Leist and Hunter-Reay lead Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Friday practice sessions

by Jordan Groves

Matheus Leist and Ryan Hunter-Reay have topped the first two practice sessions of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series as the teams and drivers prepare for this weekend’s 2018 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in Florida.

Practice One:

After a long winter, the Verizon IndyCar Series finally got underway with their first race weekend of the year when the first practice session started in St. Petersburg. The drivers and teams wanted all the track time they could get as they continued to get acclimatized with the new, lower downforce cars for this season.

Experience proved seemingly unessential in practice one, with rookie Matheus Leist setting the fastest time in the #4 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet. Leist left it late to set his fastest time, with his 01:01.7231 lap-time coming with less than two minutes left in the session.

The track was at its best when Leist set his time, as the racing surface was getting more and more rubber laid down as the cars continued to circulate. A number of drivers actually elected to wait until some time had passed in the session to go out on track, fearing that the track would be too unrepresentative without any rubber laid down.

Just under half a tenth of a second separated Leist from second-placed Sébastien Bourdais. The winner of last year’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg also left it until the dying moments to set his best lap, with the Frenchman completing fifteen laps during the session en-route to P2. Two Andretti Autosport team-mates were close behind. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi took third and fourth respectively; with Hunter-Reay the last of the top three drivers who dipped below the 1:02.0000 barrier during the first session.

Scott Dixon completed the top five for Chip Ganassi Racing, with rookie Robert Wickens just behind in sixth place for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. 2016 series champion, Simon Pagenaud, was the highest placed Team Penske driver in seventh, just ahead of stablemate Will Power who took eighth.

Tony Kanaan joined team-mate and session leader Leist in the top ten, meaning that both A.J. Foyt cars were well placed in first practice. Kanaan’s session wasn’t without drama, however, with the Brazilian veteran causing the only red flag of the session when he spun his #14 Chevrolet at turn four.

Both Ed Carpenter Racing cars were in the first half of the time-sheets, with Spencer Pigot and British part-time driver, Jordan King, finishing in tenth and eleventh respectively. Further back, reigning series champion Josef Newgarden finished down in fifteenth place; sandwiched between the rookies of Zachary Claman De Melo in fourteenth and Zach Veach in sixteenth. British driver Jack Harvey was just behind in seventeenth as he prepares for his first of six races this season.

Carlin will make their first-ever start in the Verizon IndyCar Series when the green flag drops on Sunday. Their drivers, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball, finished their first practice session for the team in the twentieth and twenty-first positions. Takuma Sato and Gabby Chaves separated the Carlin drivers from Austrian part-timer René Binder; with the rookie propping up the time-sheets in twenty-fourth for Juncos Racing.

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series – Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Practice One results:

14Matheus Leist (R)BRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises01:01.7231
218Sébastien BourdaisFRADale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan01:01.7719
328Ryan Hunter-ReayUSAAndretti Autosport01:01.8812
427Alexander RossiUSAAndretti Autosport01:02.0415
59Scott DixonNZLChip Ganassi Racing01:02.0560
66Robert Wickens (R)CANSchmidt Peterson Motorsports01:02.1833
722Simon PagenaudFRATeam Penske01:02.2162
812Will PowerAUSTeam Penske01:02.3069
914Tony KanaanBRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises01:02.3370
1021Spencer PigotUSAEd Carpenter Racing01:02.3565
1120Jordan King (R)GBREd Carpenter Racing01:02.4112
1215Graham RahalUSARahal Letterman Lanigan Racing01:02.4659
1310Ed JonesUAEChip Ganassi Racing01:02.6148
1419Zachary Claman De Melo (R)CANDale Coyne Racing01:02.7376
151Josef NewgardenUSATeam Penske01:02.7667
1626Zach Veach (R)USAAndretti Autosport01:02.7902
1760Jack Harvey (R)GBRMichael Shank Racing01:02.8416
1898Marco AndrettiUSAAndretti Autosport01:02.8843
195James HinchcliffeCANSchmidt Peterson Motorsports01:03.0515
2059Max ChiltonGBRCarlin01:03.3742
2123Charlie KimballUSACarlin01:03.6210
2230Takuma SatoJAPRahal Letterman Lanigan Racing01:03.6243
2388Gabby ChavesCOLHarding Racing01:04.1845
2432René Binder (R)AUTJuncos Racing01:04.8859

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Practice Two:

After practice one, several of the support series got out onto the streets of St. Petersburg to continue to lay rubber down on the racing surface. As a result, the start of second practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series was much busier than the start of practice one.

