Graham Rahal didn’t expect to end Saturday’s qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix at St. Petersburg in last place.
Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden certainly hadn’t entertained the idea of missing out on making the Firestone Fast 12, but that’s indeed what happened; the Team Penske driver will start 13th.
Newgarden’s teammate Simon Pagenaud did manage to transfer into the Fast 12, but starting 11th was not something he anticipated. And there were more stories like it as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon was a lowly ninth, reigning St. Pete winner Sebastien Bourdais was 14th, and even Andretti’s Alexander Rossi, down in 12th, surely planned on starting closer to the front.
Some missed finding the right chassis setup, others were caught out by the poor timing of a red flag and the intermittent sprinkles from above definitely didn’t help many who are likely to vie for championship honors.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” Rahal said of his spin and stall that led to a red flag and surrendering his two fastest laps, which relegated his car to last. “Obviously I wanted to go out there and push hard, and I just came out of Turn 10 and stood on it. It seemed OK and the next thing I knew, it just went around.
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“I’m disappointed clearly for everybody. I don’t know what the pace would have been, but it was giving me positive vibes. Tomorrow is a new day and we are going to work hard to get the United Rentals car to the front. [Sebastien] Bourdais started last here last year and won. With the pit windows and the fuel strategy and everything else now, there are big opportunities, so we’ve just got to think through it.”
With little to say about his starting position, Newgarden searched for positives to offer.
“Not the best qualifying for us. Everyone picked up more than I thought they would but, for us, it just wasn’t enough,” he said. “I didn’t do a good enough lap and it’s a shame we weren’t able to capitalize more in our first session for the year, but I feel like we’ve got a great car. I’m really happy with the Chevrolet engine that we’ve got this weekend. I think we’ve got what it takes to win this race and it’s been fun driving the Hitachi car for the first time so, not the perfect way to start the weekend off, but I think we’ll have a good car.”
Dixon ascribed his outcome to poor timing on tire choice.
“We thought it would get drier as the qualifying session went on, so we elected to go with the black tires,” he said. “The track felt good the first few laps, but then when the rain came it was all too late. Turn 1 was especially bad with the painted runway there. There were several cars that went off there, including myself in the PNC Bank car. So I think we just misread it there. The car is still really fast, though, and we’ll have some work to do to get to the front tomorrow.”
Like Bourdais, Pagenaud pointed to the skies as the reason for starting near the middle of the pack.
“Mother Nature kind of got us today,” he said. “The Menards Chevy was really good for qualifying but in the second round we just didn’t execute with our tires the right way for the rain we saw toward the end. We should have put on the red Firestone tires early on and that would have helped in the end. Instead we struggled to stay on track when it was wet and we couldn’t advance.”
With heavy rain in the overnight and early morning forecast, the field could take the green flag on a track surface that’s relatively green. Like the first qualifying session of the year, the first IndyCar race of 2018 could be just as unpredictable.