Saavedra, Hawksworth surprise
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Grand Prix of Indianapolis is a new and different kind of Indy car race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The front of the 25-car field will certainly have a new and different look as Sebastian Saavedra and rookie Jack Hawksworth beat the traditional Verizon IndyCar Series favorites to close out the front row for the inaugural race for Indy cars on the IMS Road Course (Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Conditions got wetter and wetter throughout IndyCar's three-stage knockout qualifying, and Saavedra and his KVSH Racing Dallara-Chevrolet just got better and better. The 23-year-old Colombian claimed his first IndyCar Series pole position, while Hawksworth earned the best starting position of his young IndyCar career.
2012 IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay had just bested Saavedra's lap of 1 minute, 23.8822 seconds, when he crashed in the final corner of the road course, impacting the outer wall of what is the entry to Turn 1 of the IMS oval. Hunter-Reay was uninjured, but the penalty of losing his two fastest qualifying laps dropped him to third on the grid behind the two relative neophytes.
Saavedra dreamed of emulating his countryman Juan Pablo Montoya as an Indy car star, but struggled in 2011 during his first season at the top level. A move to Dragon Racing in 2013, where he was teamed with four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais, accelerated Saavedra's learning process.
"The Two Sebs" remain together in 2014, but now competing for defending Indianapolis 500 champion team KV Racing. Bourdais hopes to regain the title-winning form he displayed in the Champ Car Series from 2004 to '07, while Saavedra believes he is capable of moving into the top 10 on a regular basis.
While Bourdais qualified seventh on Friday at Indianapolis, Saavedra showed poise and savvy in the changing conditions to claim the top spot, surviving a harmless spin in the first knockout segment.
"This is in the top moment of my professional career, for sure," Saavedra said. "We've been getting closer, leading laps and things like that, but strategies didn't work out.
"I'm definitely very proud of everyone at KVSH Racing," he added. "It's a great way to start the month of May. We've been pushing ourselves to get this opportunity, and when we saw it we took it. We are close to deserving more, and this is the start of that."
Saavedra knows he's famous for his spiky haircut more than anything, but insists he is on the verge of becoming a regular front-runner in the IndyCar Series.
"To be honest I feel old," he said. "I'm 23 years old and I've already been here three years. It's a matter of showing yourself and what you've learned the last 15 years of your racing career. You're always learning things, in every corner.
"We made a huge leap this morning and then the whole qualifying session was just weird," he added. "It started to rain and went from wet, to dry, to super dry, to super wet. I loved it. We just kept calm, made the right decisions and choices and it happened."
Hawksworth, a 23-year-old Englishman, is one of the best surprises of the young 2014 season. A record-breaking championship performance in the 2012 Star Mazda Championship landed Hawksworth in Indy Lights for 2013, and while three race wins didn't earn him the Lights title, it did earn him a ticket to the IndyCar Series with Bryan Herta Autosport.
A one-car team featuring a rookie driver isn't always ideal, but Hawksworth has proved from the get-go that he is not intimidated. He qualified eighth for his first IndyCar Series race and improved to fifth at the next. He struggled at Barber Motorsports Park, but was instantly on the pace at Indy -- especially in the wet.
Hawksworth seemed nonplussed to have the top four drivers in the IndyCar standings, including six former series champions, immediately behind him on the grid.
"There's been glimmers of speed and potential," he said. "It's not all quite there yet, but hopefully tomorrow is the day when we do. I think we have good pace and honestly I'm quite excited. We'll push all the way and see what we can do."
Hawksworth admitted that he might not have ended up on the front row had Hunter-Reay's crash on the pit straight not caused the Fast Six shootout session to end about two minutes early.
Hunter-Reay had just set the fastest lap of the session, but barely got into his next lap after crossing the timing line.
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"Every time through there I almost lost it and I had a few big moments there," he said. "In qualifying, you have to go for it. I did a lap good enough to put us P1 at the time, so it's unfortunate. There's a very fine line between getting that good lap in the wet and throwing it off. The standing water was definitely a pretty big issue out there at times."
Simon Pagenaud actually established the track record of 1:09.6716 in the mostly dry first group of qualifying, some 14 seconds faster than Saavedra's pole time in the wet. The Frenchman qualified fourth.
"Coulda shoulda, but the car was really fast in dry conditions," Pagenaud said. "I was actually on a fast lap and the red flag came in Turn 7. I didn't complete the lap, but I believe the car was fast enough to do it.
"Jack's been quick all year and Saavedra has been really quick in the wet," he continued. "Unfortunately we didn't get to finish out the session, but all credit to him."
Championship leader Will Power qualified fifth and rued the decision to start the Fast Six session on used rain tires. By the time he, Pagenaud and Scott Dixon changed to new tires, it was too late to log a flying lap before Hunter-Reay's crash.
The Speedway has drawn disappointing crowds for the first two days of the inaugural GP of Indianapolis weekend. Only a couple thousand people came out Thursday despite free admission for the practice sessions and sunny temperatures in the 80s. Friday's qualifying crowd probably totaled 2,000 and Speedway officials are hoping for a race day crowd of around 40,000.
A bit more star power on the front row might have helped generate walk-up ticket sales for Saturday, but the unpredictable result is right in line with IMS and IndyCar tradition. The Speedway loves a good underdog story, and it's certainly got one on its hands for the inaugural Indy car road race.