Unique qualifying format a debut hit

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The qualifying procedure introduced this year by the IndyCar Series for its road and street racing events is something old, something new and something borrowed. But the "Firestone Fast Six" certainly made some fast friends on its debut Saturday.

CART struggled for years to find a fair qualifying format for its street course races, but it appears the IndyCar Series hit the target on its first shot.

To recap: An hour before qualifying, the fastest driver in practice (in this case, Helio Castroneves) gets to call whether he will run first or last as the field runs individual qualifying laps. After a short break, the fastest six drivers are sent back onto the track in 10-second intervals and turned loose for 10 minutes of free track time. The series calls this top-six shootout (sponsored in the modern fashion by Firestone) a "European-style" qualifying session.

No matter what you call it, it worked to perfection Saturday at St. Petersburg. The first surprise in individual qualifying was sprung by Sam Hornish Jr., who despite running only 13th fastest in practice set the benchmark for the field with a 63.451-second lap that was his best lap of the weekend by more than a second.

A few runs later, rookie Tomas Enge posted a 63.265, and the Czech held the top spot as the fastest six drivers from practice began to make their runs. Bryan Herta ran a 63.426, putting him second at the time and comfortably into the shootout. Then Vitor Meira ran a disappointing 64.292 that continued a subpar weekend for Rahal Letterman Racing.

Darren Manning, fourth best in practice, fared even worse and dropped out of the running. Defending series champion Tony Kanaan scraped in with a 63.725 before his Andretti Green Racing teammate Dario Franchitti turned what ended up being the best lap of the individual runs -- 63.038 seconds.

Helio Castroneves, fastest in practice, was P2 with a 63.197 second lap. In a secondary source of drama (and no doubt a future bit of IRL trivia), Kosuke Matsuura was the first man bumped out of the Firestone Fast Six.

Given that street courses tend to get faster and faster as rubber gets laid down throughout the weekend, Franchitti's time was bound to be topped in the 10-minute free-for-all. But Dario wasn't the man who did it; a tire pressure adjustment caused excessive understeer and the Scot wound up fourth on the grid.

Castroneves got close on his first flying lap and broke 63 seconds on his fourth tour of the 1.8-mile street course. But Herta was just warming up. He turned in a 63.159 before digging deep for a 62.509-second flyer that no one could approach.

"Obviously I'm very pleased to get the first road racing pole in the IRL," said Herta, who also claimed the pole on the Phoenix oval two weeks ago. "I made a couple of big mistakes on the lap that I thought was going to be my fastest lap and I kind of got away with something in one of the fast corners. But I was able to regroup and keep going. I put together one last lap and it was a great lap. The only question was whether it would be good enough and it was."

Champ Car tried individual road course qualifying on a couple of occasions over the last couple of years, but the product wasn't very interesting, mainly because the whole process took too long. The IndyCar Series solved that problem by allowing teams to use tire warmers, meaning that the drivers didn't need to run three or four warm-up laps to get their tires up to temperature.

On top of that, the "Firestone Fast Six" is a bonus for the drivers and the fans. The most exciting moments from Champ Car and Formula 1 qualifying sessions from the past were when everyone was on track trying to put in a desperate final effort with the clock ticking down.

The IRL's mix of individual qualifying laps and an all-at-once shootout was praised by the drivers. "The one-lap bit was certainly stressful," Franchitti said. "I ran a good lap that was on the limit but not over the limit. We just got it wrong today for the shootout."

Said Herta: "I was on the fence beforehand about how it would work out, and I'm pretty pleased -- and not just because I'm on the pole. I thought there was more stress heading into the six-car shootout. If you made it into the final six it was a lot of fun and a lot of pressure, but I think all of us were pretty geeked up to get back out there. It was a good system."

The unsung star of the day was Hornish, even though he ended up sixth in the shootout. With his road racing chops questioned in the media, the two-time IndyCar champion demonstrated why he is one of the best open-wheel racers in the world by saving his best effort for when it really counted.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself in the practice sessions and I have to say I was really happy to make the top six and have a good showing," said Hornish. "I still have a lot to learn about these cars on a road course and seeing Helio fastest in all of the practice sessions really motivated me. But everything just flowed on my qualifying lap and it felt really good."

With successful practice and qualifying days in the bank, now it's up to the IRL and its drivers and teams to put on an entertaining race on Sunday.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.