21 July 2012
Hunter-Reay wins, and loses, Edmonton pole
This time, in stark contrast to the leisurely start of Group 1, there was a scramble by all the cars to get out on track as soon as possible - reinforcing the expectation that rain was looking imminent on the radar and putting a premium on an early banker lap in the dry. Even before the session was five minutes old, all the drivers had been in action and set fast laps, although technical problems for the AJ Foyt car meant Mike Conway only had a couple of runs before being sidelined in pit lane with fuel pressure issues.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was on top with a lap of 1:16.3047s just ahead of James Hinchcliffe and a third of a second faster than Dario Franchitti in third. Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais all moved into top six spots with five minutes remaining as a few isolated rain drops started to make their presence felt.
Rubens Barrichello bumped Bourdais out of the top six with a lap of 1:16.9090s, at which point most cars had done their qualifying rotation and were heading back to pit lane early, making it a quiet end to the session as the rain started to really come down and make a wet Round 2 inevitable.
Round 2 - Top 12
Through to Round 2 were Will Power, Alex Tagliani, Takuma Sato, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud from Group 1; and Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal and Rubens Barrichello from Group 2.
The brief but substantial shower had left large sections of the track far too wet for slicks, but not quite wet enough to bring out the best in the intermediate rain tyres either. Understandably in the circumstances, everyone held fire in pit lane hoping for someone else to go out and sample the track on their behalf an for the track to drain off as much as it could; and when they did go out and sought a fast lap, it was a question of being able to stay on the track and not do a 360 degree spin off, as Scott Dixon did on his sighting lap.
Takuma Sato made the early running, with the first laps a full 13s off where they had been in the opening round on slicks. Will Power was able to improve on Sato's time and went to the top with a lap of 1:28.4500, but Sato's next effort was a full second faster at 1:27.2904s showing just how quickly the track was drying off and conditions improving.
Sato pushed his time even lower with a 1:26.7542 and Helio Castroneves punched out an impressive 1:27.1590s for second ahead of Alex Tagliani, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. But it proved to be those cars timing their runs for the very last moment across the chequered flag that then delivered knock-out blows in the final seconds, with Will Power shockingly on the losing end of the reshuffle and stuck in seventh place after a minor error on his final flying lap opportunity.
When the dust settled, Sato, Castroneves, Tagliani were joined by Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay in progressing through to the top six pole shootout.
Round 3 - Firestone Fast Six
With the track still damp, it was a tricky tyre decision for the six drivers who had made it through to the final round of qualifying since they were obliged by the rules to stick with whichever tyre choice they started with. Were the conditions now good enough to return to the red (soft) compound slicks, or would not running the rain tyres end up in disaster?
The call was to go with the red-walled slicks, for better or for worse: Sato put in the first flying lap without incident and clocked a 1:19.6370s, almost half a second ahead of Ryan Briscoe's first effort. But Helio Castroneves' first lap advanced the goalposts to 1:19.0150s and then Ryan Briscoe's first flier was a gamechanger as he went top with a stunning 1:17.9336s.
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