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.”