Sato Has Foyt Looking Good In St. Pete

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 29 2014

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Takuma Sato topped the time chart during Friday’s second practice session to lead preparations for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2014 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Sato, who is beginning his second season with A.J. Foyt Racing, recorded a best lap of 1 minute, 2.5615- seconds/103.578 mph around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit. Sato qualified second and finished eighth in this event last year in his debut for the team owned by open-wheel icon A.J. Foyt Jr. Sato, third-quick in Friday’s morning practice, has a best career finish of fifth in four previous St. Pete starts.

“The conditions were not very representative as usual for St. Petersburg, but still the car worked really well and we made good progress during this session,” said Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda. “Let’s hope this continues and we will work on speed for (qualifying).”

Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the No. 11 Hydroxycut-KVSH Racing Dallara/Chevrolet, holds the track record of 1:00.928-seconds set during qualifying for the 2003 race sanctioned by CART.

Saturday’s schedule includes a third/final 45-minute morning practice, followed by knockout qualifying and the Firestone Fast Six from 2-3:10 p.m. (EDT). Sunday’s 110-lapper will be televised live by ABC at 3 p.m. and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network, including Sirius and XM Channels 209 and the INDYCAR 14 app for most smart phones and tablets.

In the season’s first session, 2013 race-winner James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport was quickest of 22 drivers recording laps at 1:02.9326-seconds/102.967 mph.

“That first session of the season is something everyone is excited about,” said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Dallara/Honda.”The track was very green and a lot of guys have something to come and hopefully, that includes us. Hopefully that means we’re on the right track for the weekend. We get so little track time and need to use every lap of testing and practice you get, so you can’t lollygag too much.

“Last year is past and we need to focus on 2014, so it (his win) doesn’t have much to do with this year. I think the biggest thing is just added attention when you come back as a defending winner. Whether you crashed in Turn 1 or won the race you come in with the same mindset and that’s to do the best that you can. But I’d love to get another surfboard (winner’s trophy). It looks pretty good in the living room.”

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 National Guard Dallara/Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, was second-quick overall at 1:02.6122-seconds/103.494 mph. Will Power, who has qualified on-pole in each of the past four years on the Florida circuit, was third in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet at 1:02.6443-seconds/103.441 mph. Teammate Helio Castroneves, a three-time winner of the race, was fourth at 1:02.8178-seconds/103.155 mph. Simon Pagenaud rounded out the top five at 1:02.9129-seconds/103.000 mph in the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Dallara/Honda.

Meanwhile, three-time/reigning series champion Scott Dixon was ninth-quickest at 1:03.0510-seconds/102.774 mph. “I think we’re in a better position this afternoon than we were this morning,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. “The times are all pretty tight throughout the field and I think a lot of the other teams took tires at the very end of that session, when we opted not to. We’re making progress but we just need to keep working hard and be ready for qualifying.” Firestone has supplied the same street course tire compound as 2013 for this race.

Former Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who has returned to open-wheel racing from NASCAR with Team Penske, was 19th on the combined chart at 1:03.4624-seconds/102.108 mph.

“Obviously we wanted to be a little further up the speed charts, but we knew it was going to be a learning process,” said Montoya, driver of the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet. “This is my first time on this circuit so we had to guess a little bit on the setups. Unfortunately we unloaded pretty far off. In the second sessions we picked up a big understeer. At that point we really quit focusing on speed and just tried to get the car driving better. I learned quickly that there are places on the track where the penalty of missing it is much greater than the gain, so from a track-learning perspective I’m much better off than I was when I got here.”

Five twin-turbocharged V6 Hondas and an equal number of Chevrolet-powered cars occupied the top 10. The top 19 cars were separated by less than one second.

Rahal, whose victory at St. Petersburg in 2008 made him the youngest winner in Indy car history, won the pole on this course the following March.

“Overall, for our first day out I think it was a great day,” said Rahal, son of team co-owner and 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal. “For us to be that competitive right off the bat feels awesome. I have to say most of all I’m proud of these National Guard guys because it was only 48, maybe 72 hours ago (Monday night) that we had a big trailer fire and our guys did an incredible job getting everything switched back over in Indy. It was a rush, it was absolutely a rush to get down here.”

Rahal’s crew was to have Tuesday off, but everyone reported to the Brownsburg, Ind., headquarters by 6 a.m. to offer assistance. “I’m proud of them and as dad said last night to them ‘through adversity comes a team.’ I think we have a great group of people and that is going to show this year.”

INDYCAR Race Director Beaux Barfield won’t be solely charged with penalty decisions this season. According to the series rulebook, three stewards will oversee each event with Barfield, Brian Barnhart and Johnny Unser stationed in Race Control at St. Pete. Any one of them can call for a review of replays and car data, followed by a vote. The senior steward will determine the severity of any infraction and issue a corresponding penalty, if warranted.

Derrick Walker, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, has proposed a rotation of stewards for the 2015 season.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 29 2014
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