Story By: MARK ROBINSON / INDYCAR – ST. PETERSBURG, FL – The unpredictability of the Verizon IndyCar Series reached a new and exciting level in Verizon P1 Award qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with rookie Robert Wickens taking pole position in his debut event.
On a track slick from light rain, Wickens slipped in a lap at the end of the Firestone Fast Six – the last of three knockout qualifying rounds – to claim the pole for Sunday’s 110-lap race that kicks off the 2018 season. Wickens’ circuit of 1 minute, 1.6643 seconds (105.085 mph) in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda bested seven-time St. Petersburg pole winner Will Power by less than a tenth of a second for top honors.
Wickens became the first driver to win the pole position in his maiden Indy car race since Sebastien Bourdais in 2003 – also at St. Petersburg.
“It was just chaos – half wet, half dry,” said Wickens, 28. “I like those conditions a lot. As a kid my whole career, I’ve seemed to excel in that type of session, and thankfully the team and everyone on the Lucas Oil car did a great job getting us on track at the right time with the right tire, with the whole procedure.
“Thankfully, I’m starting from pole position. Way better than I ever expected my first INDYCAR race to be, but I’m definitely not complaining with it.”
With all Verizon IndyCar Series entries running the new-look car with its universal aero kit for the first time in competition this weekend, the leaderboard throughout practice has been in a constant state of flux. The trend continued in qualifying, as three drivers making their series debuts – Wickens, Jordan King and Matheus “Matt” Leist – advanced to the Firestone Fast Six.
King, in fact, set the new lap record for the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course in the first round of qualifying with a lap of 1:00.0476 (107.914 mph), eclipsing Power’s old standard from 2016 by nearly two-hundredths of a second.
“Coming into qualifying, I knew we were quick enough to get through,” said King, the 23-year-old Englishman who joined the Verizon IndyCar Series after three seasons in FIA Formula 2 and two as a Formula 1 reserve driver. “But still, I had to perform, and it being my first time, I was obviously putting more pressure on myself than anybody else. But then I just had to keep reminding myself that if I just do what I know I can, the rest of it will be fine.”
Power’s best lap today in the Firestone Fast Six, 1:01.7346 (104.965 mph) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, locked the two-time St. Pete race winner into the outside of Row 1 on the starting grid.
“I had a big mis-shift during my (best) lap where I just got stuck in gear for quite a while,” Power said. “Then when I saw how tight it was, it was like, ‘Yeah, probably lost a tenth or so there.’ But fantastic job by Wickens, first time out, to get pole.
“Just shows kind of the parity within the series, now that everyone has got the same body kit,” Power added. “They’re all good guys. They’re all guys capable of winning races. Yeah, pretty impressive, though, all those guys up in front there, first time out. … Three (rookies) in the Fast Six is very impressive.”
Leist qualified third in the No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing ABC Supply Chevrolet (1:01.7631, 104.917 mph), beating King, in the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet (1:01.7633, 104.917 mph), by an eyelash.
“I think I was expecting to be like top 10,” said Leist, the 19-year-old Brazilian teaming with veteran Tony Kanaan for AJ Foyt Racing, “but definitely not top five, top six. The team just did an amazing job, and very happy for the performance throughout the whole weekend already, and looking forward to the race.”
Takuma Sato, the 2014 St. Pete pole sitter, was fifth in the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1:01.8821), with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay sixth in the No. 28 DHL Honda (1:02.0385).
Two of Hunter-Reay’s teammates failed to advance from earlier qualifying rounds when they were penalized for qualifying interference. Marco Andretti (No. 98 Ruoff Home Mortgage/Curb Honda) would have advanced from the first round and Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda) would have moved on from Round 2, but both had their fastest two laps negated by penalty and could not advance by rule.
Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon saw his string of qualifying for the Firestone Fast Six in nine straight events come to an end. Dixon will start ninth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Bourdais, the 2017 St. Petersburg race winner, will roll off 14th in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Graham Rahal, in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, will start last in the 24-car field after being penalized his two best laps for causing a Round 1 red flag when his car spun in Turn 10.
A final 30-minute warmup practice is scheduled for 8:45 a.m. ET Sunday rel=”noopener noreferrer” and streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Live race coverage begins at noon on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and 12:30 p.m. on ABC.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first of 17 races on the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.