Laguna Seca: Hinchcliffe Breaks Atlantic Track Record
Although temperatures were slightly cooler for Saturday’s final round of qualifying for the Monterey Festival of Speed, Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe turned up the heat on the competition and came away with the pole position for Sunday’s second round of the 2008 Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Driving the No. 3 Indeck/TireRack.com machine for Forsythe/Petit Racing, Hinchcliffe posted a new Atlantic track record with a lap at 1:16.189 (105.748 mph) around the 2.238-mile permanent road circuit. The Canadian was already guaranteed a front-row starting position by virtue of his provisional pole-winning performance on Friday, but went a step further on Saturday. As a result, he will start from the pole position for the first time since Round 9 of the 2007 Atlantic Championship at Edmonton last July.
“It’s been since Edmonton since we’ve been on the front row and it was a poor end to last season and a poor start to this one, so it’s kind of nice to finally be back up here,” Hinchcliffe said. “We didn’t really test well here, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and obviously, Long Beach didn’t go well, so I think the whole team was thinking that, for us, the season really starts here. Long Beach was just a test that they gave points away for some reason. This is us getting back on track now and we’re really looking forward to it. The team has done such a good job and the guys did so much work between the first race and here to get us back up to speed. I feel bad for David (Garza), because he didn’t really get a good lap on the new tires, but he was really quick as well. The team did a great job. I’m just really looking forward to tomorrow now.”
Starting alongside Hinchcliffe on the front row will be Carl Skerlong in the No. 14 King Taco entry from Pacific Coast Motorsports. Skerlong clocked a best lap at 1:16.356 (105.516 mph) to greatly improve his fortunes from Friday’s first round of qualifying, when he made contact with the Turn 4 barrier just a few minutes into the session and did not post a time.
“I definitely hit both ends of the spectrum this weekend,” Skerlong said. “I went from last on the sheet to almost the top, but some Canadian had to get in the way, but that’s all right. We were quick here in testing and to come back and be able to start on the front row is where we want to be. It’s not first, but it’s definitely a lot better than where we were yesterday. I have to thank everybody at Pacific Coast and King Taco and everybody who helped us get this far throughout last year and this year. It’s looking like it’s going to be a good season.”
Skerlong is the meat in a Canadian sandwich, as Quebec’s Kevin Lacroix occupies third on the starting grid in the No. 25 Uni-Select/Deans Knight/Wasteco machine for Walker Racing. Lacroix’s best qualifying lap was a 1:16.364 (105.505 mph) run. He is looking to build upon a third-place finish in the season-opener at Long Beach last month and appears poised to do just that with his starting position.
“For sure, being third twice, it means the car is good and I’m very happy with what the Walker Racing team is doing,” Lacroix said. “I don’t want to be third again. I want to move up on the podium, but it’s still good. James (Hinchcliffe) and Carl (Skerlong) are doing a great job, so I’m quite happy with third, but I’m sure I’ll move up in the race. I’m very happy. Thank you to Walker Racing, Deans Knight and Uni-Select for helping me be here. I’m quite lucky compared to last year. I’m here for the first race and second race instead of waiting until the fourth race.”
Despite a blistering lap in Saturday’s morning practice session, Dutchman Junior Strous will line up fourth on the Monterey Festival of Speed grid in the No. 6 Shell/HTP/Muermans Group/Red, White & Bluezz entry from Condor Motorsports/Team Holland. Strous—who was the only driver to run a sub 1:16 lap in practice—logged a best qualifying lap of 1:16.447 (105.391 mph).
Finnish racer Markus Niemela rounded out the top five in the No. 8 Mr. Jones Bar & Kitchen/Rauma Town/Turku Karting machine for Brooks Associates Racing. Niemela’s best qualifying lap was a 1:16.633 (105.135 mph). On Friday, Niemela was third quickest in First Round qualifying.
The top 13 qualifiers posted times within one second of Hinchcliffe’s pole-winning time.
• Greg Mansell, the son of 1992 Formula 1 World Champion and 1993 IndyCar World Series champion Nigel Mansell, will start sixth on the grid in the No. 5 Sunseeker/Walker Racing machine for the Monterey Festival of Speed. Mansell—who is competing in just his second Atlantic event—posted a best qualifying lap at 1:16.660 (105.098 mph).
• After posting a top-three time in the opening practice session of the weekend, Monterey, Calif. resident Jonathan Bomarito and his Mathiasen Motorsports team have found it somewhat difficult to recapture that magic. Bomarito will start the Monterey Festival of Speed from the seventh position after a best qualifying lap of 1:16.716 (105.021 mph) in the No. 26 Del Taco/RLM Investments/Stone Brewing machine.
• It has also been tough sledding at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca thus far for Long Beach winner Simona De Silvestro. The Swiss racer, who is the second woman to win a race in Atlantic history, will start 14th in the No. 34 Nuclear Clean Air Energy machine for Newman Wachs Racing. De Silvestro’s best qualifying lap was a 1:17.239 (104.310 mph).