IndyCar opener coming up fast — and so are the drivers

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The beginning of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season is a week away and, to some extent, the season opened this week with the only official preseason test at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Ala. This year’s test has a little more significance than last year at Sebring because not only will they race at Barber, but they’ll be back in just a few weeks in race number two. The purpose was to not only run through the preseason checklist and try out the engineers’ offseason ideas, but also specifically prepare for the race at Barber.

The drivers also needed to continue to work off the rust. Though many had some testing at other tracks since January (Sebring and Sonoma), last year’s debut of a new car and engine package necessitated far more testing. At Monday’s media session, most drivers mentioned their disappointment in the lack of testing this year and a couple even said there may be more on-track incidents early in the season because of the inactivity.

Monday was media day and a parade of about 25 drivers through the media center. The great thing about a new season in any sport is the optimism. Everyone is still undefeated (or in motorsports, tied atop the championship standings) and there is hope for significant improvement over the prior season or that a move to a new team will be the answer. We think we have an idea how things will play out, but there are many variables and uncertainties. This time last year, how many would have picked Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the title?

What did we learn on track Tuesday and Wednesday? Well, we already knew Will Power was fast and he reconfirmed that – leading both days of testing. We also learned the engineers, crews and engine manufacturers found some speed this winter. Power was more than three seconds quicker than last year’s pole speed without using the softer and quicker optional red side-wall tires (worth about half a second) and all 28 drivers (in 26 different cars) were quicker than last year’s top qualifying speed. Cool conditions (temperatures in the 50s and low 60s), a recent track grinding to improve grip, and a different Firestone tire compound also contributed to the quicker speeds.

We also learned the competition is going to again be tight. The field was separated by 2.8 seconds (1:07.1 was the best time) and the top 16 were within a second. Among those that likely came away pleased were James Hinchcliffe (2nd quick), Justin Wilson (3rd), Tony Kanaan (4th), Takamu Sato (7th in his new ride with Foyt), Charlie Kimball (8th), James Jakes (11th in only 1 day with his new team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan) and Simona de Silvestro (12th with KV Racing) who said she was shocked when she first felt the Chevy power after suffering with the underpowered Lotus program last year. Graham Rahal (fuel supply issue), Marco Andretti and Sebastian Bourdais were in the group that didn’t get as much done and/or find the speed they were seeking. AJ Allmendinger ended up 18th quick as he tries to readjust to IndyCars while continuing his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. After talking with him, he seems most concerned with having the patience needed to get reacclimated. He understands the stiff level of competition and that he can’t just walk back in and pick up where he was when he won 5 ChampCar races in 2006. But, he’s used to running up front in these cars and has a high standard for himself. He also confirmed if Roger Penske is willing to offer a full-time program, he’s willing (and happy) to commit to IndyCar as his first priority.

The NBC Sports Network crew was also on hand at Barber this week to gear up for the season. The production team gathered many of the elements that you’ll see throughout the season while the announcers and producers reviewed some tape (from our broadcasts and examples from other shows) and got caught up with drivers and team personnel. Like the drivers and teams, we all wish the offseason was shorter as well. But, it’s almost here! We’re excited that we get to bring you the opener this year and I hope you can join us next weekend from St. Pete.

Kevin Lee is an IndyCar pit reporter for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KevinLee23

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Remaining part-time drivers

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MotorSportsTalk wraps up its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with the remaining part-time drivers, after the 23 drivers who ran anywhere from six events to the full season.

There were 15 drivers who made four or fewer starts this season. Some overly impressed or drew major headlines in their limited opportunities.

They were, by start count:

  • Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17 Juncos Racing Chevrolet, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 4)
  • Gabby Chaves (No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet, 3)
  • Oriol Servia (No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 3)
  • Jack Harvey (No. 50 MSR w/Andretti Autosport Honda, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 3)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, 2)
  • Zach Veach (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, No. 40 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet, 2)
  • Fernando Alonso (No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti Honda, 1)
  • Pippa Mann (No. 63 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Jay Howard (No. 77 Team One Cure/SPM Honda, 1)
  • Sage Karam (No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet, 1)
  • James Davison (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Tristan Vautier (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Buddy Lazier (No. 44 Lazier Racing Partners Chevrolet, 1)
  • Zachary Claman DeMelo (No. 13 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 1)
  • Robert Wickens (No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, Practice Only)

Going through them, in terms of impact, Alonso’s one-off at the Indianapolis 500 easily resonated loudest. It was incredible to witness the amount of buzz, worldwide support and media attention that Alonso generated, and fueled a running joke that he was the only driver in this year’s race. It was capped off when he beat Ed Jones to race rookie-of-the-year honors, despite losing a Honda engine late while Jones dragged a broken Dale Coyne Racing car to third place.

Elsewhere, Chaves and Harding Racing’s debut was the most unexpected pleasant surprise from a driver and team standpoint. A solid ninth at Indianapolis was followed by an even more impressive fifth at Texas. Their three oval races laid the groundwork for a step-up to a full-time entry in 2018.

Montoya proved he still had it with a pair of top-10s in a fifth Team Penske car. He’ll be in Penske’s Acura prototype sports car program next year and the hope is that we haven’t seen the last of him in IndyCar.

Saavedra re-established himself on the scene after a year-plus hiatus. The likable Colombian overachieved given low expectations with two different teams. Whether it was enough to see him and longtime backer AFS Racing for further races in 2018 is unknown.

Harvey and Veach each came up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee, both rookies in the Indianapolis 500 alongside Alonso and Jones while also getting additional road course starts. Neither of them looked a world-beater in their road course outings owing to tough circumstances, but they logged key laps and miles to build for a brighter future from 2018 and beyond in recently announced multi-year programs (Harvey with Michael Shank Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and Veach with Andretti Autosport).

Of the rest, Servia’s results left a bit to be desired, a potential top-five fading in Indy when he and Davison collided to trigger a multi-car pileup. Davison and Vautier impressed in their lone starts of the year with their pace and aggression but were unable to parlay them into results.

Mann made her usual Indy 500 one-off entry and secured her best finish in six starts, but pressed through a challenging month that she’ll be keen to improve upon in 2018. Her day was significantly better than Howard’s and Lazier’s, who both ended their ‘500 bows in the wall, and with Howard having contributed to Scott Dixon’s savage accident when he crashed in Turn 1 and then came into Dixon’s path.

“ZCD” made his debut at Sonoma in a second RLL Racing entry and did rather well, competitive on lap times as the weekend progressed on a track that’s notoriously low-grip. Wickens never got that far. Despite a preseason ride swap with his close friend James Hinchcliffe that reignited his passion for open-wheel after several years, and with Mercedes announcing it would pull the plug on its DTM program after 2018, Wickens got only a practice day at Road America before Mikhail Aleshin sorted his visa issues. The circumstances evolved in Wickens’ favor at season’s end to see him get the second seat for 2018 at SPM after all.