ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The same driver will lead the field to the green flag through the streets of the St. Petersburg for the fourth consecutive year.
Only Will Power will have some new faces right behind him Sunday in the season-opening IndyCar race, with Takuma Sato and Simona de Silvestro qualifying second and third. Tristan Vautier, who will make his IndyCar debut, will start sixth.
A new cast of characters didn’t surprise Power.
“It’s always like that in IndyCar, you can never predict what’s going to happen,” Power said. “We don’t know who is going to win, but that is the excitement of it. We’ve never had so much depth in the field of drivers. There are no bad drivers. You go through the field and you have 20 guys there, all of these guys can win.
“Given the right equipment and day, they can win races. I don’t think enough people know about it, you know, how many good drivers there are in this series.”
It was evident in qualifying with five teams represented in the Fast Six and only Penske Racing putting teammates in the final group. It was Power at the top of the leaderboard, earning his fourth consecutive pole at St. Pete by posting a best lap Saturday of 1 minute, 1.2070 seconds on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit.
“Good start to the year,” said the Australian, who won his 30th pole to move ahead of Dario Franchitti for seventh on the career list.
Right behind Power was Sato, making his first start for A.J. Foyt Racing. Sato had never qualified higher than 11th at St. Pete before claiming a spot on the front row for the first time since Edmonton in 2011.
Qualifying a career-best third was de Silvestro, who had never before even advanced to the Fast Six round of qualifications. She’s been among the fastest drivers all weekend in her debut for new team KV Racing Technology and can sense a huge opportunity ahead of her.
De Silvestro finished a career-best fourth at St. Pete in 2011, losing third-place to Tony Kanaan in the closing laps.
“It’s really cool to finally get the results we wanted,” she said, admitting to self-doubt during the off-season about whether she was up to the challenge of her opportunity with KV.
“I think it’s kind of a big relief to know that we can be up front and be running up front. I think it’s just going to make it easier now going forward because I know I can be fast and I know I have the tools to be fast.”
James Hinchcliffe qualified fourth for Andretti Autosport and said nobody really had anything to challenge Power.
“Will was outrageously quick,” said Hinchcliffe, who noted drivers are also adjusting to Firestone’s new red tires. “I think a lot of people found it was sort of one lap was the magic lap. With the exception of Will, you didn’t usually go quicker after that. If you made one little mistake or caught a guy in traffic or something like that, your next lap was significantly slower.”
Helio Castroneves joined his Penske Racing teammate Power in the Fast Six and qualified fifth, then it was rookie Vautier, the 2012 Indy Lights champion, who marked his IndyCar debut weekend by claiming a spot in the Fast Six in his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry.
Vautier, who has won championships the last two seasons in the ladder series, won the opening races in each of those seasons. He laughed when asked if he expects to do the same in Sunday’s IndyCar debut.
“This one’s a little tougher,” he said.
Failing to advance was defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
Although Ganassi and Dixon both indicated struggles with their cars was the issue in qualifying, the absence of both Ganassi cars from the Fast Six was predicted as early as Friday as the Honda teams have struggled since the opening practice.
No Honda drivers made it out of the first group of qualifying, and Sato and Vautier were the only two Hondas in the final round.
A year after Honda won just four of the 15 races — but one of those victories was the Indianapolis 500 with Franchitti — flagship team owner Ganassi admitted Saturday he’s “starting to eyeball the red flags to grab them.”
“I think Honda has some work to do, but I think they know that,” Ganassi said. “They were mission accomplished last year, at the right time, when it counted most. To have to rely on that again is a tall order … I don’t know if they want to win bad enough. They talk about everything at Honda but winning.”
Ganassi, who uses Chevrolets in NASCAR, finds it interesting that Honda is struggling after six years as IndyCar’s sole engine supplier. Chevrolet and Lotus both entered the series last season, and Chevrolet won the driver and manufacturer championships.
It’s just Chevy and Honda this season, and Chevy has been fastest so far this weekend.
“They said for years and years and years they want competition,” Ganassi said. “Now they’ve got competition and they are not talking about winning. I feel like they want to sit around and hold hands and sing. I want to win.”
Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development, insisted the company is dedicated to winning.
“Honda shares Chip’s commitment to winning, as is evidenced by our 196 IndyCar victories, many of which were achieved in partnership with Chip and his team,” St. Cyr said. “We are pleased with Takuma Sato’s front-row start and a strong qualifying performance by rookie Tristan Vautier in his inaugural race. But Honda is always looking to improve, and continues to work tirelessly to give all of our IndyCar Series teams the opportunity to win.”
But Sato, who was fast in Saturday’s morning practice, doesn’t believe an engine problem is plaguing all the Honda teams.
“I don’t think we have an issue,” Sato said. “Honda is trying as much as they could and trying in advance anything over the course of the weekend in qualifying. I’m very satisfied with Honda’s performance, and certainly compared to the last year, it’s tons better.
“Honda worked really hard and hopefully by (Sunday) … we will not be at a disadvantage, and hopefully we’ll have a good car to win the race or to challenge, at least. I don’t think there is any big difference between Chevy and Honda.”
Vautier, new to the series, is too focused on the bigger car to worry about engines right now.
“I don’t really focus on if my engine’s the best or not,” he said. “I’m happy with what I have, and we have a lot of work on the car, so we focus on that.”