The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opened with 21 drivers taking part in two practice sessions for the 14th Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Marco Andretti set the pace in the morning opening session and Scott Dixon took the top of the time sheets in the afternoon session.
"Not a bad day for the hhgregg team." said Andretti "I had some traffic there on my quick lap, so I think our potential is greater than where we ended on the time sheet. We'll make some small changes for tomorrow and hopefully qualify inside the Firestone Fast Six. Overall, I'm fairly happy. I think me having a clear head and just driving the race car, not overthinking things, is a weight off my shoulders."
Four-time series champion Dixon put in the day's fastest lap at 1:02.5591 seconds on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course that encompasses St. Petersburg downtown streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport. Dixon's best lap came in the second practice and was tops for the day.
"I think it started generally well," said Dixon, driving the No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. "This weekend, the car, we've done some good homework in the offseason for ourselves, how the competition stacks up. I think tomorrow will be interesting once the other competitors turn it up. We'll have to see where it goes.
"It's Friday, it doesn't pay anything, doesn't mean anything," added Dixon, fourth on the Indy car career wins list with 40. "Hopefully what we learned today, we can continue on and help improve the car come tomorrow and, more importantly, for the race on Sunday."
Following Dixon on the combined speed chart was Will Power in the No.12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet at 1:02.8416.
"Definitely made some progress on the car." said Power "Great to be here. Great to start the season off. A pretty long offseason. Yeah, the grid looks pretty nicely mixed up there with Honda and Chevy, great competition."
Tony Kanaan in the No.10 NTT Data Honda was third quick at 1:02.8545 lap.
"I think a P2 and P3 result in both practices is a good way to start the weekend, but I wouldn't say I'm comfortable yet with the car heading into qualifying." said Kanaan "I think we definitely have some things to work out tonight and focus on tomorrow during the morning session to make sure we're on the mark for qualifying."
Charlie Kimball in the No.83 Tresiba Honda posted a lap at 1:02.8748 for fourth fastest.
"That's a solid first day here on the streets of St. Petersburg." said Kimball "I'm pretty happy with P8 and P4. We need a little bit to catch our teammates. The Honda cars are obviously working really well, so we'll see how it goes tomorrow afternoon when the times really count during qualifying. The Novo Nordisk guys were solid all day - quick on the changes here in pit lane. Eric (Cowdin, engineer) is doing a really good job giving me what I need to drive the car. This track is always a lot of fun, but I think it's especially enjoyable this year with the repaving."
Reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud was ninth overall at 1:03.1462.
"I feel good about the PPG Chevrolet." said Pagenaud "I think we made good progress throughout the sessions and collected a lot of good data. There is more speed to find and I feel we'll be able to do that and be ready for the qualifying session. It's important to qualify well to make race day a little easier. It's awesome to be at the track again for an actual event. The atmosphere here is tremendous."
The afternoon practice highlighted a change in Verizon IndyCar Series rules this year that provides an extra set of the Firestone alternate tires to each entry on a race weekend. Teams now can run a set of the softer, red-sidewall tires in practice to gauge their performance characteristics compared to the harder, black-sidewall primary tires prior to qualifying.
"I think especially for newcomers maybe to the Verizon IndyCar Series, or rookies in general, I think it's nice to feel how those tires come in, the difference you can get from them," said Dixon, whose fast lap was logged on the black-sidewall primary tires. "For the veterans, I don't think it's as much of an issue."
The lone incidents of the day involved Power and new Andretti Autosport driver Takuma Sato, though neither was injured. Power saw the back end of his car step out and make wall contact in Turn 10 during the morning practice. Sato was on his first timed lap of the afternoon when his car jumped off track in Turn 13 and made hard contact with the wall.
"It's good to get back in the car." said Sato "It was a very short first practice today, a 45-minute session. We showed some strength. In the second session, we had a problem and I didn't put a time down. It's difficult to say. I am excited to come back here and to get the season started. Hopefully we had a good day tomorrow; I have a lot of things to catch up on."
Power, a six-time St. Petersburg pole winner and two-time race winner, was happy to redeem himself in the afternoon session.
"Yeah, it was about the same lap I did it last year," said Power, who crashed in Friday morning practice in 2016 within three minutes of when he did today. "I couldn't believe it, got in the wall again. It (was) a good session (in the afternoon), definitely made some progress on the car."
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first of 17 races on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule and opens the season for the seventh straight year. Practice continues at 10:50 a.m. ET Saturday for a final 45-minute session ahead of knockout qualifying at 2:55 p.m. to determine the Verizon P1 Award winner for the pole position. A live video stream of practice and qualifying is available at www.RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Sunday's 110-lap race airs live at noon ET on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
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