The top 15 in the 24-car field were covered by just half a second in opening practice for Round 2 in the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series, with the top 20 were covered by one second.
And pacesetter Newgarden of Team Penske-Chevrolet set a 60.8029sec lap of the 1.8-mile street course that also includes a runway from Albert Whitted Airport. The two-time St. Pete winner’s time was achieved on Firestone’s primary compound, and is only 0.75sec off the lap record set by Jordan King of Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevy three years ago during the Q2 segment and on the alternate compound red-sidewalled tires.
Last year’s St. Pete pole winner, Will Power, who was second fastest today, set a 60.3 on reds last October in Q2 – traditionally the fastest qualifying segment, as all drivers are usually on worn reds if they reach the Firestone Fast Six Q3.
Asked if King’s record could be broken and a sub-1-minute lap was feasible, Newgarden said, “it’s possible.”
Andretti Autosport-Honda driver Colton Herta, third fastest this afternoon, said: “Yeah, I think so. I think we’re a 60.8. Josef did a 60.80. Still have a little bit to go, but you kind of expect six or seven tenths from the reds if you nail the lap. So we’ll see.
Regarding where on the track the alternate compounds are most advantageous over the harder primaries, Herta responded: “I think the biggest time gain on the reds is probably that Turns 4 through T9 section.
“Obviously Turn 1, you get quite a bit. I never feel too much in straight line braking from the reds. It’s more when you’re rolling off the brakes, you have such mega-traction on the reds for the first lap or two. That’s probably the biggest part, that kind of T4 to T9.
“Basically what I’m saying is half the track! You’re going to find time everywhere. I guess half of the track you’ll find the most.”
Newgarden agreed the gains came all around the course but said that unlike Herta he noticed it most under braking.
“You’re talking that final bit of braking, which for sure is probably the best part of [running reds],” he said. “That combined with the exit, just overall traction.
“I think you get a little bit more longitudinally than laterally from the tire. That’s probably where I notice it the most.”
Both drivers felt that a surprising increase in grip is what had made the cars so extraordinarily close in terms of laptime.
“I think the track was really high grip, honestly, more so than what I was expecting,” said Newgarden. “That’s probably what brought the times tighter. Normally when it grips up, we get really close as far as the entire pack.
“It’s going to be tough. You’ve got to be on it. Can’t make even the littlest mistake. That can set you back pretty far.”