ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The first test of the IndyCar's new engine competition was no contest at all.
Will Power set a series track record Saturday in qualifying for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where Chevrolet easily handled Honda in the first real test of the season.
Power ran a 1:01.3721 over the winding 1.8-mile temporary course through the streets of St. Petersburg, beating Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe, who qualified second at 1:01.5357. But, more interesting, was that Chevrolet swept the top five qualifying spots.
The highest qualifying Honda? It wasn't the heavyweights from Target Chip Ganassi Racing, but Simon Pagenaud, who qualified sixth in his IndyCar debut for tiny Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports. He'll have to drop 10 spots on the starting grid, though, because of an unapproved engine change on Friday.
"Very happy for Chevy. With all the hard work they've done, I kind of expected the result with all the Chevys at the front," Power said.
IndyCar has competing manufacturers for the first time since 2005, with Chevrolet and Lotus jumping into a series that Honda had controlled exclusively the past seven seasons. With Lotus admittedly far behind the competition, everyone knows this season will be a showdown between Chevy and Honda.
And that means a showdown between Penske and Ganassi, the top two teams in the series.
Penske goes into Sunday's season opener with three cars in the first five as Helio Castroneves, who hit the wall in the second qualifying session, surprisingly got back on track in the Firestone Fast Six round. Penske changed his suspension in roughly seven minutes, which gave Castroneves three minutes remaining in the session to turn the fifth-best qualifying lap.
But wedged in between the three Penske cars were Ryan Hunter-Reay and Oakville, Ont., native James Hinchcliffe, who qualified third and fourth for Andretti Autosport.
Ganassi wound up seventh with Scott Dixon and 10th with defending series champion and race winner Dario Franchitti. Neither driver advanced out of the second qualifying round.
"Our setup wasn't where it needed to be, obviously," Franchitti said. "We'll keep our head up and get work done. We still have some tricks up our sleeve."
Power didn't doubt that for a minute.
"I do, absolutely," he said. "You don't know fuel mileage. Those things might get incredible fuel mileage, and get us on that. You just don't know. We just know that the pace at this track, we're better."
Both Briscoe and Hinchcliffe praised the hard work Chevrolet has put into readying for the season — so much so, that Ganassi's struggle was more surprising than the Chevy sweep.
"No surprise from Chevy, they've been doing such a great job," Briscoe said. "Even this weekend we've been feeling improvements.
Hinchcliffe said Chevrolet engineers have been on hand all weekend to handle every issue.
"They plug in after every session, they say, 'This time we're going to have this, this time we're going to have this,' " Hinchcliffe said. "Just the improvement not only just testing, but this weekend has been phenomenal. It is certainly opening my eyes as to how this whole manufacturer war is going to play out."
But teammate Hunter-Reay quickly reminded everyone that eight Hondas ranked in the top 10 after Saturday morning's practice.
"I think it's going to be back and forth a lot," Hunter-Reay said. "I don't think this is necessarily just the stamp that Chevy's got it made."
Come Sunday, it will be in the hands of the drivers, and Power will be trying to win the season opener and get a jump on Franchitti in the race for the IndyCar championship. He's won the pole at this track three years in a row, but failed to defend his 2010 victory here last season as Franchitti won the race and, ultimately, beat Power for the championship for a second straight year.
So how does Power, who can be a bit of a pessimist, feel about his chances Sunday?
"As good as Will Power could ever feel," Power said. "As positive as I could ever be. Which is sort of pretty down there. But we'll do what we can."
The race will be the debut for IndyCar's first new car since 2003, and Dallara named it the DW12 after Dan Wheldon, who was killed in the Oct. 16 season finale. Now, the new season begins in St. Pete, where Wheldon made his home and won the inaugural 2005 race in this picturesque city.
Race organizers have renamed Turn 10 Dan Wheldon Way in his honour, and his younger sister, Holly, will drop the green flag Sunday and present the winner with the trophy.
"As a place he called home, and after what happened last year, it is difficult," Castroneves said. "The town, the promoters, they were able to do a very good job to keep his spirit alive.
"Certainly for us, the fans were able to help us keep our focus on racing. The fans seem to support us, seem to welcome us here. We couldn't ask for more."
"So certainly tomorrow we always will remember. But for us as drivers, we want to be focused and continue doing what we love."
This weekend, so far, has been a return to normalcy as the focus has indeed returned to racing.
The qualifying results were a pleasant surprise, particularly with Hinchcliffe running so strong in what will be his first race at St. Pete.
He didn't have a job for this race last year, but still went on to win rookie of the year honours for Newmann-Haas. That team folded during the off-season, and Hinchcliffe was able to land Danica Patrick's old seat with Andretti — the ride that Wheldon had signed on for the morning he was killed.
So there was some cheering for Hinchcliffe as he concluded round 2 of qualifying as the leader, only to be bumped by the two Penske drivers and his teammate in the final round.
"The goal was to get into the Fast Six. If you told us we would have made that, I would have been pretty happy," he said. "The funny part, after being quickest in Q2, you're almost disappointed with fourth."
But the final session took everyone by surprise because, on older tires, no one was expected to go faster.
"He just was the only guy all weekend that went quicker on his second run of tires, and he did it by a pretty decent margin," Hinchcliffe said. "Even talking to him, he can't explain how he did it. He could only do it for one lap and it all fell apart again. So it was one of those miracle laps from Will, but that's not exactly uncommon, is it?"
The Lotus teams struggled, as expected. Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., was the highest-qualifying Lotus driver at 17th, and the two Dragon Racing entries brought up the back of the grid. But IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard urged patience for the series third manufacturer.
"Lotus has been very up front and honest with us that they are eight weeks behind, and they are fully committed," Bernard said. "We've always said Lotus is the little engine that is trying. We should embrace them as they are trying to compete with two gorillas. Let's try to give them every opportunity to go out there and win."
Sunday will mark the series debut for Rubens Barrichello, who moved to IndyCar in early March after 19 seasons in Formula One. He's had an up-and-down weekend because a mechanical problem in the opening practice cost him track time.
He qualified 14th.
"I am playing catch-up all the time," he said. "We unfortunately lost the morning session yesterday and I am still learning the circuit, while the rest of the field are going flat-out. I can never be pleased with 13th or 14th, but we have to set targets and my targets are high. I have done less than 50 laps on this track so far, so I have to be happy-ish with that."