Sato claims season-opening pole at St. Pete

Sato claims season-opening pole at St. Pete

30 March 2014 – Takuma Sato will start on pole for tomorrow's Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the inaugural race in the 2014 IndyCar Series season. Collecting his fourth career IndyCar pole, Sato qualified nearly 0.3 seconds ahead of second place Tony Kanaan, last year's Indianapolis 500 winner. The four-time defending pole-sitter, Will Power, will start P4 behind Andretti Racing's Ryan Hunter-Reay.

An eventful day in St. Petersburg, Florida, saw the grandstands evacuated around midday for severe storms and a chance of tornados. Qualifying was pushed back for three and a half hours before the track was deemed safe enough to drive, and even then wet tyres weren't enough to prevent several spins and red flags.

Graham Rahal was the first to be caught off-guard by the weather, sliding into the wall early in the first session.  Defending race winner James Hinchcliffe followed suit with a minute to go, guaranteeing that he would not move on to the second round of qualifying. Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway, Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe advanced to Q2.

While the second half of the field took to the track for their Q1, the rain diminished slightly, but wet tyres were still needed. Times began to drop as a result, and Takuma Sato again finished the session P1. Moving on to Q2 with him were Scott Dixon, rookies Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, Power and Sebastian Saavedra.

As Q2 began, Conway, Briscoe and Sato immediately left the pits on slick tyres, hoping the drying track would play into their hands later in the session. Several minutes in, it appeared they had made the right choice. The rest of the field pitted to change to slicks, and by the end of Q2 lap times were equal to those from the dry practice sessions.

When time expired, it looked as though the British rookie Hawksworth would make it to the Firestone Fast Six, but there were still cars on track. Sitting on the bubble as the chequered flag came out, fellow rookie Munoz jumped him only for both to be eliminated by Dixon. Thus no rookies would make it to the pole shootout. Sato led the way ahead of Hunter-Reay, Power, Andretti, Kanaan and Dixon, meaning he had been fastest in three of the five sessions in which he'd taken part this weekend.

With the Fast Six decided, the final ten-minute Q3 began on a totally dry track. Everyone opted for the red-walled Firestone tyres and immediately saw some of the quickest laps of the weekend. A flurry of changes at the top of the time sheet eventually led to Sato in P1, just 0.0028s ahead of Kanaan. As the Brazilian pushed on his final lap he uneventfully spun into the Turn 1 runoff, ending his chances for pole. Sato responded with an even faster lap, stretching his lead to 0.3s before promptly entering pitlane for the final minute.

Kanaan and Hunter-Reay followed suit, leaving only Dixon, Power and Andretti to challenge the Japanese driver, but none of them improved on their final laps, giving Sato the fourth pole of his career.

Sato also started last year on a high note, qualifying second in last year’s season opener for A.J. Foyt Racing.  Two races later he qualified P4 en route to winning his first IndyCar event at the Grand Prix of Long Beach. He held the points lead going into the Indy 500, but a string of poor results relegated him to P17 in the final standings. During his brief IndyCar career, the former F1 driver also won pole in Edmonton, Iowa (both 2011) and Houston (2013).

Of the four rookies in the field this weekend, Munoz and Hawksworth will start in the top ten. Russian Mikhail Aleshin and Colombian Carlos Huertas will start P15 and P17, respectively. Fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, returning to IndyCar for the first time since 2000, will start P18.

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