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Power leads Chevy whitewash in qualifying

24 March 2012

If you were waiting to find out which of the engine manufacturers had the upper hand coming into 2012, then wait no longer for your answer: it's Chevrolet, who wiped the floor with their opposition in the first qualifying session of the new IZOD IndyCar Series season at St Petersburg.

"This is an exciting day in St Pete and Chevy is back in IndyCar with five of the top six in the field running Chevrolet,” said Jim Campbell, the US vice president pf performance vehicles and motorsports for Chevrolet.

With the pole shootout virtually an all-Chevrolet affair that included all three Penske cars and two of the three Andretti Autosport runners, it was far less surprising to see Will Power pop to the top spot with a new series record lap time of 1:01.3721s.

Power has started from the pole at St Petersburg for three consecutive years: he won in 2010, and was runner-up to Dario Franchitti last year.

"I'm very happy to get the first pole for Chevy as they return to the series,” he said afterwards. Ever cautious, he added: β€œIt's only the beginning of the weekend. We need to have a good strategy for the race and see what comes.”

The only man who has ever driven faster here in previous years was Sebastien Bourdais, who posted a lap of 1:00.928s in the sole Champ Car race held in 2003 albeit using a different-specification car to that used by the then-competing Indy Racing League. Unfortunately Bourdais was never going to be a factor this year, with all the Lotus cars eliminated in the first round as expected.

But far more stunning than the quick cull of Lotus cars was how all but one of the Honda-powered cars were similarly eliminated at the end of round 2, the sole exception being the #77 Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports car of Simon Pagenaud.

The domination continued into the final round - the Firestone Fast Six - with Pagenaud finishing firmly at the bottom of the timing screens. Even worse for the Frenchman, he'll have to take a ten-spot grid penalty after the team were forced to replace his Honda engine on Friday, so his heroic efforts to fly the Honda flag were in vain.

Having taken pole, Power will start Sunday's race with his team mate and fellow Australian Ryan Briscoe alongside him. Briscoe overcame some technical glitches at the start of the session to put in a late flier that was more than good enough for second spot. However the third member of the Penske team will start back on the third row, after Helio Castroneves hit the barrer pretty hard in the concluding moments of the round 2 and needed some urgent repair work to be done to his now rather second hand 2012 Dallara chassis in the interval. He said the incident was a by-product of a communications problem that left him out of touch with his pit crew.

"So unfortunately I went over the limit of the car and end up hitting turn 9 and I thought it was over," he explained. "The guys came fully focused to fix the car and rear suspension and in seven minutes they switched the entire suspension and we were able to go back there."

Sandwiched between the Penske presence are two of the three Andretti Autosport drivers, also all-Chevy-powered. A third Aussie, Ryan Hunter-Reay, will take up third place for the start of the race on Sunday afternoon, with James Hinchcliffe an impressive fourth in his first visit to St Pete after missing out in 2011 due to the lateness of his sponsorship deal coming together.

With Pagenaud dropping out because of his penalty, the spot on the third row alongside Castroneves will be taken over by the 'best of the rest', Scott Dixon, who missed out on progressing to the final round by a painfully slender 0.0022s.

Two more Chevrolet-powered cars take over the fourth row in the form of Marco Andretti and KV Racing's Tony Kanaan, leaving the fifth row to Ganassi duo Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal.

The answer to the question of "which is the better engine to have" couldn't be clearer: Chevrolet claim seven of the top ten positions with the best Honda mired down in sixth place. As statements go, they don't get much more emphatic than that, and it will be leaving the Ganassi camp in particular in a state of shellshock if not downright panic as the mull over the consequences of what they saw.

"Our setup wasn't where it needed to be obviously," said Franchitti. "I don't think its by accident the Chevy guys were up there. We'll just keep our heads up and get the work done. We still have some tricks up our sleeve."

The highest-placed Lotus car was Bryan Herta Autosports' Alex Tagliani in 17th position. Sebastien Bourdais was faring well in his round 1 group, but then spun in the final minutes causing the track to be red flagged, and under the series rules that means his two fastest laps of the session were deleted as a penalty which caused him to classified in last position, meaning that he will start Sunday's race from the back row alongside his Lotus Dragon Racing team mate Katherine Legge, who had a similar spin at the same part of the track in her group but managed to get underway again without causing a red flag.

Bourdais accident meant that Rubens Barrichello lost the opportunity to complete his final flying lap, leaving him in 13th position on the grid for his first IndyCar start.

"I am pleased though; I improved this morning and today was the first time I have ever used the red (soft option) tyres," said Barrichello. "I can never be pleased with 13th or 14th, but we have to set targets and my targets are high."


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