ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There was a new face at the top of the IndyCar leaderboard, and the competition thought it was long overdue.
Simona de Silvestro, making her debut with new team KV Racing Technology, posted the third fastest time Friday on the opening day of the IndyCar season. The Swiss driver was right behind Will Power and defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay on the course through the streets of St. Petersburg.
"Simona's the real deal, we've seen that from Day One," Hunter-Reay said. "She's quick. Very quick. Scary quick a lot of times. Now she's with a good team and great manufacturer. She's got the horsepower to do it this year."
It was here in 2011 where she finished fourth for her best career IndyCar finish, losing a close battle in the closing laps with Tony Kanaan for third place. It was thought it could be a springboard for big things to come for the Swiss driver, but driving for small HVM Racing, the results never came.
Then came a miserable 2012 season with an underpowered Lotus engine the HVM team was saddled with the entire year. Even after the other Lotus entrants were able to flee to other manufacturers, HV was stuck with its slow engine and de Silvestro never got a chance to be competitive.
She jumped in the offseason to KV Racing, where she's teammates now with Kanaan and has a Chevrolet engine.
In no uncertain terms, it's the opportunity she's been waiting for.
"I've been three years in the series and always struggled with something," she said. "With KV ... the tools are there to be really competitive."
And so is that Chevy power.
"It felt like I was still driving in another category last year," she said. "You know you're under power, but I went the first time into a Chevy car, I couldn't believe that was such a difference."
Power led the day with a lap at 1:01.4467, followed by Hunter-Reay at 1:01.625 and de Silvestro at 1:01.6895.
Oriol Servia was fourth as Chevrolet drivers took the top four spots.
Takuma Sato was fifth and the highest Honda for AJ Foyt Racing.
Helio Castroneves was sixth and followed by Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, rookie Tristan Vautier and Marco Andretti as Chevy's took eight of the top 10 spots in practice.
Honda standard bearer Dario Franchitti was 17th and teammate Scott Dixon was 19th, but Chip Ganassi team manager Mike Hull was hesitant to blame the manufacturer for the poor first day.
"Fundamentally we need to work on our cars a little bit. When we get ourselves a little further up the grid, then we can start thinking about Honda," Hull said. "Wasn't Sato fifth? That proves the engine has some speed. Usually Scott and Dario are right around the same position, they follow each other. Today they followed each other, just in the wrong direction."
Hunter-Reay and Power, who finished 1-2 in the points last season, were hesitant to predict what might be going on with the Honda teams.
Although Power initially offered simply, "It's not fast," he then questioned how much the Honda teams might be showing.
"But you never know until qualifying," Power said. "Those guys could be sandbagging. The B.S. stops once everyone's in qualifying trim."