By BRANT JAMES and JOANNE KORTH
Published April 2, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Count Dario Franchitti as a fan of the new Indy Racing League qualifying procedure for street and road courses like Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It's not so much a mystery for him after racing under the system in the DTM German Touring Car Series in 1995.
After single-lap qualifying, the top six drivers will contest a 10-minute "European-style" session where they can improve their starting order by beating qualifying speeds of drivers above them.
"There's a fine line between getting that almost ultimate lap and stepping over that line and making a mistake," said Franchitti, who will qualify second. "It's a tight rope we will all be walking."
"I'm sure there are people who will step over the line," said Sam Hornish, who will qualify 13th. "You have to give it 99 percent, but you can't step over that line because you don't have a second lap to do it again."
Gaining a spot up front is much more crucial in street and road racing than on ovals because passing opportunities are much more limited.
"It helps a lot, for sure," said Helio Castroneves, who has the option to qualify first or last. "You can set up the pace."
OFF TRACK: Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Ryan Briscoe has yet to finish a race this season because of crashes. He was off to a rough start Friday after brushing a tire barrier with his No. 33 Panoz/Toyota with minutes left in the first practice session. Damage forced him to a backup car.
"This is not how I wanted to start off my weekend," Briscoe said. "Coming through Turn 2, I clipped the tire barrier and that spun me around. It's really disappointing because it was a very good car and fun to drive, but we'll be ready for qualifying."
Cheever Racing driver Patrick Carpentier spent most of the day in park. He posted only 14 laps because of throttle problems on his No. 83 Dallara/Toyota.
"I wasn't able to get in any serious laps," Carpentier said. "It was unfortunate, but I am still hopeful for the race. I've always done my best under race conditions, so I think we can pull things together. Since I wasn't driving I went out to Turns 1, 2 and 3 and was able to watch what everyone else was doing through there. That was about all I was able to learn today."
TREAD HEAVILY: Firestone brought the softest tire compound it will use all season because of the combination of asphalt and concrete surfaces on the 1.8-mile course. The tires held up well through early practices, however, as evidenced by the limited amount of wear and the early lack of grip.
"They might say soft, but the tires lasted a good amount of time," Hornish said. "I think they will do good in the race. Hopefully, there will be a point in time near the end of the race maybe where we can stagger pit stops."
NO WORRY: Defending Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice said he has a simple plan for coming back from consecutive poor finishes and a 20th-place standing in points.
"Like we did last year and like we did every other time," said Rice, who had a gear problem at Homestead and crashed after 14 laps at Phoenix. "We're at a new race and it's a new weekend, go on from there. Because the first one was mechanical, you can't do anything about it. Obviously, the crash was self-inflicted. We haven't helped ourselves by doing that. We have to limit the mistakes and we haven't done a good job doing that, we just need to hunker down and focus."
Rice will qualify 16th of 21 today.
ALTER IMAGE: Danica Patrick's FHM layout and racy IRL promotion poster lead fans to believe she's a wild child, but the 23-year Rahal Letterman Racing driver, just the second female to race full-time in the IRL, said she is not what she appears. A certain maturity, she said, came from racing and living on her own in Europe as she prepared for this opportunity, she said.
"Through my life I've had to force myself to be mature and speak the language of an adult from a really young age," she said. "You have to communicate with much older people, professional people. It's very important people and it's really become habit for me and I'm telling you, my exciting nights are cooking dinner and having a glass of wine on the couch watching reality TV, and I'm not even kidding you."