When Dario Franchitti knocked off his rear wing in the Saturday morning practice session for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with a rare unforced driver error, the collective sigh of relief from his rivals was almost audible over the track noise. Perhaps it was a sign that the racer's luck was starting to turn for the two-time defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion.
Or maybe not.
Penske Racing's Will Power edged out Franchitti in the Firestone Fast Six Qualifying, but as it was at the end of last season, the contenders knows the road to the 2011 championship will run through Franchitti's front door. And the Scotsman knows that gives him a psychological edge over his rivals, however slight.
Power was overtaken by Franchitti in the last race of the 2010 season after leading the points standings from the opening flag. Power acknowledged that he needs to start applying as much pressure as possible on Franchitti from the green flag this year and follow through with a strong stretch run.
"We picked up where we didn't really leave off. We've got continuity in the crew that we've got and I think we learned last year where we lost the championship," Power said. "We don't want to make those same mistakes and I'm a little bit more relaxed this year. Last year I felt, I guess, some pressure in my first full-time ride for this team.
"We're starting out real well and we'll see what happens tomorrow."
Power's best lap of 1:10.9625 at an average speed of 104.579 mpg was enough to put Franchitti (1:02.2953/104.021 mph) on the inside of row one for Sunday's race. Equally hungry was his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, who qualified on the inside of row two.
"You give up a 10th (of a second) or two and it costs you four or five spots, not just for qualifying or practices, but the whole season," Dixon said. "The biggest thing in trying to win a championship is going to consistency, and making bad days into better days. And trying to get as many points as possible."
Next to Dixon is Andretti Autosport's Mike Conway. Conway has proved to make a quick connection with his new team and was perhaps the surprise of the weekend. After a long period of recovery and rehabilitation from his spectacular shunt in last year's Indy 500 with his new teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, Conway was visibly pleased to be back talking about racing.
Some off-season tweaks to the IndyCar rules had all of the top six qualifiers speculating aloud about race strategy. All drivers agreed that tire management would be a key component to race strategy. Several subtle tweaks to the rules will make a difference in race strategy, such as side-by-side restarts and a wave around rule for lap traffic have yet to be translated from paper to the track.
"It's pretty tight, this race, on fuel between two (and three) stops, " Power said. "With (fuel), yellows plus double file restarts, it's anyone's guess."
But no one will be surprised if Franchitti is at the front near the end of the race.
"He's been pretty greedy with the points," noted Dixon.
Rookie Sebastian Saavedra and former ChampCar champion Sebastien Bourdais had hard contact in near the end of the group one qualifying session. Saavedra was treated and cleared to race by the medical staff but his Conquesr Racing car sustained heavy damage.