JR Hildebrand celebrated his move to the reigning champion AFS/Andretti Green Racing team by clinching his first Firestone Indy Lights pole in qualifying for race one of the Grand Prix of St Petersburg double-header.

Hildebrand, who briefly led the Indy Lights standings after recording his first series victory in 2008, recorded a best lap of 1min 07.7704secs around the tight 1.8-mile street circuit to ensure that his group - the first on track - would line up on the inside of each row come race day.

"You can't start a season much better," Hildebrand admitted, "We had a really good session, although it was a little bit broken up because the cars were really slipping around and the track hasn't really gripped up after the rain.

"I think I went out too aggressive, because I remembered how the track was last year at the end of the day. I had to tone it down a little bit because I actually knocked the wall a little with my first set of tyres. But I got it all together and was able to put in a good lap at the end. It was just a good session for me and a good session as a team. It's a great way to start the season."

Under new Indy Lights rules designed to cater for what could be a 27-car race, the field was split into two groups for qualifying, with the faster of the two pacesetters claiming pole position and the odd-numbered side of the grid. Hildebrand's effort out-gunned group two leader Junior Strous by over a second, leaving the Dutchman to line up second overall, with the rest of 'his' group lining up behind him.

"We had a great day today," the Winners' Circle team driver insisted, "This morning, it was raining, and I was bummed out about it because I knew it was going to be dry during qualifying. In the rain, it went really well - each time we were on the track, we were fastest - so that gave me a lot of confidence. But you never know how the car is going to be in the dry.

"Qualifying was only 20 minutes, and we had two long full-course yellows, but I was up front right away. Then we had three more minutes to go, so it was do or die. On the second-to-last lap, I had a guy in front of me, so I did a do-or-die move to pass him, because I knew the last lap had to be perfect. The last lap was amazing. It felt really good - and it's good to be up front."

Another rookie, Hildebrand's AFS/AGR team-mate Sebastien Saavedra, will start third in his first race, having lapped just a tenth slower than his more experienced colleague.

"Today's qualifying was unbelievable," the Colombian enthused, "Since I have never been on this track, I didn't know what to expect. Then we went out this morning and it was raining, so it was hard to really learn the track. After the rain, I was P1 at one point and then spun out at the last turn, but my team-mate got the pole, so it shows what a great team I'm on - and makes be even more excited about this season."

Veteran James Davison will start fourth on his first appearance with Vision Racing, while Crash.net columnist James Hinchcliffe annexed the inside of tow three on his graduation from the Atlantic Series. The Canadian will line-up alongside former Atlantics and A1GP rival Jonathan Summerton in race one.

"I don't think you can ever be satisfied with your qualifying unless you're sitting on the pole and, for us, it was a very difficult sort of day because we had the rain in the morning practice, and then it was dry during the afternoon qualifying," 'Hinch' commented, "As a result, we had to learn the track along with qualifying at the same time - in only ten laps or so.

"Having never been here, that was a pretty tall order, so I guess maybe we shouldn't be too disappointed with our overall position - but, at the same time, I think we missed a little bit on the set-up and I'm actually confident that, if we can get it sorted, we'll be a challenger for the pole in qualifying for the second race."

The top ten was completed by Hinchcliffe's Sam Schmidt Motorsport team-mate Ana Beatriz, returning champion Jay Howard, British debutant Duncan Tappy - who belied the fact that he had never sat in an Indy Lights car before the weekend - and Mario Romancini.

"The practice session went well in the wet, and I was hoping for a top three but, in dry qualifying, I had quite a lot of understeer," Tappy reported, "It's going to be tough starting the race from ninth, but having a few slower cars ahead will help. I think we should be able to make a difference with the car for qualifying tomorrow and I'm really going to go for a podium finish. I love the street circuits with the walls so close - it really sorts the men out from the boys."

Qualifying for race two of the weekend will take place on Saturday morning, ahead of the opening race of the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season.

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