. So I’m pleased.”
Sato also praised Honda Performance Development, which struggled mightily in this race a year ago. He said having the engine ready early in the offseason allowed his team to do needed testing in advance of the opener.
“Last year, my first test was the end of February with the team,” he said. “It’s a very short time to prepare. But this year, really the winter testing started from December, so effectively more than two months ahead of what we were last year.”
Tony Kanaan qualified second, 0.2951 seconds behind the Japanese driver. Kanaan, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner, replaced Dario Franchitti during the offseason following Franchitti’s forced retirement from injuries suffered in an October crash.
His first qualifying session with his new team led to Kanaan’s best starting spot at St. Pete since 2010. It’s the first time he advanced to the final Fast Six round of qualifying at this course in three years.
It could bode well for Kanaan, who improved seven spots to finish fourth a year ago when he drove for KVSH Racing.
“It’s just qualifying. You’ve still got to make it to turn one (Sunday),” Kanaan shrugged. “I think it has been like three years since I have been in the top six. It feels really good, I can’t thank the Target Chip Ganassi Racing guys enough. A lot of people made a lot of comments over the years because we struggled so much in qualifying in street and road courses and nobody was counting on that. I like to be the element of surprise.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay was third and followed by Will Power, who had won the pole the last four years.
Defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was fifth and Marco Andretti rounded out the Fast Six.
Juan Pablo Montoya failed to advance out of his group in his first qualifying session in IndyCar. He returned to open wheel this year to drive for Roger Penske after seven seasons in NASCAR with Chip Ganassi.
He’ll start 18th in the 22-car field.
“The biggest problem for the (car) was the last corner, for some reason. I just couldn’t come off that corner and get the car to turn,” Montoya said. “Sato was in front of me and I would lose everything to him right there. It is what it is. I haven’t driven in wet conditions in a long time and we never had an opportunity to do it in testing.
“I don’t think we’re that far off. I’m still getting acclimated. My team is still getting acclimated to me. If that process was complete we would be a lot better. We are definitely making progress.”
The qualifying session was delayed more than three hours because a heavy rainstorm drenched the course and forced the race promoter to clear the grandstands and ask fans to seek shelter in various locations around the temporary street circuit.
Fans huddled inside the parking garage that serves as the garage for many teams, and at least 12 drivers passed the time by posing for a “selfie” photo similar to the star-studded one Ellen DeGeneres took at the Oscars.
When the qualifying session did begin, the first group was slowed by several red flags. It infuriated Sebestien Bourdais, who replaced Kanaan at KVSH Racing and is hoping for a strong debut in his hometown race.
But Bourdais waited late into the session to go out onto the course, and the red flags limited him to just one qualifying lap. He’ll start 13th.
“This is a joke,” he grumbled. “If we are going to qualify, we at least have to have a fair shot, and we didn’t. It wasn’t much of a qualifying session. Because of the track conditions we waited to go out to make sure that we had room in case something happened, so everyone else got in a lap before the first red flag.
“When we went back out I got one lap at speed before the second red flag. We were too conservative and I feel bad for the crew.”
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