IndyCar’s impressive crop of rookie drivers made waves on Friday as 2021 Indy Lights runner up David Malukas wheeled the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports Honda to the 10th-fastest lap of the day. The Chicagoan was among three rookies to finish inside the top half of the field, with some making use of the extra set of Firestone primary tires provided to new drivers to improve their lap times.
“Well, what an experience that was,” Malukas told RACER. “So the main difference that really caught me off-guard, and why we struggled to really put a lap down, is I only got clear on my last lap with that extra set. So I was able to get some free to do the lap, but other than that, the biggest thing was the traffic. In Indy Lights, I’m used to having like eight or 10 cars on track and not 26!
“So that was the hard part was trying to find a clear gap. My engineer Ross [Bunnell] came over the radio and said, ‘This is your final chance’ and I did get it done. We talked over all the data today after that session and I feel very strong. We know what we need to do in the morning and I’m working well with my teammate Takuma Sato. He’s going to go to a different setup and we’re going to see which way goes better.”
Malukas was shadowed by his friend and rival Kyle Kirkwood, the reigning Indy Lights champion, who was only a few hundredths of a second behind in 12th. The Florida native had a surprise guest on the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevy timing stand as its former driver, Sebastien Bourdais, donned a headset and helped with insights for the 23-year-old who took over his seat.
“It went great,” Kirkwood said. “We’re just outside of the top 10, but we we’re inside the top 10 for a lot of the first session, but we just dropped back there at the end. Super-happy with our performance, good session for me, and I look forward to practice and qualifying tomorrow.”
Andretti Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco was right behind Kirkwood, less than five-hundredths in arrears.
“We finished day one here at St. Pete, we ended P13 but all in all happy with our first session – happy with where we started,” DeFrancesco said. “We tried a few things on the car, and I think we look very good as a team. I’d say we’re very happy with our pace on [Firestone Primary] blacks; we’ve got a good race car on blacks. Going into tomorrow we’re going to try [Firestone alternate] reds for the first time and I’m really looking forward to it.”
With the leading rookies clustered together, the only two outliers were Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard, who was disappointed to be relegated to 25th, and Kirkwood’s teammate Tatiana Calderon, who comes into the series with a significant deficit in mileage, was 26th and last.