James Winslow defied a lack of pre-season testing to qualify and race strongly on his first outing in the Firestone Indy Lights series, underlining the belief that he will be a contender for honours in his rookie season.
The Briton enjoyed just two full days of acclimatisation on the road courses at Sebring and Homestead-Miami Speedway before being thrust into competition on the streets of St Petersburg in Florida, but took the fight to more seasoned rivals from the off.
After learning the circuit in opening practice, Winslow quickly upped his pace to qualify sixth fastest on Saturday, raising a few eyebrows among series veterans and impressing the Sam Schmidt Motorsport team which had offered him the chance to get closer to his dream of racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“Qualifying where I did was great,” the multiple F3 champion commented, “Sixth place certainly underlined the pace I had shown in testing, and earned some good feedback from both the team and the series as a whole, but I was on an even faster lap when the red flags came out to remove a stranded car from the track, so it could have been much better.”
Raceday, however, proved to be an altogether trickier affair, with rain falling before the start and turning the circuit into a veritable minefield as the white lines of the streets and airport runways became treacherous. Winslow's #77 Bald Spot Sports/Bright Side of the Road Foundation Dallara spun early on, while the entire field was running on slick tyres, undoing all the hard work of qualifying. However, the Briton immediately began to make amends by moving back through the order.
When the race was red-flagged for all runners to make the switch to wet-weather tyres as the conditions intensified, Winslow was listed in fifth place, and the restart ensured that he was firmly in the battle for second as the four contenders snaked their way around the 14-turn St Pete layout.
“It was crazy out there,” he admitted, “I think just about everyone spun at some point and, unfortunately, I was among them after hitting one of the white lines with slick tyres, which had become very slippery with the rain. Each lap was something of a lottery until we had the chance to fit rain tyres – and even then, it remained unpredictable.”
Restarting with a shot at making the podium on his first race outing, Winslow appeared to be biding his time and waiting for the opportunity to make up more places, even as the race was shortened from the planned 45 laps to a timed event because of the interruption. Sadly for the Briton, however, contact from fellow countryman Martin Plowman saw the #77 spinning for the second time, ending his pursuit of a top five finish.
Once again, a stirring fightback saw Winslow making up places, this time rising as high as seventh before time eventually ran out, giving him further encouragement for the events to come.
“I was happy to be in the fight for second place when we were running on wet weather tyres, but I was hit hard at turn five and had dropped back to 16th position by the time I got the car back into the race,” he sighed, “Even though I was able to recover and be in the battle for fifth place by the time the chequered flag came out, the damage was already done.
“However, finishing seventh on my debut in a new series, and with just two days of testing after signing a late deal with a new team, was awesome. Everyone at Sam Schmidt Motorsport was very happy with the performance and, knowing why our position was what it was, I'll be looking for a strong podium at the next event. I think we have shown we are capable of running in the top three all season, and we can't wait to get to Alabama for the next event in a week's time.”