Vautier, Rahal, Newgarden top 3 in Baltimore second practice

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The second 45-minute IZOD IndyCar Series practice session for the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT (2 p.m. EST, Sunday, NBCSN) saw improved lap times and a Honda top-five sweep, led by Tristan Vautier. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports rookie also led the first practice at Barber Motorsports Park earlier this year.

“I think it’s one of the rare street courses that’s this long and with this many corners,” Vautier said, praising the circuit. “Here you have everything with the chicanes, fast turns, 90-degree corner and hairpins. It’s very technical and requires a lot of commitment to get it all right. I feel it’s a complete street course, my favorite one.”

Vautier got down to a 1:19.4792 for his flier in the No. 55 Environmental Rail Solutions Honda, ahead of Graham Rahal in the newly reliveried No. 15 blu eCigs Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda. Rahal and new engineer Neil Fife are starting to gel, and the team did well unloading off the truck this weekend to begin straight on pace. Fife is based on Columbus while RLL’s IndyCar base is Indianapolis; Graham only sees his new engineer on the weekends.

“It’s a big improvement from where we’ve been; where we felt confident at any of our disciplines this year though, it’s been street courses,” he said. “There were improvements we made at Sonoma; you all can see it. You see where we were on road courses – we were terrible, the worst I’ve been in my career. Then we qualified eighth, right up front where we should be. We still need to keep improving and have quite a lot of work to do.”

Josef Newgarden clocked in third in the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda. Newgarden is seeking a decent result in his first Baltimore IndyCar start.

“I’m so hot, it’s like driving in a sauna,” Newgarden told IMS Radio’s Nick Yeoman regarding the 89 degree ambient, 107 degree track temperatures and high humidity. “Yeah I’m trying to plow the car through there (the chicane). It’s one of the coolest things about this track. It’s a trick trying to nail it.”

Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud rounded out the top five. Will Power, in sixth, was the last driver in the 1:19 range and first Chevrolet-powered car. Power ended the session with a quick nosing into the tire barrier at Turn 9, a corner that has Dr Pepper signage prominent both on corner entry and exit.

“On the last lap there in the afternoon session I just locked up the tires going into Turn 9 and fortunately there wasn’t much in the way of damage to the front wing,” Power said.

Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti rounded out the top 10.

Luca Filippi posted an impressive performance in the No. 98 Barracuda Racing Honda in 11th, just ahead of the returning Oriol Servia in the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Chevrolet.

Stefan Wilson, IndyCar debutante, found two seconds from this morning but was still shotgun on the 24-car field at 1:23.6238 in the No. 18 Nirvana Tea Honda for Dale Coyne Racing.

Points leader Helio Castroneves was 13th, with Ryan Hunter-Reay, also in the driver’s championship picture, 16th.

Several cars – James Hinchcliffe, Simona de Silvestro and Sebastian Saavedra notable among them – hit the chicane on the front straight pretty hard in the textbook definition of “crashing over the curbs.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.