A new street course qualifying format will greet the various Firestone Indy Lights teams when preparations for the season-opening Grand Prix of St Petersburg finally get underway today [3 April].

Instead of the previous one group session, teams will now be split into two groups, with the fastest overall time determining the race's polesitter. The fastest car from the non pole-winning group will occupy the other front-row starting spot, with the remainder of the polesitter's group occupying the odd positions, while the outside polesitter's group will make up the even positions.

"With 28 cars entered for our races, we felt like this was the fairest way for everyone to have a chance to compete for pole," explained Tony Cotman, vice president of competition for the Indy Racing League, "This format mimics the system used by IndyCar Series, where we've seen that splitting the field increases the opportunities for a clean lap in qualifying."

The qualifying format is one of many new looks for the feeder series, which features one of the deepest line-ups in its history. Some 18 drivers will be making their first start on the streets of St Petersburg, running alongside ten series veterans, including two past champions and six previous race-winners.

"I'm really excited to get the 2009 season started," admitted JR Hildebrand, who moves from RLR/Andersen Racing to the championship-winning Andretti Green Racing/AFS Racing operation, "We have done a great deal of testing this off-season and things have been going very well, especially with our non-oval programme. The AFS/AGR crew has been working really hard this off-season, so I hope to be able to show them their hard work paid off."

The Indy Lights campaign opens with a double-header weekend in St Pete, placing a premium not only on getting off to a good start points-wise, but also not picking up too much damage from the unforgiving concrete walls. Among those making their series debut this weekend will be Frenchman Richard Philippe - younger brother of former Champ Car racewinner Nelson - who signed a late deal to drive the #36 Genoa/Funkemotions.com car after successfully testing the new entry throughout the winter.

"This off-season has been the longest of my life, but I'm happy to be able to join Genoa in this new endeavour for the team and myself," the former World Series by Renault and F3 Euroseries runner admitted, "The season is long and the ovals present a new challenge that is very exciting to me, but I've been able to create a special bond with Thomas [Knapp] and I can't wait to get going at St Pete."