Three of the Verizon IndyCar Series‘ newest drivers have been reacting to their first qualifying session at the 2018 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Robert Wickens was the undoubted star of the show earlier this evening when he took a fantastic pole position on his debut in the series, but fellow rookies Matheus Leist and Jordan King also put in standout performances to qualify for the Firestone Fast Six.
The combination of the fast but narrow streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, mixed with treacherous track conditions caused by rain would have had many thinking that experience would be valuable in qualifying. However, this was soon dispelled. Series veteran and six-time St. Petersburg pole-sitter Will Power looked set to make it seven as the clock ticked down in the final session of qualifying. However, the #6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of Wickens knocked the Australian off of the top spot at the last moment, with Robert becoming only the third driver in history to get pole position on his debut; joining Nigel Mansell and Sébastien Bourdais.
“I’m a little speechless,” said Wickens after qualifying, “First off, Group 1 was dry and normal. The best of the best, you know, rises to the top, and I was happy to make it through.
“My goal going in to today was just a top 10. If I made Fast Six at all, it would have been amazing and the fact that we topped Q2 was already a surprise. From there I’m like, well, I’m in the top 6, let’s go and have some fun and somehow we had great strategy to get out right at the end, to get a lap on the track, in my opinion, when it was probably at its best. It was tough but the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda was fantastic. My whole team behind me, we all kept our cool and we made the right changes for the wet there for the last qualifying and, yeah, we got it.”
Brazilian Matheus “Matt” Leist also made an impact on debut. The A.J. Foyt Enterprises #4 Chevrolet driver hit the ground running in practice when he topped the first session. He continued to show decent pace throughout Friday and Saturday, which culminated in a superb third place on the grid. He thanked his boss, A.J. Foyt, and his team-mate and fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan for helping him get up to speed.
“I’m very happy with the whole team and with our performance throughout the whole weekend,” said Leist, “I’m looking forward to my first INDYCAR race, my first time doing pit stops, saving fuel and saving tires, so I have a lot of things to learn yet.
“Tony (Kanaan, teammate) is a very special guy, he’s been helping me a lot, not just inside the track, but outside the track as well. And not just him, but A.J. (Foyt, owner), Larry (Foyt, team manager), and everyone on the team is helping me a lot because I’m a rookie. Tony is a very special guy and I’m super grateful to have him as a teammate. I grew up watching him and Helio (Castroneves), so having him as a teammate is a dream come true for me.”
The third and final member of the rookie trifecta who made it through to the fast six was British driver Jordan King. The #20 Ed Carpenter Racing driver will be racing all of the street and road course rounds of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, with team boss Ed Carpenter running in the remaining oval races. Jordan’s fourth place in qualifying today, as well as the new track record at St. Pete, is a strong foundation for him to build off of, but he believes he could’ve done even better:
“It’s good, but I still think we should have been a bit quicker,” said King, “I’m really happy. It’s all gone well. We made some really good progress from the first time.
“I can’t grumble too much, but when there was potential to be a little higher up you can’t help, as a racing driver, to want a bit more. It was quite slippery at Turn 1, and actually at the back of the circuit, it was really quite dry. But unfortunately, I almost went off at Turn 10 on my first push lap. I came in on the last lap a little bit tentative and looking at the time (of the last lap), that’s why I’m a little bit like, well, it could be more. I can’t complain for my first time. I don’t want to put too much expectation on it. We’ve got a good car. If I do my job, I’m sure the rest will unfold nicely.”
Wickens, Leist and King will be hoping that they can convert their strong qualifying positions into solid race finishes in tomorrow’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.