The battle for pole position at Barber Motorsports Park saw three drivers from Chip Ganassi Racing and one each from Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren SP, and Team Penske hurl their cars around the gorgeous 2.4-mile road course, and once the Firestone Fast Six was settled, Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward blitzed the group with his second career pole.
“GOOOOOOO,” the 2018 Indy Lights champion yelled over the radio after clinching first place with a lap of 1m05.8479s in the No. 5 Chevy. The 24-year-old Mexican was indeed a headache for the others as he led the Fast Six and the Fast 12 sessions, and will have Andretti’s Alexander Rossi alongside him on the front row in the No. 27 Honda (+0.0698s).
“Man, we made some changes after Practice 2, and we’ve been working so hard in the off-season,” O’Ward said. “I knew exactly what I needed to get time out of the [Firestone] reds. We did that, and we’re starting on pole. We’ve got a race to win tomorrow.”
CGR’s Alex Palou led his trio in third with the No. 10 Honda (+0.2059s), Penske’s Will Power was fourth in the No. 12 Chevy (+0.2707s), and CGR’s Scott Dixon in the No. 9 Honda (+0.5497s) and Marcus Ericsson in the No. 10 Honda (+0.5623s) rounded out the sextet.
Just outside of the Fast Six, ex-Formula 1 driver and NTT IndyCar Series rookie Romain Grosjean was all smiles after qualifying seventh in the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda. Better still for the Frenchman was the fact that he displaced two-time series champion Josef Newgarden, who will start eighth.
“Had a bit of traffic, but it doesn’t really matter today,” he said. “I’m very proud of the boys getting me to P7. I was just thinking Josef Newgarden is one of the stars of the series and knows Barber very well. So, I think we can be super happy with that. I think we’ve shown the work we’ve done in testing worked well.”
AS IT HAPPENED
In the opening 10-minute session where half the field went out and six moved forward into the Firestone Fast 12, the luck of the qualifying draw did not favor Team Penske as all four of its cars were thrown into the same group. CGR’s Marcus Ericsson led the 12 drivers in the first round of fastest laps, and once the field pitted, reset, and went out for a final blast around Barber, teammate Alex Palou delivered a monster lap — first below 1m06s with a 1m05.9032s — to claim P1.
Behind Palou in the six who transferred, it was Penske’s Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin — with an epic final lap — in a row, Ericsson, and Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey. Those who failed to transfer were, in order, Ed Jones, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato, Jimmie Johnson and Dalton Kellett.
I wonder if you know,
How they live in Tokyo.
If you seen it then you mean it,
Then you know you have to go.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) April 17, 2021
In the second 10-minute session where the other half the field went out and six moved forward into the Firestone Fast 12, it went red less than three minutes in as James Hinchcliffe slid across the grass and gravel at Turn 5 and nosed his car into the tire barrier. The No. 29 Andretti Honda wasn’t damaged, but rather than re-fire the car, the IndyCar safety team towed the it behind the barriers and left Hinchcliffe to sit and watch the rest of the session.
Less than five minutes were left to chase a fast time and in the final tour, O’Ward went for a wild ride over the crest at Turn 13 to knock Grosjean off of P1 with a 1m06.0696s lap, just 0.0013s ahead of the DCRwRWR driver. Behind the two were Conor Daly and Rossi.
Moments after O’Ward crossed the line to go P1, his teammate Felix Rosenqvist took a wild ride of his own at Turn 17 which left his car stuck and stalled in the gravel trap.
Fifth at the time, Rosenqvist lost his fastest lap, which knocked him out of the transferring group, moved Dixon from sixth to fifth, and promoted Colton Herta from outside the group in seventh to inside in sixth. The six who went no further were Rinus VeeKay, Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Rosenqvist and Hinchcliffe.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) April 17, 2021
In the first round of the Firestone Fast 12 where the top six would transfer, Herta set the best lap on Firestone’s primary tires at 1m06.4171s before the group pitted and installed the faster, red-banded alternate tires. As the best laps started pouring in, Grosjean took P1, and in a span of one minute, was dropped to P7, missing out on making the Firestone Fast Six by just 0.0690s.
Fastest with another lap record was O’Ward in P1 with a 1m5.5019s. From second to sixth were Power, Palou, Ericsson, Dixon and Rossi.
Starting with Grosjean on the other side of the transfer line in P7, it was a pair of disappointed drivers in Newgarden and Herta in P8 and P9, and a trio of Daly, Harvey and McLaughlin completing the top 12.
Fastest Driver: Pato O’Ward, 1m05.8479s
Slowest Driver: James Hinchcliffe, no time
• Strong day for Conor Daly who led the Ed Carpenter Racing team in P10. Comparatively quiet day for teammate Rinus VeeKay in P14, who is also dealing with his finger injury from the recent Indy Open Test.
• It’s a small victory, but kudos to Jimmie Johnson who was 0.1008s faster than life-long road racer Dalton Kellett in their qualifying group. It ensured the rookie would not start last on his IndyCar debut, and with some of the other driver dramas in the ensuing rounds, Johnson settled into P21 out of 24.
• Tip of the hat to Jack Harvey who, driving for the Andretti-affiliated MSR team, was third fastest in the group’s five cars.
• That’s three straight sessions where Team Penske’s Pagenaud was last among The Captain’s four entries.
• Rough first day for AMSP’s new man Rosenqvist. If a solo FP1 crash in pit lane wasn’t enough of a head scratcher, spinning off in qualifying to end up P22 while his teammate took pole isn’t the kind of thing to bolster one’s confidence.
• The dissatisfaction for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing held firm in every session on Saturday as Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato qualified P18 and P19, respectively.
• It’s not something that will leave Penske’s Scott McLaughlin feeling enamored with himself, but qualifying in P12 for his second IndyCar race was impressive.
• Considering how punishing the early rounds were for him in 2020, a midfield start for Hunter-Reay is the opposite of what he wanted to open the year.
• The A.J. Foyt Racing team was extra fast in pre-season testing, but struggled to find the pace on Saturday with Sebastien Bourdais qualifying P16.
• Marcus Ericsson! His team was bullish about his chances this year, and if his performances on Saturday mean anything, the Swede could be a factor.
UP NEXT: Warm-up, 11:30 a.m. ET, on Peacock