The mix of talent vying for pole position at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg featured the NTT IndyCar Series’ youngest stars and some of its most successful champions, and when it was over, Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta was holding P1 for Sunday’s 100-lap race.
Herta’s lap of 1m00.3210s in the No. 26 Honda was well clear of Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey in the No. 60 Honda (+0.2499s) as the Japanese brand locked out the front row.
“I knew we had a good race car for here,” Herta said. “Just had to get through those two [qualifying] stages nice and clean. Really happy for the guys.”
Congratulations to the NTT P1 award winner, @ColtonHerta!#INDYCAR // #FirestoneGP pic.twitter.com/2XZKUU2Qjz
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 24, 2021
Harvey said his strong pace didn’t come as much of a surprise to him.
“There was a lot of work put in overnight and I trust everyone on the No. 60 crew — they’ve done a really great job all year,” he said. “We felt confident coming into this weekend because of how it traditionally has gone for us in the past. The No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda was really looking strong. I’m really looking forward to sharing the front row with our pseudo teammate. I just want to have a good start to the race and then we will go from there.”
The second row was an all-Penske affair led by Josef Newgarden in the No. 2 Chevy (+0.2868s) and Simon Pagenaud in the No. 22 Chevy (+0.3143s).
Repeating its strong performance from last year, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais secured P5 with the No. 14 Chevy (+0.6807s), and Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward, the polesitter one week ago at Barber, rounded out the Firestone Fast Six in the No. 5 Chevy as his team elected to keep him on the slower primary tires for the session (+0.7589s).
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MSR’s Harvey was the revelation of qualifying and came within seconds of celebrating his first IndyCar pole, but in typical fashion for Herta, an almighty final lap stole the spot while opening up a giant gap of nearly a quarter-second on the short 1.8-mile circuit.
Outside of those who made it into the Firestone Fast Six or Fast 12, the other main story of qualifying involved those who weren’t part of the conversation as nine-time St. Petersburg pole winner Will Power struggled mightily on his way to P20.
Herta was the only Andretti driver to make the Fast Six; next was Alexander Rossi in P11. All four of Chip Ganassi Racing’s drivers were unsuccessful in making the Fast Six with Scott Dixon coming closest in P8; his Barber-winning teammate Alex Palou was P10.
AS IT HAPPENED
In the opening 10-minute session where half the field went out and six moved forward into the Firestone Fast 12, it was a wild affair as drivers scrambled to find grip and dealt with sliding cars and, in the case of Scott Dixon, a 90-degree spin that slightly impeded a driver and cost the reigning series champion his fastest lap.
Despite the penalty, the Ganassi driver was able to hang on at the bottom of the transfer list headed by Andretti’s Rossi, who turned a best lap of 1m00.2949s in the No. 27 Honda. Behind Rossi, it was teammate Herta, AMSP’s O’Ward, Penske’s Pagenaud, Foyt’s Bourdais, and Dixon who headed for the Fast 12.
Ryan Hunter-Reay also spun and caused a local yellow to come out, which cost the Andretti driver his fastest lap and placed him at the front of the group including RLL’s Takuma Sato, AMSP’s Felix Rosenqvist, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly, Ed Jones from Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, and Ganassi’s Jimmie Johnson who were finished.
In the second 10-minute session where the other half the field went out and six moved forward into the Firestone Fast 12, an intense final minute of action saw P1 change five times with Penske’s Newgarden coming out as the last to hold the spot with a 1m00.4437s lap.
Second through sixth were RLL’s Graham Rahal, MSR’s Harvey, ECR’s Rinus VeeKay, Andretti’s Hinchcliffe, and Ganassi’s Alex Palou. The big shock came with Penske’s Power — a nine-time pole winner at St. Pete who was nowhere near making the cut, tagged the wall and closed his session with a spin after bending the right-rear toe link.
“It’s nuts to go from one of the best cars on Friday to one of the worst on Saturday,” Power said.
It was Power’s teammate Scott McLaughlin who was the first to miss the cut, and he was trailed by Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing’s Romain Grosjean, Power, Carlin Racing’s Max Chilton, and Foyt’s Dalton Kellett.
In the Firestone Fast 12 where the top six would transfer, Colton Herta set the best lap with a 1m00.2207s in his No. 26 Andretti Honda. The familiar flurry during the final minute, CGR’s Dixon was knocked out of the transfer group at the last second along with VeeKay, leaving Penske’s Newgarden, Foyt’s Bourdais, AMSP’s O’Ward, MSR’s Harvey and Penske’s Pagenaud as the happy members of the Firestone Fast Six.
It meant ECR’s Veekay led the group locked in from P7 to P12, with Dixon, RLL’s Rahal, Barber winner Palou, a surprised Rossi and Andretti teammate Hinchcliffe completing the front half of the grid.
Fastest Driver: Colton Herta, 1m00.3210s
Slowest Driver: Dalton Kellett, 1m02.3396s
• He just missed out on the Fast Six, but ECR’s Rinus VeeKay is showing something in his second season. He’ll start P7 while teammate Daly is 10 positions back in P17.
• Despite showing promise at times in practice, the DCR duo of Romain Grosjean and Ed Jones are set for a long haul to the front of the field from P18 and P21, respectively.
• We didn’t get to see AMSP’s O’Ward and Rosenqvist compete in an unblemished qualifying session at Barber after the Swede went off at the last corner and lost his fastest lap, but with no hindrances at St. Pete, it was a surprise to see such a significant gap between O’Ward in P6 and his new teammate in P17.
• Continuing the theme of smaller teams punching above their weight in qualifying, Mike Shank and Jim Meyer must be ecstatic with Harvey starting on the front row at the home race for one of its bigger partners, AutoNation. And after MSR’s fine day, hometown favorite Sebastien Bourdais made more waves for the rebuilding Foyt team. When the team order in the Fast Six is Andretti, MSR, Penske, Penske, Foyt, and AMSP, it’s time to praise the overachievers in the group.
• Surprising change in a span of seven days as CGR’s Ericsson went from making the Fast Six (in P6) to being well adrift at St. Pete in P16.
• In the Jimmie Johnson vs Dalton Kellett qualifying wars, it’s 2-0 in favor of the CGR rookie who starts 23rd out of 24 cars in attendance.
• Rough start to the season for Max Chilton who started P20 at Barber and just earned P22 for Round 2.
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