Racers never truly get to have “home games”, but the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has recently been good to Floridians.
Sebastien Bourdais, who lives about 10 minutes from the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit, has won the last two races here, and Friday afternoon, two more Florida natives found their way to the top of the speed charts in the second practice session for the NTT IndyCar series.
Boca Raton resident Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has never won at St. Pete but has two runner-up finishes (2009, 2014), topped the session for Andretti Autosport when he turned the best time of the weekend with a time of one minute, .8969 seconds. Right behind was Spencer Pigot, who was a close second in 1:00.9812.
It was a good session for Andretti Autosport, which put three cars in the Top 10 – Marco Andretti was third and Alexander Rossi was sixth. Overall, six different teams were among the first 10 cars, and were separated by just over .25 seconds.
“We had a pretty promising testing program going for preseason, so it’s nice to see that kind of transition here,” Hunter-Reay said. “It is day one, so I think you’ll see some changes Saturday and some comers and goers. It’s tough to really keep up with this racetrack because it changes a lot.
“You’re always trying to guess and make an educated guess at the same time, going with your gut on what you need to do with the setup because it is changing always with the rubber going down. But yeah, it’s a nice start, but it’s only day one.”
Pigot, an Orlando native driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, had just five Top 10 finishes and was 14th in points last season. Like Hunter-Reay, he’s excited to be racing in Florida and hopes his speed holds up over the weekend.
“I think everyone in the paddock is excited to be at the racetrack again, and for me it’s a special event,” Pigot said. “I grew up in Orlando, so always nice to start the season not far from home. Lots of friends and family out here this weekend supporting me, so it’s a great way to kick it all off, and hard to pick a better place to start the season than here in St. Pete along the water, great views, great weather, and yeah, so far it’s been a pretty good day for us at ECR.
“We had a really strong second session there. It’s obviously extremely tight still, so we still have work to do, try to find if we can go quicker and if we can try up and stay up at the pointy end of the grid.”
Bourdais was 18th quick in the second practice session, posting a time of 1:01.5635.
Practice 3 goes off Saturday morning, with qualifying taking place at 2:30 p.m. EST.
O’Ward and Carlin Make it Official
Prior to the Saturday’s session, Carlin Motorsport officially announced that 2018 Indy Lights champ Pato O’Ward will be in a Carlin car for 13 races this season. The 19-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, will drive in 12 races as the second Carlin car, then will be in the “third” car for the Indianapolis 500.
O’Ward was originally slated to run the 2019 season with Harding Steinbrenner Racing, but full sponsorship didn’t materialize, and he was released from his contract prior to Spring Training at Circuit of the Americas.
He wasn’t on the sidelines for long, however, and after missing this weekend’s race at St. Pete will for all intents and purposes be in a car for the entire season.
“I’m beyond excited,” O’Ward said. “I want to thank Andersen Promotions and Road to Indy because without this scholarship I wouldn’t have a chance to be in the NTT IndyCar Series. That was definitely something that I look back on after all the circumstances that took place in February and I said, ‘Thank God I won the championship’.”
Carlin is in its second year in IndyCar and has one of the more impressive junior development programs in the world. Trevor Carlin, team principal, really thinks he has a find in his newest pilot.
“Part of the history with Carlin is we specialize in working with young drivers,” he said. “I’m always looking for talent, being in Formula 4, Formula 3, Indy Lights. Thanks to our involvement in Indy Lights, it got us into the States. I’m (always) looking at the young drivers.
“I saw last year the fantastic battle with Patricio and Colton Herta. Colton Herta is an ex-Carlin driver from Europe. He had a young teammate, a kid called Lando Norris. I saw Colton and Lando Norris fighting tooth and nail. I said in 2015, Lando Norris will become a Formula 1 driver and Colton Herta will be an INDYCAR driver. That’s happened.”
“In the meantime, I’ve seen Patricio beat Colton. To my mind, it’s a really simple analogy. Patricio is as good as Colton and Lando and is going to be a future champion. I’m super excited.”
It’s been a stressful time for O’Ward, but he’s happy to finally have his 2019 plans locked down. Most of all, he’s looking forward getting back into a car, as he hasn’t driven in competition for almost seven months.
“I’m really excited to start it off,” O’Ward said. “I just want to drive, man. I haven’t been in a car since Sonoma. I can’t wait for my first test. I think I’ve landed exactly where I need to be.”