DragonSpeed driver Ben Hanley is taking his NTT IndyCar Series debut weekend in stride, entering the 2019 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with realistic expectations.
Hanley’s best laps from Friday’s two practices on the 1.8-mile street circuit adjacent to downtown St. Petersburg were both more than three seconds off of the session’s best and more than two seconds in arrears of the 23rd-placed driver, relegating the Manchester, England native’s No. 81 Chevrolet to the rear of the 24-car field and reflecting the struggles of a new team and driver coming to grips with the Dallara IR-12’s universal aero kit after limited testing.
This year’s season opener serves as the first of Hanley’s five IndyCar races, jumpstarting DragonSpeed’s expansion into open-wheel racing. Given DragonSpeed’s lack of data and direct experience, the team isn’t necessarily looking for a win or even a specific result in its first race.
“Coming here — street circuit, race one — we’ve just got to stay out of trouble, be consistent and use all our practicing to try and get the best race car,” Hanley told The Apex before the first day of on-track action. “The quality is not really at the top of our mind at the moment. We just want something solid for race day.”
Despite realism about the team’s ability to be competitive in IndyCar this early, Hanley’s assessment of himself as a driver and his comfort with DragonSpeed are both cause for optimism as their five-race effort gets underway.
“I’ve got a lot of experience,” said Hanley. “Hopefully that should put me in a good position.
“With the team I’m with, we already have a great relationship over the last few years so we know how we all work, we know our strengths and weaknesses, so hopefully that’s going to speed up the process of us getting on the pace and gaining in the pack and fighting for positions.”
With the remainder of the team’s schedule spread out over the 17-race season, it was apparent to Hanley and DragonSpeed from the start that St. Pete would be on their roster of races.
“When we came up and we knew we had the chance to start the program, the big target was race one because … it’s the first race of the season and no one can test here,” Hanley told The Apex. “It’s a little bit of a leveler more than other places.
“But the teams who were here last year, they’ve got data with this car and the aero kit and the tires so it’s still going to be tough, but it’s the best place to start.”
DragonSpeed’s results from St. Petersburg’s first day leave the team with only one direction to go as it learns how best to be successful in a hypercompetitive spec racing series.
Hanley has a 45-minute practice, knock-out qualifying and a 30-minute warm-up session remaining on his pre-race schedule before he starts his first race as an IndyCar driver Sunday, March 10 at 1:37 p.m. EST.