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New DW12 off to fast start at St Petersburg

23 March 2012

Scott Dixon had impressed in the Honda-powered Ganassi car during the first practice session of the season at St Petersburg with a lap of 1:03.0406s (or 102.791mph), but Will Power's efforts in the Penske-Chevrolet car in second practice sliced another full second off that seemingly without trying as he set the best lap of the day at 1:02.0077s (104.503mph).

It was an impressive first day for the new DW12 Dallara chassis and the new-specification engines, that was for sure.

"I'm enjoying it like a kid with a new toy!" said Briscoe, who finished just 0.0854s off his team mate Power's best time. "It already feels faster than the old car around here, braking later. It feels really good, especially the extra horsepower from the Chevrolet twin-turbo V6. It's definitely a different feel."

All of the drivers set their best times in the second practice session of the day, as the 1.8-mile temporary street course got more rubber laid down and grip increased as a result. Last year was similar, with the track seeing times fall from 1:04.1437s in first practice to 1:01.9625s in time for the Firestone Fast Six final round of qualifying on the Saturday, and the fastest lap of the 2011 race set by Helio Castroneves with a 1:03.8683.

"It was definitely a good first day for Team Penske," said Castroneves of his 2012 efforts so far after finishing sixth fastest for the day. "The [Penske] car was very promising. Our second session was much improved and the guys did a good job. I'm very encouraged about our chances for tomorrow and in Sunday's race."

Power's top time was set on just his third lap out in the afternoon, and he only ran seven laps in total in the session. He was quick to say that his limited running time on Friday afternoon didn't indicate any problems with his #12 Verizon car.

"We didn't do many laps in the second session, we wanted to conserve tyres until we have a better understanding of how they degrade and it puts us in a good position for tomorrow in practice," he explained.

Friday at St Petersburg was the very first time that all the cars and drivers have been out in their new chassis and with their new engines, and with a second covering the top 19 cars it proved that the new hardware had substantially increased the level of competition out on track

"It's actually very tight and very close," said Power. "It's pretty good."

Penske are obviously keeping their eyes on arch-rivals Ganassi, with Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon packing out the next three positions from third through to fifth in the day's timesheets and looking ominously strong as a result.

"We're still learning both the engine and the chassis," said Franchitti, whose best time was 1:02.2232s (104.141mph). "The Target guys are working hard on it and we have tonight and a practice session tomorrow to get it right for qualifying. You always have these things when you're developing a new car. It's a lot of work."

"We made a lot of improvements and we feel like there's more time in both myself and the car and so I think we feel good about where we stand both tomorrow and then on into Sunday," said Rahal, who was happy with his best time of 1:02.2924s (104.026mph).

Dixon improved his time in the afternoon to 1:02.3117s (103.993mph), better by almost seven tenths from the benchmark he had set as the fastest man in practice 1, but he was obviously nonetheless disappointed that so many other cars had caught up and passed him.

"We made a number of adjustments in the second session and I think we over-adjusted and got the car too loose," he mused afterwards. "Looking back now I think we should probably have been higher up on the scoring charts."

Inevitably, there were problems elsewhere in pit lane. New series star Rubens Barrichello suffered mechanical problems in the morning that ate into his track familiarisation time and left him languishing down the timesheets at the end of the day.

"With the problem we had this morning, it was pretty much a setback," admitted the former F1 driver, who is finding St Pete a very different sort of track from the Grand Prix circuits that he's used to. "I spent the afternoon session learning the track, while everyone else was now improving their cars. I was playing catch up big time that's for sure. Hopefully tomorrow I can improve a little more from today."

Simon Pagenaud's #77 Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports car was also struggling, with the team's Honda engine becoming the first power-plant casualty of the weekend. As a result he'll take a ten-place grid penalty for an unauthorised engine change. No other engine or mechanical failures were reported on Friday.

"It's just a shame we can't run more this afternoon," said Pagenaud, finally running full-time in IndyCar this season after being the series "supersub" in 2011. "Something didn't feel right, and I shut it down to be on the safe side. It is what it is, and that's racing."

Up till then, he'd been very happy with the way the car was developing, and of course the street circuit was very much playing to the former sportscar star's strengths. "I love street circuits; they provide you so much adrenaline rush. I still think we'll be good tomorrow."

Charlie Kimball provided the only real accident of the opening day of the 2012 IndyCar when he went into the tyre wall at turn 10 nose-first near the end of the first session. There were two red flags in the afternoon, one for Pagenaud stalling at the entrance to pit land and a later one for Dale Coyne Racing's James Jakes spinning and stalling his #19, but neither were serious affairs and Jakes' optimism for a good showing over the weekend as a whole was undiminished.

"Overall it was a pretty good day for the #19 Boy Scouts of America car," he said. "There are a couple things we need to work out with the car, but I am very confident that we will have a good qualifying session on Saturday afternoon."

To no one's surprise given the lateness of the the engine manufacturer's entry into the series, the Lotus-powered cars were generally languishing around the bottom third of the times set on Friday. Even so, HVM's Simona de Silvestro impressed with a 16th fastest laptime of 1:02.9136s (102.998mph).

"We've started creeping up a little bit and it's been going better and better," said the Swiss driver. "We made really big improvements this afternoon on the car side. I know we still have a bit of work ahead of us for qualifying, but I think we're moving in the right direction on the car and also on the engine."

The biggest achievement of all for the Lotus stable of teams was that they were all out on track at all - something that didn't seem likely to happen even as recently as Wednesday, when Lotus Dragon Racing feared that the engine they needed for their second car driven by four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais wasn't going to get to St Pete in time.

"Overall, I'm pretty damn happy that everything went the way that we wanted to," said Bourdais. "Honestly, if you had told me that we would run two sessions with no problems, I would have signed straight away."

Proving that he still had all his US open wheel racing skills, Bourdais ended up as the second-quickest of the Lotus cars in what had been his first full day in the #7 car.

"We're near the top of the Lotus teams, pretty much," he pointed out. "We're seven hundredths behind Simona, who was the fastest. We're just learning about the car and making it better every run and making progress."

His team mate Katherine Legge was not as fast and ended up with the slowest time of the 26 drivers out on track thanks to some early issues.

"We had some minor issues in the first session with brakes and drivability, which the team quickly addressed. In the second session we were working on several things, including my learning of the track," she said. "[The time] is certainly not representative of what this team is capable of."

Right now, everyone's still having to work hard to get any real idea of just what is representative of what their own equipment is truly capable of - let alone having a good picture of the state of the rest of the field. But that's just going to make Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race day so much more fun and fascinating for all concerned - the fans most of all.


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