Saavedra Shocks, Takes Indy GP Pole

Sebastian Saavedra celebrates after winning the pole for Saturday's inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. (Al Steinberg Photo)
Sebastian Saavedra on track during qualifying Friday for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. (Don Figler Photo)
Sebastian Saavedra on track during qualifying Friday for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. (Don Figler Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS – Few Verizon IndyCar Series fans know much about Colombia’s Sebastian Saavedra, but after the fourth-year driver won the Verizon P1 Pole Award for Saturday’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, that will likely change.

Saavedra shocked Indianapolis Motor Speedway during Friday’s Firestone Fast Six qualifications when he won the pole. Well, actually he got the pole from something even more shocking when Ryan Hunter-Reay – the fastest driver in the Fast Six – lost control on the wet track surface coming out of turn 14 with just 38 seconds left in the session and spun. Hunter-Reay’s car smacked the outside wall on the front straight to bring out the red flag.

Because of that, Hunter-Reay’s fastest two laps were eliminated for bringing out the red flag and that gave the pole to Saavedra, who lapped the 2.349-mile, 14-turn IMS road course at 1:23.882 (104.675 miles per hour) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for KV AFS Racing.

The start of the Fast Six was delayed by rain that soaked the track but quickly cleared enough for a wet qualification session. And for those who follow racing in the rain, that becomes a great equalizer.

“I love the rain,” Saavedra said. “It was crazy at first because we didn’t know what to expect from the track – if it was going to be wet, if it was going to be dry. We were comfortable yesterday, as it got hotter, we just needed to work a little bit more – especially with the rain. We made a huge leap this morning and then the whole session was just weird. It started to rain and went from wet, to dry, to super dry, to super wet. I loved it.”

It was the first pole for Saavedra in the Verizon IndyCar Series. His previous best start was sixth last year at The Milwaukee Mile.

Rookie Jack Hawksworth qualified second for his best start in the series. It was his second appearance in the Firestone Fast Six in four starts. Hawksworth’s fast lap was 1:24.078 (104.431 mph) in a Dallara/Honda.

Hunter-Reay went from the pole to third and remains the only driver to qualify for every Firestone Fast Six session this season.

“We definitely gave that one away,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “It’s a fun track. Since we got here it’s been dry-wet-dry-wet. It was changing conditions and it was a lot of fun, but it ended the wrong way, so congrats to Saavedra – good job and good pace. It’s going to be a really great championship race (tomorrow) and there will be a lot of passing – especially with these long straights. There will be a lot of different strategies on downforce and tires. I think there will be a lot of (teams) mixing it up like you always do with the Verizon IndyCar Series.”

Simon Pagenaud of France was fourth at 1:25.288 (102.950 mph) in a Dallara/Honda for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. Will Power of Team Verizon Penske was fifth at 1:25.521 (102.669 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet and Scott Dixon rounded out the Fast Six at 1:25.654 (102.509 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

But it was Saavedra, a journeyman driver who has had team co-owner Gary Peterson as his benefactor, that stole the show by claiming his first career Verizon IndyCar Series pole on the biggest stage in the series – Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s huge,” Saavedra said. “It’s a great way to start the month of May. I think we’ve been pushing ourselves, looking to get this opportunity. When we saw that there was a great opportunity, we took it.

“I think everybody on the team has been non-stop. It’s a good strike. Better here in Indianapolis. Hopefully we’ll keep it up. It’s a long month ahead. I think in my professional career, it’s the top level, the top spot for sure. We’ve been getting closer to a couple things. We’ve been leading laps and stuff like that. Strategies or things like that haven’t worked out.

“But definitely this is a point that makes you get addicted to more. You just want more. I think this is a great start for that to happen. I think we have something. We’re building something from scratch. The long relationship that we’re building, it’s hopefully soon to be shown.”

For Saavedra, the pole is a great accomplishment in his career and Saturday’s inaugural IndyCar Series road race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be historic in many respects but beginning Sunday it’s practice on the oval for the 98th Indianapolis 500 – the biggest race on the planet.

Saavedra is aligned with the team that won last year’s Indianapolis 500 with Tony Kanaan behind the wheel of the No. 11. So that gives the 23-year-old Saavedra something even bigger ahead of him at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.