Scott McLaughlin and Will Power locked out the front-row for Team Penske-Chevrolet, McLaughlin’s pole lap being 0.2283sec quicker in the Firestone Fast Six shootout than the lead Honda time, from Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta. But those times are set on used Firestone red-sidewalled alternate-compound tires. On fresh ‘reds’ in Q2, nine-time St. Pete polesitter Power set a new track record of 59.3466sec around the 1.8-mile course, but was a mere 0.0585sec ahead of Herta.
Nevertheless, both McLaughlin and Power praised the improved driveability of the Chevrolet 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 for 2022. Buckner told Motorsport.com this was not only a result of Chevrolet/Ilmor offering a greater range of engine maps, but also improvements in the hardware itself.
“Closing out last year, it was very apparent to us that Colton Herta was the class of the field in the street races,” said Buckner, “so we couldn’t come back this year with the same package and expect any different results. The depth of the field, the level of the competition, meant we were not really in the hunt in the last three races of 2021.
“So it’s just a huge credit to our entire development group, from the engine calibration effort, to our trackside engineers, to our simulation group and the information we’ve gotten from the teams that we were able to make progress for 2022. The group worked incredibly hard even through January and February, and we got the most out of the one Sebring test. It takes a lot of people to make improvements from a program this mature [IndyCar’s current engine formula was introduced in 2012], and so 100 percent of the credit goes to those who put in such long days.
“There were a lot of new ideas in the way we work with the teams as we go through a weekend, a lot of changes, and the good news is that we think there’s room for further improvement. So I’m excited to go to the next street race in Long Beach [Round 3, April 10].
“But I will also say that one race doesn’t make a season, and the competition is very tough – McLaughlin won by half a second! We can’t get too confident in motorsport because it will quickly humble you.”
Buckner also noted that there was a Penske factor to consider at St. Petersburg, given that, going into the weekend, Roger Penske’s squad had won six of the 10 races held there in IndyCar’s current engine formula era.
“I think it’s important to consider that stat, whereas Long Beach is a place where we’ve traditionally struggled,” he said. “Looking at Herta at Long Beach last year, had he not had an issue in qualifying, he’d have strangled that whole event. He started midfield and still came through and won. Absolutely the class of the field.
“So it must have been very satisfying for Scott McLaughlin and Ben [Bretzman, new-for-2022 race engineer] last Saturday. If you can beat Will Power and Colton Herta in qualifying for a street course, you’re doing something pretty special. I hadn’t appreciated before he came over from Supercars how young Scott is, and then when you see a performance like that, you understand the potential he has and what Roger saw in him.”
Putting aside the potential ‘Penske factor’, Buckner agreed that Chevrolet drew satisfaction from Rinus VeeKay’s performance, too. The Ed Carpenter Racing driver qualified fourth, led 13 laps while running the (correct, as it transpired) two-stop strategy but a version that was modified on-the-fly when he struggled to keep the red tires alive in his opening stint and had to make his first stop early. It meant VeeKay’s final stint comprised 38 laps – with no cautions to aid his cause – yet somehow the young Dutchman, last year’s GP of Indy winner, avoided making a late splash-’n’-dash, and lost only two places in the closing laps as he eked out his fuel.
“Yeah, that was very good,” said Buckner. “ECR was really confident going into the season. Tim Broyles [team manager] was saying they had a great test at Sebring, and it was good to see that translate at St. Pete. We all know Rinus is a great talent, but he did an incredible job that last stint. I thought he would have to pit or give up a ton of pace, so the fact that he drove to a really tough fuel mileage number and still came sixth was very impressive.”
Buckner also saw signs of promise among the remainder of Chevy’s 11 drivers in the 26-car field, even if the end result didn’t necessarily reflect that potential.
“Kyle Kirkwood and AJ Foyt Racing looked quick, and that’s great because that team took on a big challenge expanding to three cars for ’22,” he said, “and I think Callum Ilott and Juncos Hollinger did a great job to run second for a long time among the guys doing a three-stop strategy. Obviously Arrow McLaren SP weren’t happy but we know the potential that Pato [O’Ward] and Felix [Rosenqvist] have, so I’m sure they can fix that.
“So overall I thought that was a positive showing for us. We’ve been trying to address our depth. But again, there are 16 more races where we need to try and prove ourselves and beat our opposition.
“Street course driveability wasn’t our only area of focus. For example, Texas is very much it’s own entity, but it’s our only opportunity to run 1.3-bar boost before the Indy 500 so it’s very important to analyze that. It’s hard to weigh out our prep going into a season because for example this year we have three street courses [St. Pete, Long Beach and Detroit], two road courses Barber Motorsports Park and Grand Prix of Indianapolis] and two ovals [Texas and the Indy 500], and so we have to prepare for all three types somewhat in unison. That’s a credit to the group. They spent a ton of time on the dyno.
“Also, St. Pete was the first time we ran the 2022 engine package. Normally there’s a preseason Spring Training test where you would run your new engines, but we didn’t have that this year, so those two days at Sebring two weeks ago were on 2021-spec engines. The 2022 package made their debuts last Friday and across 11 cars, knock on wood, we had not a single critical issue.
“That again shows the diligent attention to detail and preparation from the group. Our trackside guys and the way they’re working with our drivers, the base calibrations, the work back done on the dyno, the engine-build shop. Neat to think about all the people it takes to pull off a weekend like that.”