BALTIMORE -- Tristan Vautier acknowledges that his learning curve hasn't ascended as quickly as he expected.
The 2012 Firestone Indy Lights champion grabbed the promise of qualifying sixth and third in his initial IZOD IndyCar Series races and earned his maiden top-10 finish at Barber Motorsports Park. Similar results haven't materialized since, though the 24-year-old French driver has been running at the finish in 15 of the 16 races.
Maybe this weekend on the 2.04-mile, 12-turn street circuit, Vautier will rediscover the form in the No. 55 Environmental Rail Solutions Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car. Pacing the field in the second practice session for the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT with a fast lap of 1 minute, 19.4792 seconds is an uplifting start.
Click it: Combined practice results || Qualifying groups
Eight different teams were represented in the top 10 and the top 13 cars were separated by less than a second as drivers and engineers attempted through the 90 total minutes of track availability to get a handle on the technically challenging circuit that incorporates Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The 24 drivers logged 638 laps without incident.
A third 45-minute session at 9:05 a.m. (ET) Aug. 31 precedes the three rounds of qualifications (noon) for the Verizon P1 Award. The 75-lap race is at 2 p.m. Sept. 1 on NBC Sports Network.
"It started pretty good for us. We unloaded pretty good this morning and kept the momentum going through this afternoon," said Vautier, who won the Firestone Indy Lights race last September at Baltimore on the way to securing the series title two weeks later and won the 2011 Pro Mazda race. "I don’t know, I just love this place. We started well, but I think it’s going to be about keeping improving because everybody is going to keep improving and it’s always very hard to put everything together at the right time. So I have to really keep focused and keep executing really well to stay up there."
Graham Rahal, who also has had a trying season in the No. 15 blue eCigs car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, was .0838 of a second behind Vautier.
"Well it’s an improvement over where we’ve been," Rahal said. "I think that if we felt confident at any of our disciplines this year, the street courses seem to be where our team has been pretty strong. Combining that with the gains that we found at Sonoma, it seems to be working pretty well. We’re all very pleased with the blu eCigs car, I think that the guys have done a phenomenal job putting us in a good spot to start with."
Josef Newgarden (1:19.6662) was third in the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car. Coincidence? All three have new car liveries for the weekend.
"We just have to stay on top of it because cars can get away pretty quick in this championship," said Newgarden, whose best finish on a street course this season is seventh in Race 1 at Belle Isle (advanced 17 positions) in early June. "I think we're off to a great start. We just have to have a good weekend and try and get ourselves back in these races. We've had a couple of rough weekends and I think we could get really good results here and that would be good for everybody so that's what we're focused on."
Scott Dixon, who is 39 points behind the front-running Helio Castroneves in the championship chase, was fourth fast (1:19.7027) in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car. Castroneves was 13th in the afternoon session. Vautier's teammate, Simon Pagenaud, was fifth overall (1:19.8509) in the No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports car.
"Baltimore is a different kind of place. It's a bumpy track, for sure, and it takes a lot out of you," said Castroneves, who has recorded 11 consecutive top-10 finishes. "If you put a good lap together here you're really doing something because it's very difficult to control the car. But the PPG Team Penske guys did a good job today and we're looking for a brighter day tomorrow. We’ll be ready to go for qualifying.”