Will Power had topped two of the three practice sessions on the streets of St Petersburg, Florida and would always the man to beat in qualifying - and in the end, no one could. He was the only man to fall below the 62s mark in qualifying and duly leads the field to the green flag at tomorrow's first race of the 2011 IndyCar season.
It was not entirely plain sailing for the Aussie, however, whose fastest lap of the afternoon came after he brushed a left-side wall and kinked the front wishbone of the #12 Verizon Team Penske car.
Dario Franchitti rebounded from a morning practice crash that had sidelined him for much of that session and left him bottom of the Practice 3 timesheets to claim the other front row position, with his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon behind them on the second row in third position alongside Mike Conway, who proved that his consistent strong form here on his return to active duty for the first time in ten months was very real indeed. Indeed, Conway's new team mate Marco Andretti went as far as to acknowledge that “I have to credit Conway for the set-up we qualified."
Despite that, however, Conway seemed disappointed with how qualifying had gone for: "We were searching for a bit more in qualifying, but this series is so tough. It's always hard to make the Firestone Fast Six, so we are happy about that."
Ryan Briscoe and Justin Wilson were the other drivers to get through to the final six, while former team mates Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan were the fastest of those who failed to reach the top six shoot out - an especially good performance from Kanaan who was only confirmed in the seat just before the event got underway.
"I jumped into this car two days ago and the whole team made me feel right at home," said Kanaan. "I am just happy to be here and happy that I gave them a good solid qualifying result today. This is just the beginning and I have to remember to be patient, which is hard for me."
A new rule for qualifying obliged all drivers to nominate one set and style of tyres for each segment of the qualifying process, which started with two groups of cars running for 15 minutes, then the top 12 progressing to a second 15 minute round and after that the top six competing in a final ten minute "Firestone Fast Six" session to set the remaining top positions. The softer, stickier 'red wall' alternate tyres proved to be the overwhelming choice of the majority of the drivers throughout qualifying
"The Firestone reds are definitely a lot stickier than the blacks," said Power. "I ran used reds in the final segment and they lasted great, and were good enough for pole. We're starting off the year right, and in a great position for the race..
"If you want the longevity you go to the Firestone blacks," said Franchitti. "My bravery was going up as the tires were kind of going away a little bit. I needed to get on it a little quicker, but great job by the guys and I'm looking forward to tomorrow.”
Power was the quickest runner in Group 2 in Round 1 with a time of 1:02.3384s, and Franchitti the corresponding fastest runner in Group 1 with 1:02.3848s. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who topped the Practice 1 timesheets on Friday, ended up failing to get past the first elimination round after a late caution during the session frustrated his chances of having a final run to improve his time.
"We got caught out by the yellow today," said Hunter-Reay afterwards. "It's one of those deals in qualifying where you roll the dice and wait to go out, hoping for the track to be a tenth or two quicker. But, you put yourself in a very risky position when it goes yellow.
For once, it wasn't EJ Viso responsible for the Group 2 yellow - qualifying being the first session all week that he hasn't brought out a caution. Instead, the major incident was because of a collision between Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra in turn 2: Bourdais was exiting the pit lane and got clipped by Saavedra going through at full speed. Bourdais' front right suspension was broken, while Saavedra went into the concrete barrier nose-first, spun across the track and into the tyre barriers. Neither driver was injured but Saavedra's Conquest car was probably terminally damaged.
Running in Group 1, Danica Patrick was not affected by the crash but nonetheless failed to progress through from round 1 on her return to the series after spending the past few weeks pre-season over in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
In the earlier morning Practice 3 session, Will Power had again topped the time sheets ahead of Mike Conway. EJ Viso once more had a serious crash and gave KV Racing Technology a substantial rebuild job before qualifying. Other drivers to have harmless off-track excursions included Conway, Power, Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, Sebastian Saavedra, Charlie Kimball and Simona de Silvestro, making it a rather nerve-wracking session for drivers and teams alike.
Full times for qualifying and practice 3
available in the results section.