Ed Jones and Max Chilton led the way for European powerhouse open-wheel team Carlin as the Dallara IL-15 and turbocharged 2.0-liter Mazda MZR-R engines made their official track debut today with a pair of practice sessions for this weekend's Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season-opening Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Peninsula Pipeline.
Jones was fastest in this morning's opening practice session with a time of 1:07.1401 (average speed 96.515 mph), which was already faster than the existing race lap record of 1:07.2141 set by Sebastian Saavedra in 2009. A heavy rain shower precluded any activity in the scheduled afternoon session, so Jones' morning time remained as the fastest.
"The car is great to drive, especially through some of the fast corners," said Jones. "It's been a great experience. Carlin has done a very good job with the setup of the car. Obviously, it was a guessing game this morning, since we haven't been to this track before and so many of the other teams have. And it's been a matter of building myself up; I struggled a bit at the beginning of the session but it got better and better. I'm really looking forward to the dry weather and finally racing the car."
Carlin teammate Max Chilton, who raced for the past two years in Formula 1 and is helping the team with its initial foray to North America – with eyes fixed firmly on the Verizon IndyCar Series in the future – set the second fastest time at 1:07.4733.
"It's a very good stepping stone into IndyCar and I hope I'll get to drive an Indy car one day," said Chilton. "It's been a successful, albeit short day for us, as I was P1 for much of the session until Ed pipped me at the end. We've been at the top of the charts at most of the tests. The hard work starts tomorrow by getting a good qualifying position for the race, since it's not particularly easy to overtake on a street circuit. I think either of us can go for the win but I'm going to try my hardest to get that."
Fellow series newcomers Scott Hargrove, from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and his Florida-based 8Star Motorsports team, turned the third fastest time at 1:07.5363, followed by Colombian Juan Piedrahita, who has joined defending champion team Belardi Auto Racing for his sophomore Indy Lights season and Matthew Brabham, with Andretti Autosport. Brabham, who became the first driver to win consecutive MAZDASPEED scholarships after winning the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2012 and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2013, finished fourth in his rookie season of Indy Lights in 2014.
"The Dallara IL-15 really is a fantastic car to drive," said Hargrove. "It was a great start to the weekend to finish P3 this morning. The 8Star car was phenomenal right out of the gate. For me to be P3 not having tested since January is a great start. I've raced in St. Pete for four years now and each year it gets bigger and better."
The Indy Lights cars will return to the track for qualifying tomorrow morning, March 28, at 9:30 am ET. The green flag for the first of two races will fly at 2:25 pm.