New face up front: de Silvestro fast at St. Pete

There was a new face at the top of the IndyCar leaderboard, and

the competition thought it was long overdue.

Simona de Silvestro, making her debut with new team KV Racing

Technology, posted the third fastest time Friday on the opening day

of the IndyCar season. The Swiss driver was right behind Will Power

and defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay on the course

through the streets of St. Petersburg.

”Simona’s the real deal, we’ve seen that from Day One,”

Hunter-Reay said. ”She’s quick. Very quick. Scary quick a lot of

times. Now she’s with a good team and great manufacturer. She’s got

the horsepower to do it this year.”

It was here in 2011 where she finished fourth for her best

career IndyCar finish, losing a close battle in the closing laps

with Tony Kanaan for third place. It was thought it could be a

springboard for big things to come for the Swiss driver, but

driving for small HVM Racing, the results never came.

Then came a miserable 2012 season with an underpowered Lotus

engine the HVM team was saddled with the entire year. Even after

the other Lotus entrants were able to flee to other manufacturers,

HV was stuck with its slow engine and de Silvestro never got a

chance to be competitive.

She jumped in the offseason to KV Racing, where she’s teammates

now with Kanaan and has a Chevrolet engine.

In no uncertain terms, it’s the opportunity she’s been waiting

for.

”I’ve been three years in the series and always struggled with

something,” she said. ”With KV … the tools are there to be

really competitive.”

And so is that Chevy power.

”It felt like I was still driving in another category last

year,” she said. ”You know you’re under power, but I went the

first time into a Chevy car, I couldn’t believe that was such a

difference.”

Power led the day with a lap at 1:01.4467, followed by

Hunter-Reay at 1:01.625 and de Silvestro at 1:01.6895.

Oriol Servia was fourth as Chevrolet drivers took the top four

spots.

Takuma Sato was fifth and the highest Honda for AJ Foyt

Racing.

Helio Castroneves was sixth and followed by Kanaan, James

Hinchcliffe, rookie Tristan Vautier and Marco Andretti as Chevy’s

took eight of the top 10 spots in practice.

Honda standard bearer Dario Franchitti was 17th and teammate

Scott Dixon was 19th, but Chip Ganassi team manager Mike Hull was

hesitant to blame the manufacturer for the poor first day.

”Fundamentally we need to work on our cars a little bit. When

we get ourselves a little further up the grid, then we can start

thinking about Honda,” Hull said. ”Wasn’t Sato fifth? That proves

the engine has some speed. Usually Scott and Dario are right around

the same position, they follow each other. Today they followed each

other, just in the wrong direction.”

Hunter-Reay and Power, who finished 1-2 in the points last

season, were hesitant to predict what might be going on with the

Honda teams.

Although Power initially offered simply, ”It’s not fast,” he

then questioned how much the Honda teams might be showing.

”But you never know until qualifying,” Power said. ”Those

guys could be sandbagging. The B.S. stops once everyone’s in

qualifying trim.”