The weather in St Petersburg might not have been all that great on Saturday for qualifying for the first race of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season, but pole winner Takuma Sato wouldn't have changed a thing about any of it.

"It's a fantastic day," said the 37-year old Japanese driver. "I really couldn't ask any more for a better start to the season. Really happy with where we are today. Over the course of the winter, we did a really extensive winter test program and it worked out really well.

"We had a strong package last year here, but obviously there have been quite a few changes on the car - tyres, Honda's twin turbo engine. It's all been good," he added. "To come to this weekend is so exciting."

After he'd also finished fastest at the end of Friday's practice sessions, it seemed that the biggest threat to Sato taking pole here for AJ Foyt Racing wasn't his fellow drivers but the intense storm front that rolled over St Petersburg less than half an hour before the scheduled start of the session.

The lightning and tornado warnings forced the event organisers to order an evacuation of the grandstands, and the track was drenched by the rain. At one point it seemed that the session might be lost and the starting order set by entrant points, so Sato was especially pleased that qualifying had finally gone ahead nearly four hours behind the original schedule.

"Such a dramatic weather change," said Sato. "I'm very pleased that the league and the promoters made the qualification session happen this evening because otherwise I would be starting middle of the pack."

Sato was almost three tenths faster than Tony Kanaan, who is making his first race weekend outing in the #10 Ganassi car formerly helmed by his good friend Dario Franchitti, now retired from driving but watching on from the pit wall in St Pete as a team consultant.

"I think it has been like three years since I have been in the top six," said the 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion. "It feels really good, I can't thank the Target Chip Ganassi Racing guys enough ... Front row, man it feels pretty good! I used to see 16 or 17 cars in front of me in a circuit like that so it feels pretty good. I am happy.

"A lot of people made a lot of comments over the years because we struggled so much in qualifying in street and road courses and nobody was counting on that," he added. "I like to be the element of surprise. Nobody was talking about us at Indy last year and nobody was talking about this weekend.

"It is a new team and those guys had a heck of a year last year and a huge disappointment on Dario's accident and I still feel like this is Dario's car," Kanaan admitted. "Those guys went through a lot and they gave me a lot of credibility when I replaced Dario. They made me feel extremely comfortable and although we have only been working together for the three or four months, I feel part of it. Every one of them is part of this front row for me."

Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport) and Will Power (Team Penske) start from the second row ahead of Scott Dixon (Ganassi) and Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport) who also made it through to the Firestone Fast Six pole shootout session, narrowly pipping two impressive rookie performances from Andretti's Carlos Munoz and Bryan Herta Autosport's Jack Hawksworth.

"It was a fine, fine qualifying," beamed the 22-year-old Munoz. "We started the session on rain tyres and then changed to slicks. We were out of the top six by less than one-tenth of a second. Anyways, I think seventh is a good position to start tomorrow. My main goal is to stay there the whole race, try not to make any mistakes and just take it step by step."

"Good qualifying under tricky conditions," summed up Bradford-born Hawksworth. "We were on rain tyres in the beginning to get through the first segment, then we were initially very quick in the second segment, although I thought we were going to get through but I made a little mistake at the end. If we could do it again, we could be a little bit higher but overall, I can't complain today for my first IndyCar qualification!"

The conditions at the start of the session had been especially treacherous, and the first group in round 1 saw both Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe caught out and make contact with the tyre barriers on their qualifying laps, bringing out red flags as a result which saw them stripped of their two fastest laps each as a punishment.

"I just messed up," admitted Rahal, who will start form 21st. "I went into turn 4, thought I was under control, thought I broke pretty well but all of a sudden the right front locked and I just went straight on. Unfortunately we did a lap time that would have advanced us but the lap time doesn't count. Obviously I'm very disappointed. I would have liked to advance but I didn't do a good enough job today so we're going to have our work cut out for us in the race."

"I made sure that the #27 crew has our work cut out for us, that's for sure," rued Hinchcliffe after his qualifying session ended with him in 19th place for the start of Sunday's race. "Really mad at myself. Conditions were obviously tricky, but I just lost it. It's a real shame because the guys have done such a good job, we were quick in the dry, quick in the wet until my spin."

Also unhappy with the way qualifying went was Sebastien Bourdais, whose qualifying runs were thwarted by the Group 1 stoppages which meant he never had a proper chance to set a representative flying lap.

"It wasn't much of a qualifying session," the Frenchman said. "Because of the track conditions we waited to go out to make sure that we had room in case something happened, so everyone else got in a lap before the first red flag. When we went back out I got one lap at speed before the second red flag. We were too conservative and I feel bad for the crew. They did a good job preparing the car. We will just have to go to work and do the best we can in tomorrow's race."

And it wasn't the best of returns to IndyCar qualifying for Juan Pablo Montoya, who hasn't raced in wet conditions in the last seven years that he's spent in NASCAR and admitted that it had left him rusty.

"The biggest problem for [me] was the last corner, for some reason," he said. "I just couldn't come off that corner and get the car to turn. Sato was in front of me and I would lose everything to him right there. It is what it is.

"I haven't driven in wet conditions in a long time and we never had an opportunity to do it in testing," he added. "I don't think we're that far off. I'm still getting acclimated back to the Verizon IndyCar Series. My team is still getting acclimated to me. If that process was complete we would be a lot better. We are definitely making progress."

Montoya will start the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg from 18th place, one place behind fellow Colombian Carlos Huertas who is making his debut in the championship after being signed up on Thursday to fill the second Dale Coyne Racing seat alongside Justin Wilson

Huertas was the recipient of a $1000 fine at the end of the day for violating the series rule about radio communications being required between driver and pit at all times; also hit with a fine was Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsport's Simon Pagenaud who ended up passing the chequered flag a second time at the end of a session.


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