Newcomer Wilson sets pace in opening practice at St. Petersburg

Updated: April 4, 2008, 6:44 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On the familiar turf of a street course, the drivers and teams making the transition to the IndyCar Series from the Champ Car World Series showed their true potential in the opening practice for Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

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Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing's Justin Wilson was fastest overall despite running out of fuel in the dying minutes of the 90-minute session. Wilson clocked a 63.521 second (102.014 mph) lap in his McDonald's Dallara-Honda, besting IndyCar Series veteran Vitor Meira in Panther Racing's similar car by 0.24 second.

Wilson's teammate, rookie Graham Rahal, was fifth fastest in the session as former Champ Car teams turned four of the 12 fastest times.

"I'm a bit surprised we're at the top of the timing screens, but the car feels really good," said Wilson, who has also been classified as a rookie despite claiming nearly three years of Formula One and four years of Champ Car on his resume.

"The challenge will be to remain up there in qualifying and the race," Wilson added. "These cars slide around a lot more than the Champ Cars, but they are fun to drive and we're learning a lot about how to make them go fast on a road course."

Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team manager John Tzouanakis was delighted to see both NHLR cars in the top five.

"It's the first time we've seen the crew guys' teeth in a few weeks because they finally have something to smile about," Tzouanakis said. "There are a lot of options you can change on these cars, from rocker arms to wheelbase, and the different power characteristics of the engine made us re-think the gearing.

"But it sure feels good to 'win' a practice session."

Tony Kanaan ended the morning action third fastest ahead of two-time defending St. Petersburg champion Helio Castroneves as the top 13 cars circulated within a second of Wilson's time.

Marty Roth brought out the caution flag twice during the session with spins, while Ryan Hunter-Reay completed only six laps after suffering a suspension mount failure on his Rahal Letterman Racing entry.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.