INDYCAR: Sato Sprints to IndyCar Pole at St. Pete

Joel Sebastianelli Featured, Southeast, Sprints & Midgets, Verizon IndyCar Series 0 Comments

March 29, 2014 — report by RaceChaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — INDYCAR photo — ST. PETERSBURG, FL — After a promising start to 2013, Takuma Sato’s season faded into an array of disappointments, but as the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series campaign readies to take the green flag, the AJ Foyt Enterprises driver has a reason to smile again.

Sato earned the Verizon Pole Award for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Saturday evening after a Floridian monsoon shoved the session’s start time back over three hours. The pole was Sato’s first of 2014 and his fourth career IndyCar pole. He has now won the last two poles decided by Firestone Fast Six qualifying, going back to the first race in Houston last October.

The Japanese driver finished in the top three for all three of the weekend’s practice sessions, and even as the track conditions around the 1.8 mile street circuit changed from sopping wet to dry over the course of qualifying, the #14’s pace didn’t.

“It’s a fantastic day. You can’t be really asking for a better start to the season. We’re really happy where we are today,” said Sato at the post-session press conference. “We had a strong package last year here, but obviously there are quite a few changes on the car: tires, twin turbo engine, et cetera, et cetera. I’m very pleased the league and promoters made possible the qualifying session this evening because otherwise I would have had to start middle of the pack tomorrow.”

Sato started second last season en route to finishing eighth, one of his two top 10 finishes at St. Petersburg. A strong first four races last year which included his first career IndyCar victory at Long Beach bumped Sato to the top of the standings entering Indianapolis, but the team managed only one top 10 for the remainder of the season.

Although Sunday’s Grand Prix has yet to be run, Sato feels confident the team has progressed appropriately.

“The second half of the season, everybody caught up. We were on the lower side of development through the season. We had a tough time together,” Sato said. “One of the great things over the course of the winter is that no team member is changing. We have 100% of the same members and same engineers.

“To be starting on the front row in the new season is oviously the best way to start, so I’m very, pleased.”

The Firestone Fast Six all pitted for a new sticker set of slick tires in the final five minutes, setting up a frantic push to the finish. Sato led the majority of the session, and as the checkered flag waved, his closest competitors Tony Kanaan and Will Power each conceded their potential pole runs and headed for the pits.

Still, a second place finish has Target Chip Ganassi Racing newcomer and fan-favorite Kanaan in high spirits.

“I’m happy because I think if you ask anybody on the grid driving that 10 car, they would be smiling the entire time,” said Kanaan. “I’m in a very good organization, probably one of the best positions I’ve been in in my career in IndyCar. There’s no reason to be unhappy, but I have to say I’m happier because I was always happy!”

Ryan Hunter Reay lines up third, while Will Power starts fourth. 2014 marks the first time since 2009 that Power has not started the season opening Grand Prix on the pole, snapping a streak of four consecutive poles at the track.

Penske teammate and three-time St. Pete victor Helio Castroneves, the only driver to win this race more than once, missed the cut for the Fast Six and will roll off the grid in tenth position.

While the final session of qualifying featured familiar faces, a pair of rookies shined brightly throughout the day turning both fast times and heads. Jack Hawksworth led his respective second round session with just three minutes to go, but his excitement was short lived, being bumped from a shot at competing for pole.

The Bradford, England native will start eighth on Sunday alongside Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz, who burst onto the scene briefly in 2013 by finishing third in his first Indianapolis 500. Although Munoz nearly broke through to win in his first career IndyCar race last season, his goals aren’t quite as lofty for this season’s start.

“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,” the Colombian said after qualifying.

Fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya starts in 18th, failing to emerge from the opening round of knockout qualifying.

Last year’s winner, James Hinchcliffe, starts 19th after a spin brought out the red flag with one minute to go in his opening round stint, while a similar fate befell Graham Rahal, who lines up 21st.

Sunday’s race gets underway on ABC at approximately 3:20 PM Eastern time, with coverage beginning at 3 PM for race one of the eighteen round season. Coverage can also be found on IMS Radio Network affiliates, and the INDYCAR 14 app at 2:30 p.m.

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