There's not a chance in a million that anyone predicted a front row of KV-AFS Racing's Sebastian Saavedra and Bryan Herta Autosport's Jack Hawksworth for the inaugural road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The changing wet conditions played a major role in mixing things up during the three-round qualifying session, with light rain in the first round then followed by much wetter conditions in the second, before the final round had to be suspended because of a cloudburst leaving the track in an undriveable condition.
Once the Firestone Fast Six did get underway it quickly became a two-man battle between Saavedra and Hawksworth, with the Colombian finally posting a time of 1:23.8822s (104.676mph) on the new 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course to leave himself two tenths faster than Hawksworth and duly claim his first career pole in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Ryan Hunter-Reay briefly looked set to stage a late upset but ended up in the wall in turn 14 instead, meaning that he will now start from third place on the grid alongside Simon Pagenaud. Will Power and Scott Dixon line up next to each other on row three.
As expected, a light rain starting to fall midway through the 10-minute round 1 session for the first group, meaning that those drivers not already in possession of a top six time were potentially at a disadvantage as the track got greasier. Fortunately the speed differential was more than offset by the switch to red-walled soft option tyres and Simon Paganeud's late effort of 1:09.6716s was eight hundredths of a second faster than Will Power as the chequered flag came out. Also going through were James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves, Sebastian Saavedra and Ryan Hunter-Reay, while Marco Andretti, Josef Newgarden, Carlos Huertas, Carlos Munoz, Franck Montagny an Charlie Kimball all missed the cut.
In the second group, Martin Plowman went top after an early change to the red-walled tyres in the hope that the intermittent rain might then leave him on top by default. However conditions remained consistent and allowed the other drivers to quickly move past him on the timing screens when they made their own move to the options, and when the chequered flag came out it was Juan Pablo Montoya on top with a time of 1:09.9004s, 0.0771s ahead of Sebastien Bourdais in second place. Mikhail Aleshin initially looked set to progressing to round 2, but he was subsequently penalised for impeding Bourdais during a fast lap which saw him docked his two fastest laps; that left Scott Dixon progressing in third place along with Tony Kanaan, Jack Hawksworth and Graham Rahal. Joining Aleshin on the bench were Ryan Briscoe, Takuma Sato, Justin Wilson, Oriol Servia and Mike Conway, along with Plowman who had ended up being pushed all the way down to 11th place in his first qualifying session of the year.
In the interval between the end of round 1 and the start of round 2, the rain picked up considerably and poured down on the frontstraight to dramatically change the nature of the challenge awaiting the 12 drivers still competing for the grid spots for Saturday's race. Everyone was forced onto wet tyres by default, and times were now 15 seconds higher than they had been in the proceeding sessions. Will Power paced much of the session, but a final stunning lap from rookie driver Jack Hawksworth saw the #98 Bryan Herta Autosport leap to the top of the times with a lap of 1:23.8817s as the chequered flag came out. Power was happy enough in second place and progressed to the Firestone Fast Six along with Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Saavedra and Pagenaud, with Bourdais just missing out along with Montoya, Kanaan, Castroneves, Hinchcliffe and Rahal.
Rather than easing off, the rain poured down with renewed relish ahead of the final pole shootout in round 3, with track conditions deteriorating so sharply that race control was forced to throw a red flag to delay the start of proceedings until the storm shower had passed, the sun was back out and the track had a chance to drain off.
Once the red flag was withdrawn, Jack Hawksworth was quick to pick up where he had left off by going top with a lap of 1:24.2456s almost three tenths ahead of Hunter-Reay at the mid-point of the ten minute session, but Sebastian Saavedra was able to better that as the water was gradually moved off the racing line which allowed him to set a new provisional pole time of 1:24.2456s. Ryan Hunter-Reay shaved another 0.0342s off that with two and a half minutes remaining, but then he aquaplaned off on standing water and hit the wall hard with the rear of the #28 at the exit of turn 14 to bring out a new red flag that curtailed the session prematurely.
Before that happened however, Saavedra and Hawksworth just managed to post their responses to the Hunter-Reay's challenge - and between them claimed a stunning upset front row of the grid for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on Saturday. Hunter-Reay himself held on to third despite losing his two fastest laps in the final round for causing the red flag, meaning he will start alongside Simon Pagenaud, who had earlier set what proved to be the fastest time in round 1; title rivals Will Power and Scott Dixon will start from row three.
Full qualifying results and unofficial starting grid