See full qualifying times from St Petersburg
Takuma Sato will start from pole position for Sunday's Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first race of the new season of the Verizon IndyCar Series, after he managed to pip Tony Kanaan to the top spot by a weighty 0.2951s with a final lap of 1:01.8686s on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course.
It's Sato's fourth series pole in 70 starts and his second for AJ Foyt Racing, having also started at the head of the field in the first of last year's doubleheader races in Houston.
Fans had been forced to wait for nearly four hours for the start of qualifying, after an intense storm system passed directly over St Petersburg and forced event organisers to evacuate the area because of the risk of lightning strikes and even tornados. There were fears that the session might be cancelled and the grid set by the 2013 entrant points instead, but eventually - once the track had been dried off - the action got underway.
Inevitably the conditions remained treacherous for open-wheel cars, and Graham Rahal was the first to go hit the tyres and go off track soon after the start of Round 1 for the 11 cars in Group 1, at which point the top time was Tony Kanaan's first effort of 1:15.7469s. That was soon bettered when the track went green again, and Ryan Hunter-Reay went top with a time of 1:13.7241s; Kanaan had just reclaimed the lead by two tenths when a new red flag came out, this time for James Hinchcliffe.
With Rahal and Hinchcliffe both losing their fastest two laps for causing a red flag, that meant two of the drivers to have starred in practice so far were quickly eliminated. Kanaan and Hunter-Reay were through to Round 2 along with Mike Conway, Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, but Sebastien Bourdais just missed out by a tenth and a half of making the top six after being reduced to just one fast lap by the timing of the stoppages. He wasn't happy about the situation, either: "If we're going to qualify we have to have a fair shot and we didn't."
In a more orderly Group 2, Scott Dixon immediately went top with a time of 1:13.4141s ahead of Justin Wilson who improved to 1:12.5890s with his second flying effort. With conditions improving with every lap, Takuma Sato went top just after the midway point of the ten minute session with a time of 1:12.0073s one thousandths of a second ahead of Dixon's latest. By the time the chequered flag came out, two rookies - Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth - had claimed two more spots for Round 2, along with Will Power and Sebastian Saavedra; among the surprises missing out were Simon Pagenaud and Justin Wilson, as well as series returnee Juan Pablo Montoya, who blamed the conditions for his performance: "It is what it is. I haven't driven in the wet in a long time."
At the start of Round 2, Power set the initial benchmark of 1:10.1732s only to be comprehensively bettered by nearly two-thirds of a second by Munoz. The ensuing rounds of flying laps soon pushed that even further down, with Mike Conway going top with a time of 1:07.5908s over three-quarters of a second faster than Ryan Briscoe and Marco Andretti, which he then improved to 1:04.8248s to stay ahead of the pack until finally displaced by compatriot Hawksworth putting in a time of 1:04.5486s.
Good as his lap had been, Hawksworth was soon shuffled out of the all-important top six and his next effort of 1:03.5738s was only good enough for fifth behind Sato's 1:03.0131s followed by Hunter-Reay, Power, Andretti and Kanaan, and then a final effort from Dixon stole the final progression spot just after the chequered flag came out. Also failing to progress were the equally impressive Munoz as well as relatively hands Briscoe, Castroneves, Saavedra and Conway.
That left an even mix of Honda and Chevrolet contenders moving into the Firestone Fast Six pole shootout, which got underway with Dixon quick to lead the charge from pit lane and lay down an early marker of 1:03.6779s. He soon improved to 1:02.9661s as Hunter-Reay cut the gap and moved into second with his own follow-up flying lap.
After a mid-session lull, Takuma Sato emerged once again to take the provisional pole just ahead of Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and last year's pole winner Power also both moving ahead of Dixon as the Kiwi was pushed down to fifth place ahead of Marco Andretti, unable to match the gains being shown by his rivals by the end of the session.
See full qualifying times from St Petersburg