ST. PETERSBURG, FL, March 22, 2013 - A sunny and breezy day on the Tampa Bay served as the backdrop for day one of the ninth annual Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. A strong crowd filled the paddock and infield before heading up to the grandstands to take in practice sessions for the six series’ hitting the track this weekend.
The first day of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season picked up where 2012 left off with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power on top. However, this time Power edged Hunter-Reay with the fastest practice lap of 1:01.447. The defending champion wasn’t far off, turning in a best lap of 1:01.625. Simona de Silvestro was a surprising third and the top Honda driver was Takuma Sato, in fifth with a best lap of 1:01.77.
“It’s certainly great to get the day in here in St. Pete,” said Hunter-Reay. “I always love starting the season off here.”
Hunter-Reay led a strong Andretti Autosport effort in the morning practice, alongside teammates James Hinchcliffe and E.J. Viso who also turned in top-five lap times.
The street course held a festival-like atmosphere as some of St. Petersburg’s parks, streets and airport runways were transformed into a race track. The significant change the city undergoes each year is not lost on the locals.
“It’s not every day that you see race cars driving around your city,” said St. Petersburg resident Kristen Willyoung. “St. Pete has a lot to offer and this is one of the great events in the area.” Willyoung attended with her father Mike and boyfriend Joe Murphy.
“I hope that more events like this are brought to St. Pete,” added Willyoung. “It’s amazing to see something of this scale here.” When asked for her favorite part of the weekend off track, she couldn’t narrow it down, “It’s the overall experience.”
Part of that experience is the Brighthouse Networks Speed Zone at Turns 5 and 6. Young race fans jumped on trampolines, bounced down blowup slides and got punchy with Boxer Jocks (think life-sizeRock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots). A popular new feature at the Honda Grand Prix was the Dan Wheldon Memorial and Victory Circle Monument outside of Turn 10 on the street bearing his name. The tributes were unveiled last night by Susie and Sebastian Wheldon, and feature Wheldon’s likeness and accolades, as well as a list of all Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winners, beginning with Wheldon himself in 2005.
The numerous activities outside the race continued when over 1,500 competitors participated in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 5K Run, Walk ‘N Wheel-a-thon. Proceeds from the fourth annual event benefitted the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation and PBA/Suncoast Law Enforcement Charities.
Back on the track, Firestone Indy Lights practice was led by rookie Gabby Chaves who turned a lap of 1:06.8431, averaging 96.943 mph during practice session 2. His teammate Jack Hawksworth was second fastest at 1:06.9466.
Matthew Brabham was fastest in both Pro Mazda Championship practices, with a low time of 1:11.633. Diego Ferreira followed with a time of 1:12.229.
The USF2000 Championship held a pair of practices, with Neil Alberico pacing the Championship class with a fast lap of 1:13.941. Scott Rettich led the National class field with a 1:16.002.
The final racing action for the day was the weekend’s first qualifying session from the Pirelli World Challenge Championships. Alex Figge earned the overall and GT pole with a time of 1:13.967 while Andy Lee captured the top spot in GTS at 1:20.778.
A first for the 1.8-mile street course were the diverse vehicles of Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR). With a course that circumvents The Dali, fans were also treated to a museum of speed during the lone HSR session that featured classic Lotuses, Porsches and MGs. The series is scheduled for two more sessions this weekend, one each day.
Tomorrow’s schedule begins with a USF2000 qualifying session at 8 a.m. The day’s main events are the IZOD IndyCar Series qualifying session at 2:05 p.m. and the Firestone Indy Lights race at 3:40 p.m.