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Growth forcing IRL to alter qualifying format UPDATE The IndyCar Series will enhance its popular Firestone Fast Six qualifying format for road and street courses beginning with the series’ visit to St. Petersburg, Fla. April 4-6. Single-car qualifying, which previously preceded the Firestone Fast Six shootout, will be eliminated on road and street courses in favor of group sessions that will progressively narrow the field to the fastest six, who will then enter a 10-minute shootout for the pole.

Qualifying procedures explained
Preparations for qualifying at road and street courses will begin with two Friday practice sessions in which all cars will participate together for a total of 2 ½ hours. On Saturday morning, the cars will be randomly divided into two groups for a final practice session. Each group will get 30 minutes of practice time.

Qualifying begins Saturday afternoon with the two groups competing for 20 minutes each. The fastest six cars from each group will advance to another round of qualifying while positions 13 down will be established for the race by the fastest laps turned by the remaining cars.

The 12 advancing cars will then enter a 15-minute group qualifying session with all previous times erased. Following that session, the fastest six cars will advance to the Firestone Fast Six shootout while the remaining six cars will fill positions seven through 12 on the starting grid based on their fastest laps from that session.

Once again, all times will be erased and the six finalists will battle for 10 minutes to win the PEAK Motor Oil Pole.

“Qualifying for our road and street courses has been full of drama ever since we introduced the Firestone Fast Six concept in 2005,” said Brian Barnhart, president of the operations division of the Indy Racing League, the sanctioning body of the IndyCar Series. “Expanding the group format into several stages will add additional levels of intrigue and strategy that will keep fans entertained throughout.”

The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg also will mark the first time two off-season enhancements are used on a road/street course. IndyCar Series cars are now equipped with a paddle shift system and an optional variable-assist steering rack. Both improve driver safety. The paddle shift system allows drivers to keep both hands on the wheel while shifting, and the steering rack makes it easier to turn the wheel the farther it is turned.

“The new qualifying format should be a hit with the fans,” said Al Speyer, executive director of Firestone Racing. “It adds increasing levels of excitement and unpredictability with each segment. It leads to the climactic Firestone Fast Six that has produced so much excitement since its inception at St. Pete three seasons ago, in part because the participants receive an extra set of new Firestone Firehawks for that session alone. We’re eager to see the new format unveiled this weekend.”  IRL PR

04/02/08 Although its first race in 13 years under a unified banner went off without a hitch Saturday, the Indy Racing League will be impacted by its recent remodeling before the season's second race even begins.

With the IndyCar Series' fields swelled by eight cars from its merger with the defunct Champ Car circuit, qualifying for road and street courses will be radically altered, beginning with Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Fla.). To complete qualifying sessions in roughly the same 80-minute time-frame despite more entrants, the IRL will switch to a three-round "knockout" format.

Qualifying will begin with a random division of the 26 drivers into groups of 13 for two 20-minute time trials. The top six from each session will advance to a combined grouping that lasts 15 minutes. The fastest six from that will battle in a final 10-minute session that will determine pole position and the first three starting rows. (All 26 cars are guaranteed spots.)

Under the old rules, the IRL held single-car qualifying, then grouped the top six into a pole shootout.

"It'd be very difficult from a timing standpoint to do single-lap qualifying for 26 cars, and then do the" pole shootout, says Brian Barnhart, IRL president of competition. "This way we'll have multiple cars on track at all times, and that makes for an exciting show.

"I did like the old format because it put tremendous pressure on the driver. You had one lap, which meant you could not make mistakes. But going from 18 to 26 cars, we couldn't do that time-wise."

The knockout approach will be more forgiving as drivers have the chance to make several clean laps each round. Those who cause a red flag will lose their two fastest laps.

Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe raced under a similar format last year in the American Le Mans Series but still prefers one-car qualifying — although he said the new system will allow drivers to face the same track and weather conditions.

"What I liked about one-lap qualifying is someone in a less competitive car could hang it out and move to the front," says Briscoe, who won the ALMS race at St. Petersburg last year. "This is really going to put the quick guys at the front and the slower guys at the back."

Briscoe believes the rule change will help the former Champ Car teams, which are scrambling to find a handle on new cars and setups. In the season-opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Oriol Servia was the highest-finishing Champ Car entrant, in 12th. Briscoe expects a stronger showing from the newcomers at St. Pete, especially as they won't have to risk as much on an all-or-nothing qualifying lap.

"It makes it a good bit fairer with their lack of experience," he says.

Barnhart says the random draw also could enhance competition because cars that don't advance from the first round won't be slotted ahead of cars that do despite being slower.

"You could end up with the nine fastest cars in the same group and only six will advance," Barnhart says. "That means three cars will start 13th, 14th and 15th but could be faster than many of those that don't advance from the second round. Starting the race with good cars mid-pack makes for good overtaking and entertainment." USA Today

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