Max Chilton and Ryan Hunter-Reay

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – While it might look like the same 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit, the streets of downtown St. Petersburg are nearly all new this year.

A repaving project last month laid down new asphalt on about 70 percent of the circuit for this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had their first opportunity to test the new surface Friday during two practice sessions and a third this morning before qualifying in the afternoon for Sunday’s race.

They were expecting a smooth, grippy circuit. What they experienced was different than previous years, but also not what they expected.

“It’s definitely different,” Tony Kanaan said Friday after posting the third-fastest lap of the day in his No. 10 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Kanaan was ninth in today’s practice. “I was expecting there to be a little more grip and for it to be smoother. In other words, I was expecting us to lose a little of the beauty of this track.”

While the track retained the bumps and nuances that give street courses character and enhance their degree of difficulty, drivers were still sorting out what they felt.

“It's tough,” said Will Power, who recorded the second-fastest lap Friday but slipped to 10th this morning in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “The first session was really difficult. The car was on top of the road. It didn't feel like there was that much grip. (But it’s) definitely nice and smooth. Yeah, really nicely done street course. Kind of setting the standard of how street courses should be.”

Max ChiltonRepairs to a section of Turn 3, where Pirelli World Challenge drivers complained of bottoming out during their practice and qualifying sessions Thursday, helped smooth out some of the bumps. It also made it a slower corner.

“Apart from what happened with (Turn) 3, I think they've done a fantastic job,” said Scott Dixon, who topped the speed chart Friday afternoon and again this morning in the No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. “I know next year they're actually planning to finish resurfacing the whole track. I think it's going to be better for racing, too. It seems like it's very smooth across both sides of the track, into (Turn) 4 and into (Turn) 1, which is a bit challenging sometimes.”

With the bumps and some lack of grip in place from previous years, drivers appreciated the new/old course and the challenge it continues to present.

“They did a great job,” Kanaan said. “I don’t know if they did it on purpose or not. The new asphalt has grip, but not as much as we expected from new pavement. It’s exciting, and still a very difficult track to drive.”  

Qualifying penalty regulations fine-tuned for 2017

The Verizon IndyCar Series will continue knockout qualifying at all road- and street-course events in 2017 except for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader, but INDYCAR has revised a few of the rules.

The knockout format still contains three rounds that will take place this afternoon for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at 2:55 p.m. ET today. In the first segment, the field is split into two groups, with each group receiving 10 minutes of track time to post the best lap times possible.

The fastest six from each group in Segment 1 advance to the second segment. Those 12 cars also receive 10 minutes of track time, with the fastest six advancing to the Firestone Fast Six to determine the Verizon P1 Award pole winner in the final 10-minute session.

Rules changes for 2017 involve penalties for drivers causing full-course red-flag or local yellow-flag conditions during any qualifying segment. This season, if a driver is involved in an incident that brings out red flag, his fastest two laps of the segment are forfeited and he is not permitted to continue in that segment or advance to the next segment.

If a driver is involved in a local yellow for a portion of the track that impedes the qualifying effort of another driver, he loses his fastest lap to that point in the segment. If the driver who caused the local yellow has not posted a timed lap to that point, he will be assessed a pit-lane drive-through penalty after the lap in which he caused the local yellow is completed.

All three segments of today’s qualifying will stream live on