Penske’s Will Power set the pace early on, with the Australian quickly beating the benchmark set by Matheus Leist in practice one. The Australian set a 01:00.9933, which remained the fastest time for much of the session. However, once again the fastest laps of the session came later on.

When the clock expired at the end of practice two, it was Ryan Hunter-Reay who had risen to the top of the standings with a best lap of 01:00.8295 in his #28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda. This means that we are already quicker than the pole position time for last year’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was a 01:01.0640 set by Power.

James Hinchcliffe was much higher up the time-sheets than he had been in practice one. The Canadian put his #5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda into second place in practice two, with Power just behind in third place with his time that he set early on in the session. The leading trio of Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe and Power were the only three drivers to lap below the 01:01.0000 mark.

Fourth place in practice two went the way of Scott Dixon in the #9 CGR Honda. Scott was one of a number of drivers to spin during the session, with his escapade coming early on at turn four. Just behind the New Zealander on the time-sheets was Josef Newgarden in the #1 Penske, who moved up from fifteenth in practice one to fifth in practice two. Alexander Rossi showed strong pace again, remaining in the top ten in sixth place with his #27 NAPA Auto Parts Andretti.

Rookie Robert Wickens continued to impress with another strong top ten in the second session. The Canadian was seventh fastest in his #6 SPM Honda, with his best lap being just four tenths off of Hunter-Reay’s benchmark. Sébastien Bourdais was just behind Wickens in eighth place, with Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato completing the top ten in the session. Takuma was another driver who struggled at turn four. The reigning Indianapolis 500 champion spun his #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda in the middle of practice two.

Further back, Matheus Leist slipped from first place in practice one to twelfth in practice two. Just behind him was Simon Pagenaud, who was one of two drivers to suffer a high-speed spin at turn three. The Frenchman slightly damaged the front nose of his #22 Penske Chevrolet after seemingly clipping the wall on the exit of the corner after the spin.

The other driver to spin at turn three was Juncos Racing’s René Binder. The Austrian lost the rear of the #32 car on the way into the corner, but miraculously Binder was able to avoid hitting the wall. The rear of his car came within centimetres of hitting the wall on the exit, which will no doubt please his team considering that the new for 2018 body kits are in short supply at the moment. A red flag was still required, however, as the car had stalled when it came to a halt. Binder would prop up the time-sheets in last place for the second session in a row.

With the first two sessions done and dusted, a final practice session and qualifying await the drivers tomorrow. Whilst Bourdais was able to win last year’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg despite starting last, the twenty-four drivers will still be wanting to start as high up the order as they can for Sunday’s race.

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series – Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Practice Two results:

128Ryan Hunter-ReayUSAAndretti Autosport01:00.8295
25James HinchcliffeCANSchmidt Peterson Motorsports01:00.8724
312Will PowerAUSTeam Penske01:00.9933
49Scott DixonNZLChip Ganassi Racing01:01.1004
51Josef NewgardenUSATeam Penske01:01.1012
627Alexander RossiUSAAndretti Autosport01:01.1542
76Robert Wickens (R)CANSchmidt Peterson Motorsports01:01.2190
818Sébastien BourdaisFRADale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan01:01.2741
914Tony KanaanBRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises01:01.3185
1030Takuma SatoJAPRahal Letterman Lanigan Racing01:01.3491
1198Marco AndrettiUSAAndretti Herta Autosport01:01.3780
124Matheus Leist (R)BRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises01:01.4385
1322Simon PagenaudFRATeam Penske01:01.4509
1421Spencer PigotUSAEd Carpenter Racing01:01.5505
1520Jordan King (R)GBREd Carpenter Racing01:01.5579
1610Ed JonesUAEChip Ganassi Racing01:01.5819
1788Gabby ChavesCOLHarding Racing01:01.6177
1826Zach Veach (R)USAAndretti Autosport01:01.8423
1923Charlie KimballUSACarlin01:01.9166
2015Graham RahalUSARahal Letterman Lanigan Racing01:01.9993
2119Zachary Claman De Melo (R)CANDale Coyne Racing01:02.0368
2259Max ChiltonGBRCarlin01:02.0636
2360Jack Harvey (R)GBRMichael Shank Racing01:02.1640
2432René Binder (R)AUTJuncos Racing01:02.3254

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