Carlos Munoz returns Andretti Autosport to top of Indy 500 practice

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After a day where Dario Franchitti interrupted, the Andretti Autosport contingent returned to the top of the timesheets in Thursday’s practice for the Indianapolis 500. Temperatures were cooler than Wednesday, in the 70s (ambient) and 100s (track) throughout the day.

Carlos Munoz, the rookie in the No. 26 Electric Energy Straws Chevrolet, put in the month’s fastest lap of 225.163 on his 60th of 70 laps turned. Ryan Hunter-Reay was second in the No. 1 DHL Chevrolet, at 225.006. Both laps came during the final hour of the day when the track was at its busiest and tows were frequent.

Marco Andretti (Andretti), Scott Dixon (Target Ganassi), Helio Castroneves (Penske) and E.J. Viso (Andretti) made it a “power team” dominated top six on the last day of running before IndyCar increases the boost pressure from 130 kPa to 140 kPA.

The boost increase is expected to provide 40 more horsepower, and roughly 4-5 mph per lap increase. Pole speeds are projected in either the high 229 mph range or potentially the low 230s.

JR Hildebrand (Panther), Ed Carpenter (ECR), Oriol Servia (Panther DRR) and Takuma Sato (Foyt) completed the top 10.

Thirty of the 32 drivers who ran full laps eclipsed the 220 mph barrier, with Ana Beatriz (Coyne) and Michel Jourdain Jr. (RLL) the only two who didn’t.

The thirty-third entrant, 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Lazier in the family owned and operated No. 91 Lazier Partners Racing Chevrolet, finally made it on track for three installation laps and systems checks.

A.J. Foyt Racing rookie Conor Daly had the month’s first accident but emerged uninjured. Justin Wilson ran the most laps (100), and excluding Lazier’s three, Alex Tagliani (16) turned in the fewest total of the day.

“Fast Friday” is tomorrow with pole qualifying scheduled for Saturday.

You can see qualifying on Saturday on the NBC Sports Network at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET, and Sunday at noon ET. Qualifying will also be live streamed on NBC Sports Live Extra for mobile devices. 

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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