ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – When Juan Pablo Montoya returned to IndyCar Series action last year for the first time since 2000, he used a popular derogatory term to describe his performance in the first race.
After Friday’s opening practice session for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he used the same term, only in a more positive way.
“I learned that I don’t suck anymore,” Montoya said. “Well, I don’t suck as much.”
The Team Penske driver, who won the 1999 CART championship, the 2000 Indy 500 and spent several seasons in F1 and then NASCAR, had the speed in the first practice session of the season on Friday. Montoya was the second fastest driver with a lap at 1:01.6996 around the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street course for a speed of 105.025 miles per hour in a Chevrolet.
Team Penske teammate and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power was the fastest driver of the session at 1:01.4790 (105.416 mph) also in a Chevy. Third quick was another Team Penske driver, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, with a lap at 1:01.7000 (105.024 mph).
Team Penske’s fourth driver, Simon Pagenaud, was ninth at 1:02.0188. All Team Penske entries are Chevrolets.
“Simon had some problems and he has been right there every test so I’m sure Simon will be there,” Montoya said. “It looks like we have done a really good job over the winter at Team Verizon and Team Penske. It’s fun to have everybody doing well.
“I’m glad that all the work over the winter has paid off. It doesn’t mean we will be good all weekend but it’s the first time on a street course since I came back that I’ve been somewhere near the top. I still need to drive it and I still need to hustle the car.”
Montoya is hoping to get off to a consistent start to the season and that early-season consistency may be the key to a championship season.
“I feel like we are really good and really happy with the car,” Montoya said. “It was good. We only made two runs on two sets of tires and we were still second quick.”
Power finished the season as the champion and began this year as the driver the others are trying to catch, as he was the fastest in practice.
“The car felt pretty nice, we did a few changes and I’m looking forward to Saturday,” Power said. “I think this is important because it gives us a good direction for Saturday’s qualifications. In testing there is no prize for being quick in a test but for sure on Saturday there is a big prize in qualifying and an even bigger prize in Sunday’s race.”
Friday’s practice session included the new “Aero Kits” that are used by Chevrolet and Honda teams.
“You have a lot more downforce but it doesn’t feel that much different,” Power said. “You brake later and it’s a bit easier in a couple areas but it’s a good setup.”
The teams will practice on Saturday from 12:30-1:15 p.m. ET before the knockout qualifying round Saturday afternoon at 4:15 p.m.
“I think we learned most of our stuff in the preseason tests and today we learned that it applies,” said Will Power’s engineer David Faustino. “We’re just trying to figure out that everything we learned in the kits and downforce works out on a low grip track because we’ve been testing on high-grip tracks. That is what was important about today’s practice.”
Although Friday’s second practice session was rained out, the teams get another chance to practice on Saturday.
“I think the Chevy body kit is very well sorted and we have a reasonable setup for this track,” Faustino said. “We’re trying to get our cars well balanced and our drivers happy. Chevy has done a great job on the kit and that’s not our biggest issue right now.”
Chevrolet drivers swept the top five in practice. Second-year driver Jack Hawksworth of A.J. Foyt Racing was the fastest Honda driver at 1:01.8713 (104.734 mph)
“I’m intrigued with Honda’s front wing because it has so much to it but the car has to work together as a package,” Faustino said. “If you look at the drivers in the Chevy camp we have more of the guys that have always been in the top 10. That is what we are seeing now.”
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Verizon IndyCar Series Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. ET.