Hildebrand beats Panther in ‘messy’ race; Luhr comes up short of debut finish

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A subplot of the Sonoma weekend was the unofficial “JR Hildebrand vs. Panther Racing” battle that was taking place, even though Hildebrand downplayed it during his media availability on Friday.

To make things awkward, due to the order they had qualified with previous drivers Oriol Servia (Panther) and Luca Filippi (Barracuda Racing) at Mid-Ohio, the two teams were set up directly next to each other all weekend in the paddock and pit lane.

Hildebrand took the edge in both battles – he beat Panther’s Ryan Briscoe in qualifying, 18th to 22nd, and also in the race 16th to 17th. Not that either of those results is anything worth celebrating.

Hildebrand ran as high as 11th but was spun by Tony Kanaan on Lap 21 at Turn 7, and Kanaan was given a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. Hildebrand recovered but had later contact with Graham Rahal, which dropped him back to 21st, before he made up five more positions by the flag.

“It was just a messy day out there,” Hildebrand said. “With that many yellows, it ends up being kind of a lottery where you actually end up on restarts because the risk/reward factor is quite high.”

Elsewhere, IndyCar debutante Lucas Luhr came up a few laps shy of a finish in the No. 97 RW/Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda. The first German to start an IndyCar race since Andreas Wirth in a Champ Car race at Australia in 2006, Luhr climbed from 24th place to 17th before an engine fire ended his race on Lap 81.

“It was a shame that we couldn’t finish the race because I think we had a possible top 14 or 15 finish in us,” Luhr said. “Toward the end of the race I was getting quicker. I think we were more competitive in the race than we have been all weekend long, and that to me shows that the learning curve is going in the right direction.”

Next up for these three: Barracuda and Panther see Filippi and Servia back for Baltimore, with Hildebrand returning for Barracuda at Fontana. Luhr resumes in his usual Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD ARX-03c P1 car in the American Le Mans Series race in Baltimore. Briscoe is back for Level 5 there, as well.

Marco Andretti confident that fewer tests won’t hurt Andretti Autosport

Photo: IndyCar
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A small point of debate around the 2018 aero kit has been the manufacturer test days that took place through the Fall of 2017 and into the beginning of 2018. Chiefly, the debate has centered around teams who hadn’t participated in those manufacturer test days and if they’re starting the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season at a disadvantage as a result.

Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing, and A.J. Foyt Racing completed test days for Chevrolet, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing doing so for Honda.

That left teams like Andretti Autosport out of the mix, with some voicing concerns as a result.

However, in a press conference during testing at ISM Raceway last weekend, Marco Andretti explained that he thinks Andretti Autosport should be able to catch up on development, citing the team’s resources – they’re the only IndyCar team with four full-time cars in their stable – and the fact that everyone is still adapting to the new kit.

“I feel like it’s early enough days that, yes, we can catch up,” Andretti said at ISM Raceway. “When there is anything new, a new car, new aero kit, at-track days are huge. We can sim all these things we want. To really get out there and confirm what we’re learning back at the shop is another thing.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay during testing at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti continued, “Yeah, I don’t think we should look at it like we’re behind the eight ball. With a four-car team, that’s where we can use it to our benefit. So far so good.”

Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, echoed Andretti’s sentiments, adding that while the situation is not perfect, they will need to adapt to it in order to remain competitive.

“Any time you have a new car, to put it into perspective, we’re on track three days on a road course before we get to (the season open in St. Petersburg). That’s a very short amount of time. It’s obviously not ideal, but we’re just going to lace up our boots and get on with it. That’s all you can do.”

Andretti Autosport will have one more team test, at Sebring International Raceway later on in February, before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

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