Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed his first pole of 2013 and the third pole of his IZOD IndyCar Series career, topping the Firestone Fast Six pole shoot-out on Saturday to ensure he'll lead the 26-car field to the green flag at the start of Sunday afternoon's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
"This team has done so well this weekend, we just kept progressing and we knew where we needed to work on it," said the reigning series champion after his first pole since Edmonton last year. "It's a great position to start from and now we need to go make it work."
Hunter-Reay could still lose the advantage at the first corner, however, with arch rival Will Power starting alongside him on the front row in the race. And he wasn't able to set a new track record for Barber Motorports Park, as his pole time of 1:07.0871s wasn't a match for the blistering Round 1 time of 1:06.7750s set half an hour earlier by Scott Dixon.
Behind them, Schmidt-Peterson rookie Tristan Vautier will start from third place alongside veteran Dixon, with the youngster caught by surprise when told he'd made it into the Fast Six pole shootout because of a penalty being handed to Takuma Sato for blocking Justin Wilson in Round 2.
"It's disappointing for us not to be able to show our performance in the Fast Six," said the Japanese former F1 driver. "In the second segment I had to back off because there was a slower car in front of me at the exit of turn five, so I abandoned my qualifying lap and I tried to stretch the space.
"I checked my mirror on the back straight and there was no one there," he continued. "Then going through turns 7 and 8 - which is where the elevation changes, which is probably the worst place for Justin Wilson to catch me because I couldn't see anything behind me. When I was able to see that he was coming on I tried to keep my line tight and let him have the racing line. Obviously it was close but I was disappointed to be penalised."
"I'm really upset by what happened," responded Wilson about the controversy. "We definitely had a top three car today, possible even a pole winning one. My red tyres were just coming in and I was working on a very quick lap when Sato slowed down in front of me and didn't get out of the way. That caused me to slow down and have to go around him. Once I came in into the pits I ran right to the IndyCar trailer to see if they saw the incident."
As per the IndyCar Series rulebook, Sato's top two times in Round 2 were deleted which Wilson described as "some sort of justice" although it did little for his own disappointing position. The penalty meant that instead of progressing through to the next round in the top six, the #14 AJ Foyt Racing car was instead classified in 12th position which is where Sato will line up on the grid for tomorrow's race.
Sato's place in the Fast Six went instead to Vautier, who had thought he'd missed out on the final round by two tenths of a second. The team had even taken the #55 back to the paddock and were required to hastily wheel it back into pit lane: they were still busy re-setting it for another qualifying run as the green flag came out at the start of the ten-minute Round 3. In such rushed circumstances, finishing in third place was nothing short of a triumph for the Frenchman.