ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – The new Indy car lived up to the hype on the first official day of practice ahead of the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener.
Twenty-four drivers found their cars – each equipped with the new universal aero kit for the first time this year – challenging and exciting to drive as they prepared for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It is the first of 17 races on the 2018 schedule.
At the end of a pair of 45-minute sessions, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport sat atop the leaderboard with a lap of 1 minute, 0.8295 seconds (106.527 mph) in the No. 28 DHL Honda on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary course encompassing downtown city streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.
“In the past with more downforce, we actually had to go a little bit beyond our comfort level to get the lap time out of the car because there was so much downforce on it,” explained Hunter-Reay, who has twice finished second in the event. “That was the most awkward thing about today, trying to rein that back a little bit, try not to ask so much of the thing.
“That’s where it’s difficult,” he added. “It’s just sliding around. It’s overall lack of grip. … It’s good, though. It’s a new challenge. Got everybody on their toes. We’ll see who makes the most of it in the shortest amount of time.”
The universal kit was introduced this year following three years of aero kit competition between manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda. The universal kit is designed with a significant reduction in the downforce level that helps cars adhere to the track and corner better. Now, drivers are required to brake earlier and work harder to carry speed through the corners.
James Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was second fastest for the day with a lap of 1:00.8724 (106.452 mph). The 2013 St. Petersburg race winner echoed Hunter-Reay’s thoughts on the difficulty and challenge of the new car.
“It’s a very different beast,” Hinchcliffe said. “Having to reprogram your brain as to what normal is with this car has been a huge challenge everywhere we’ve gone (in preseason testing). Doing it for a street circuit for the first time has been a bit of an eye opener.”
Will Power, a two-time race winner and seven-time pole winner at St. Petersburg, was third on the overall practice chart with a lap of 1:00.9933 (106.241 mph) in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Scott Dixon, who ranks fourth all time in Indy cars with 41 wins but has zero St. Pete victories, was fourth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (1:01.1004, 106.055 mph).
Josef Newgarden, in his first race weekend as the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, was fifth on the combined timesheet at 1:01.1012 (106.054 mph) in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. The top 17 drivers were separated by less than a second.
A third practice is set for Saturday morning, ahead of three rounds of Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying starting at 2:20 p.m. ET (streaming live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com). The streets of St. Petersburg will be the site of the Verizon IndyCar Series opener for the eighth straight year on Sunday, with live coverage starting at 12:30 p.m. on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.