INDIANAPOLIS -- A slick surface was all it took for Sebastian Saavedra to win his first IndyCar Series pole.
It was also just enough to slip Ryan Hunter-Reay out of the top starting spot for Saturday’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Saavedra won the pole Friday when Hunter-Reay appeared to drive through a patch of standing water that caused him to spin and crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The accident exiting Turn 14 came on the lap after Hunter-Reay had moved to the provisional pole, and IndyCar penalized him by taking away his two fastest laps for causing a session-ending caution.
"We definitely gave that one away," Hunter-Reay said. "Every time through there I almost lost it. I had a few big moments there, but in qualifying you’ve got to go for it. In the wet, you’re always going for it.
"There’s a very fine line between stepping over getting that good lap in the wet and throwing it off."
Rain showers changed the track conditions for each of the four qualifying sessions, and it picked up moments before the start of the final Fast Six session. IndyCar brought the cars back to pit road because of standing water on the track for a red-flag period that lasted about 20 minutes.
Saavedra had just bumped rookie Jack Hawksworth from the pole when Hunter-Reay turned his fast lap. But the IndyCar rule is to strip a driver of his two fastest laps for bringing out a red flag during qualifying, so Hunter-Reay was dropped to third.
Hunter-Reay, the only driver to advance to the Fast Six through the first four races of the season, has not started lower than third this year. But his Andretti Autosport team had work to do to repair his bright yellow No. 28, which sustained heavy damage to the right rear of the car.
Saavedra, who turned a lap at 1 minute, 23.8822 seconds, will lead the field to the green flag for the first IndyCar road course race at Indianapolis.
"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. 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."
The previous road course was reconfigured into a 14-turn, 2.439-mile course to accommodate IndyCar, which is using the race to open the speedway and create buzz in advance of the Indianapolis 500. Drivers for the first time are running counterclockwise at the famed speedway, which will run the Grand Prix on Saturday and then revert to the traditional oval Sunday for the opening practice for the May 25 main event.
Because the event and the track configuration are new, the field may be even headed into Saturday’s race. It appeared even when Saavedra advanced into his first Fast Six of the season, then hung on to win the pole and give IndyCar a relatively inexperienced front row.
Saavedra has 41 career starts dating to 2010, but his longtime backer this year brought him to KV Racing, the team that won the Indianapolis 500 last year with Tony Kanaan. Hawksworth, starting on the outside of Saavedra, has three previous starts. The British driver is in his first season with Bryan Herta Autosport.
Hawksworth spent last season racing Indy Lights, where he won three times.
Meanwhile, a tough qualifying assignment made it a nearly impossible session for Andretti Autosport, which had all five of its cars in the first group. With only six drivers advancing from that group, the odds were stacked against the organization.
Indeed, only Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe moved on while Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz and Franck Montagny were eliminated.
"Obviously, I’m not very happy," Andretti said. "It was a team decision to go out, we were worried about the wet, but we plateaued too early and the track got better at the end. We’ve been on the outside looking in of this hundredth of a second. I’m losing sleep over this couple hundredths of a second."
Wished good luck for Saturday’s race, Andretti, who will start 13th, said: "Thanks, I’m going to need it."
Mikhail Aleshin, the first Russian in IndyCar history, had been strong through three practices and advanced into the second round of qualifying. But his fastest laps were wiped out when he was hit with an interference penalty.
He and Sebastien Bourdais had raced each other hard for many laps two weeks ago at Barber, and Bourdais was eventually penalized for contact. The two drivers disagree wildly on who was to blame.
Simon Pagenaud, teammates with the rookie but friendly with Bourdais since their days racing in France, wasn’t sure what happened in qualifying.
"What I know is him and Sebastien Bourdais are becoming best friends," Pagenaud joked.