Hinchcliffe Scores Provisional Pole in Monterrey With an air temperature of 97 degrees Fahrenheit and a track temperature of 125, it was unseasonably hot for the first day of practice and qualifying at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but Canadian racer James Hinchcliffe scorched the 2.238-mile road course with a lap at 1:17.541 (103.904 mph) to score the provisional pole for Sunday’s Monterey Festival of Speed.
The performance enabled Hinchcliffe to guarantee himself a front row starting spot for the second round of the 11-race 2008 Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda. It will be the first time since Round 9 of the 2007 season at Edmonton that Hinchcliffe will start from the front row. Hinchcliffe’s Friday performance in the No. 3 Indeck/TireRack.com also went a long way toward helping him and his Forsythe/Petit Racing teammates put a 10th-place performance in the season-opener at Long Beach behind them.
“Long Beach was a really tough weekend for us,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was pretty gutting to be so far down. We had a little bit of a problem with the car in terms of the setup, so we kind of reshuffled the engineering department before this race. I think we’re kind of seeing the benefits of that now. We’ve finally figured out qualifying. The best thing to do is to go quicker than the other guys. Now that we’ve got that sorted, we’re really looking forward to more success in qualifying. We’ve seen how competitive this championship is, and qualifying means so much when it comes to the race. The session was pretty standard. We really struggled this morning, so I was a little skeptical coming into the qualifying session, but right out of the box, the car was just awesome. The whole Forsythe/Petit team worked really hard since Long Beach to get this car sorted. A guaranteed front-row starting spot is nice, but the job’s not done by any means. Hopefully, we can get a legitimate pole tomorrow, just keep up the pace, and see how the race unfolds. It should be a good one.”
Canadian drivers swept the top-two spots on the provisional qualifying grid, as Quebec’s Kevin Lacroix posted the second-quickest time of the session at 1:17.710 (103.678 mph) in the No. 25 Uni-Select/Deans Knight/Wasteco entry for Walker Racing. Lacroix is hoping to continue his momentum from a third-place performance in Long Beach, and he certainly accomplished that on Friday.
“The heat didn’t affect me,” Lacroix said. “Just before the season, I cut my hair, so I didn’t feel it. Qualifying went pretty well. As soon as we put on new tires, it went much better than the first few laps. Normally, the sixth or seventh lap is the fastest one, but my fastest lap was going to be the third and I made a mistake and missed it. I was maybe a bit frustrated about it, but I just kept going and tried to do the best I could. James did many good laps and he deserves the pole more than me, so I congratulate him.”
Third quickest was Finnish rookie Markus Niemela with a lap at 1:17.830 (103.518 mph) in the No. 8 Mr. Jones Bar & Kitchen/Rauma Town/Turku Karting entry for Brooks Associates Racing. Niemela was also a top-three performer in First Round qualifying at Long Beach, but slipped to seventh in final qualifying and wound up finishing in the same position in the race. He believes he learned a lesson from that experience that he could apply in Saturday’s final round of qualifying in Monterey.
On Saturday (in Long Beach), I was already having quite a good run, but I clipped the wall on my second lap with the new tires in qualifying, and I finished seventh,” Niemela explained. “The race was really boring. I was trying to pass all the time and ended up seventh in the race. So, the lesson learned was ‘Don’t hit walls in Saturday qualifying, because it might hurt your result.’ I think also here, probably tomorrow is going to be a little bit faster, depending on the winds and everything. Today was pretty much like a checkup. I think tomorrow counts more than today. We just have to keep improving.”
Fourth on the provisional grid was Junior Strous in the No. 6 Shell/HTP/Muermans Group/Red, White & Bluezz entry from Condor Motorsports/Team Holland. Strous turned a best lap at 1:17.910 (103.412 mph). The Dutchman was quickest in Friday’s opening practice session.
German driver Andreas Wirth made it two Brooks Associates Racing machines in the top five with a lap at 1:17.941 (103.370 mph) in the No. 88 Wirsol Solar Energy/Sueba USA Development machine. Wirth heads into Sunday’s Monterey Festival of Speed looking for his fourth career Atlantic race victory.
The top 11 drivers in the session turned laps within one second of Hinchcliffe’s provisional pole-winning time.
• Local favorite Jonathan Bomarito wound up eighth in the provisional qualifying session with a lap at 1:18.048 (103.229 mph) in the No. 26 Del Taco/RLM Investments/Stone Brewing machine for Mathiasen Motorsports. The Monterey, Calif. native and Skip Barber Racing School instructor at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was second quickest in the morning practice session.
• Simona De Silvestro, who won the season-opening Imperial Capital Bank Atlantic Challenge of Long Beach last month, posted the 14th-quickest time in provisional qualifying with a lap at 1:18.828 (102.207 mph). De Silvestro was the second woman in the 34-year history of the Atlantic Championship to win a race.
• Pacific Coast Motorsports driver Carl Skerlong had a rough time in provisional qualifying after running the third-quickest lap in the morning practice session in his No. 14 King Taco machine. On his second lap of the session, Skerlong made contact with the barrier in Turn 4, which ended his qualifying session. He was not credited with a timed lap and wound up 20th on the provisional grid.