By Tony DiZinno
Colton Herta snatched the pole position for the first of two races in the Mazda Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by Cooper Tires doubleheader, in Saturday’s first qualifying session of the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park for the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series.
The 18-year-old is the third fastest qualifier in Indy Lights in as many races, after Aaron Telitz (St. Petersburg race one) and Patricio O’Ward (race two). O’Ward though started from pole in both races, after Telitz was unable to start race one following his accident in qualifying for race two.
Qualifying for the first of two Indy Lights races took place Saturday morning after IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup USA and Pro Mazda sessions, with temperatures of 68 degrees ambient and 75 on track at Barber Motorsports Park.
With the polesitter having won all but two Indy Lights races at Barber since the track joined the calendar in 2010, it’s imperative to get the best starting position possible here. The only other position to win here is third place, Nico Jamin in 2017 race one and Santi Urrutia in 2016 race two.
As this was a 30-minute session, tire strategy became a critical factor with most cars opting to run three sets of Cooper Tires, with two in-session tire changes.
Within the opening minutes of the 30-minute session, nearly all of the eight cars entered eclipsed Urrutia’s Friday fastest time of 1:14.525. Pato O’Ward set the early mark to shoot for at 1:13.2046, with Aaron Telitz, Victor Franzoni and Urrutia also going into the 1:13 bracket.
About halfway into the session, Telitz and Dalton Kellett were the only two cars on track. Teams then began to pit for car tweaks and/or a fresh set of Cooper Tires.
At the 16-minute mark, O’Ward led Telitz by 0.3844 of a second, with Franzoni, Colton Herta, Urrutia, Kellett and Ryan Norman all within 0.646 of a second. Series debutante Alfonso Celis Jr. stood 1.1 seconds back at this point, before drivers headed out for their second qualifying runs.
Telitz got close to O’Ward with a 1:13.2330 after he’d pitted, so was just 0.0284 of a second off the provisional pole.
Times did drop further in the final 12 minutes. Herta jumped to provisional pole at 1:12.8853, but O’Ward regained the top spot shortly thereafter at 1:12.8216.
Urrutia jumped up to third in the final three minutes, with an improved lap of 1:12.9168 to get within a tenth of O’Ward.
Herta though bolted to the top with just two minutes to go, at 1:12.5766 in the No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing entry. That lap is less than two tenths of a second off Spencer Pigot’s qualifying record, 1:12.3865 set in 2015.
This was a busy session with all drivers completing between 13 and 20 laps.
Herta, who won the 400th race in series’ history last year in Barber race two, will line up ahead of O’Ward, Urrutia, Telitz and Franzoni. Kellett, Norman and Celis will complete the field.
Herta started from pole seven times last year, and now has his first of the 2018 season. It took the switch onto the second and third sets of Coopers for his car to come alive.
“We struggled a lot on the first set, and we didn’t know what was going on,” Herta told TSO Ladder. “We had quite a bit of understeer. I was six or seven tenths off. We then tidied up the car a little bit, and my driving. And then yeah, I got onto it on the last two sets.”
He surprised himself with his pace in the final run, although he was disappointed to have just missed Pigot’s old track record.
“I said after the first run, ‘A 12.8 or 12.9 will be pole.’ So you have to do better than that,” Herta said. “I didn’t quite expect that lap time, but I knew I had to go quicker than an 8 for pole.”
O’Ward, by contrast, thought he had the pole and then was befuddled as to where the pace went on his third new set of tires.
“Me too,” he deadpanned when asked if he thought he’d be giving a pole winner interview.
“For some reason, we all put on three sets, but I didn’t even get close to the 12.8. I understeered out of Turn 16 – and by that point the lap is already underway because the timing is Turn 13 – at the downhill. It’s a bit of a bummer because I definitely had a pole car. I’ll be fine in the race.”
O’Ward noted second place isn’t the best to start here, and he’s got a point – if he can pass his teammate to win today’s race, he’ll be the first second-place starter to win an Indy Lights race at Barber.
That first race of the weekend is scheduled for 1:50 p.m. CT and local time this afternoon.