ST. PETERSBURG — The Brazilians still lord over the streets of St. Petersburg. But it's getting to be a jungle out there.
History held true to a point on Saturday as Tony Kanaan, a top-three finisher in all three Indy Racing League events here, earned the pole and Helio Castroneves, the two-time defending champ, earned the fourth spot in a frenetic qualifying session for today's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It also became apparent that the street-racing acumen of the nine new drivers from former Champ Car teams would make them immediate factors, though they've had just five weeks to learn their new cars since their former series folded. Will Power, fourth in Champ Car points last season, will share the front row with Kanaan after posting a best lap of 1 minute 2.60 seconds, and series runnerup Justin Wilson took the third spot in 1:02.64. Five of the top 10 starters are from former Champ Car teams.
Kanaan covered the 14-turn, 1.8-mile course in 1:02:53 at an average of 103.627 mph in the debut of a new street/road course format where the field is gradually reduced until the fastest six drivers fill the top starting spots.
Champ Car's orphans are clearly eager to prove themselves at the type of racing they know well after settling in nicely last week on an unfamiliar oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Adjusting to a new series has meant adjusting ego and expectation, especially for Wilson, whose Newman/Haas/Lanigan team won the last four Champ Car titles with former St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais.
"It's quite an important thing," said Wilson, whose aim is to be known simply as an IndyCar driver. "You want to go in there and show you are capable of being a front-runner, and you're trying to prove yourself. I'll definitely sleep easier than I did a week ago. You're jumping up and down saying, 'I'm good! I can drive.' You finish 15th (at Homestead) and it's hard to prove your point."
Castroneves and Kanaan, who came from Champ Car's predecessor in 2002 and 2003, respectively, said they were not surprised that a win at St. Petersburg had become a lot tougher.
"Good drivers are always going to be good drivers," Kanaan said. "They're not up in the front because they're lucky."
Luck helps here, though. So does cunning. There is no book on winning at St. Petersburg.
Dan Wheldon won a caution-filled inaugural in 2005 by driving through a Kanaan-Ryan Briscoe incident in Turn 10 with eight laps left. He led just 10 laps after struggling all race with brakes. Castroneves won under caution in 2006 when a quick off-cycle pit stop put him in front of Kanaan and Scott Dixon. In 2007, Castroneves led 95 of 100 laps.
Kanaan recovered bumping the race-leading Briscoe, then an aggressive rookie, into a tire barrier; in the past two races Kanaan has climbed into the top three after going to the back with various maladies. He's the only driver to finish on the podium in all three St. Petersburg events.
"The strategies I think are to keep it clean," Kanaan said. "I mean, Ryan got into the front or that race by strategy. He had worse tires than I did and here you go.
"For us sitting in the front (today), some people are going to follow the leaders, but I bet you, from 10th (place and) behind if it goes yellow by Lap 4, people are going to be coming in and here we go. By the next, you're going to see the guys who are in the back are in the front, and we're in the back and it's just … you can't predict anything."
Not even whether it will rain on the race today, as forecast.
With scarce passing zones and eight more cars in the field than last season, qualifying is vital, said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who starts sixth.
"You make the smallest mistake, lock a wheel in one corner and you don't get that perfect lap in and all of a sudden you're 12th or 13th," he said.
Which happened to Dixon, who has finished second and started no worse than fourth in the last two races here but begins 13th today.