The American Le Mans Series has traveled north and west from Sebring, to the city of St. Petersburg, the “Monaco of Florida,” to share a race weekend with the IRL series as they open their season. The seventeen-car field was slightly smaller than Sebring, but the racing did not disappoint. The spring-break atmosphere on hand was contagious, with plenty of vendors, music and attractions to entertain the crowds.
The first practice session took to the track at 8:06 am under threatening skies and a temperature of 76 degrees. The teams have their rain tires ready to go, but start the session on dry tires. Marino Franchitti (Lola B09 86 Mazda) took the early overall fast lap with a 1:10.510, but would soon settle for fastest lap in class dropping into the 1:09s, while Scott Sharp (Acura ARX-02a) turns in the overall fast lap at 1:07.046 in P1. In GT2, Joey Hand (#90-GT2 BMW E92 M3) was working well and holding a solid second in class, while the Farnbacher Loles Porsche, driven by Wolf Henzler (#87-GT2 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR), put down the GT2 class fast lap with a time of 1:14.294.
Rain started to fall about 40 mins into the session, and came down hard. Cars headed to the pits and only Ryan Phinney (#22-GT2 Panoz Esperante GTLM Ford) and Dirk Werner (#87-GT2 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) ventured back out on track, with the Panoz spinning and stopping in the runoff area of turn four. The session finished 20 mins later, with Gil de Ferran (Acura ARX-02a) posting the fastest time in P1, Adrian Fernandez (Acura ARX-01B) finishing fastest in P2 and Dirk Werner (#87-GT2 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) finishing fastest in GT2.
Following the session, Dominik Farnbacher (#21 Panoz Team PTG Panoz Esperante) stressed their need for power at this event and the importance of a good starting position, saying “The key factor in my eyes will be qualifying. It is so hard to overtake here. If someone is on the proper racing line and perfectly defends their position, it is almost impossible to go around. You have to have a fast car or be on the straight with a lot of power to get around.”
Tom Milner (#92-GT2 Rahal Letterman BMW), however, had a different focus, saying “Our advantage is that the car is really good under braking and in mid-corner speeds. This track really suits us more than Sebring, for example. We don’t depend too much on straightline speed here.”
By the start of the afternoon practice session the rain was gone and the track was dry, as it would remain for the rest of the weekend. There were no significant incidents, although a few cars had non-disabling issues with debris on track. Chapman Ducote (#37-P1 Intersport Racing Lola B06/10 AER) hit the wall at turn 14, but continued. Five minutes before the session ended, the red flag came out for debris in the fast chicane at turn 12.
Not surprisingly, the P1 Acuras were still fast, with deFerran Motorsports’ #66-P1 Simon Pagenaud posting the fastest overall time. Butch Leitzinger in the Dyson Racing Mazda edged out the Lowe’s Acura at the end of the session to set the fastest P2 time by just .043 second. In GT2 several cars traded fastest lap until the finish of the session, when Joey Hand’s Rahal Letterman BMW (#90-GT2) posted a 1:13.323.
The GT2 cars hit the track at 2:15 for their 20 minute qualifying session. Despite struggling with understeer during practice, qualifying was dominated by fast lap after fast lap by the Ferrari of Jamie Melo. “I didn’t expect to do this kind of lap,” Melo confessed, after posting a 1:12.892. The session was red-flagged about 10 minutes in when one of the Flying Lizard Porsches (#45-GT2), driven by Patrick Long, went into the tires at turn 10. Wolf Henzler (#87-GT2) posts the second fastest time for Farnbacher Loles, a 1:13.173 right at the close of the session.
Although this will be Jaime Melo’s 13th career pole, the combined P1/P2 Qualifying Session produced two first-time pole sitters for this Series. Scott Sharp’s Patron Highcroft Acura (#9-P1) set a few overall fast laps early in the session, until Simon Pagenaud delivered a 1:03.776 with the XM car (deFarran Motorsports #66-P1 Acura). In P2, Luis Diaz’s Lowe’s Acura (#15-P2) dominates over the Mazdas, posting a 1:05.178 and earning his first Series pole. “The Dyson guys are getting closer,” he stated after the session, “…everyone is going to be more aggressive. It will be a street fight between the Dysons and us.”
Following qualifying, David Brabham set the stage for Saturday's race, saying, "Any street circuit with traffic can be a big challenge and that will be the case tomorrow."