IndyCar Test Notes: Juan Pablo Montoya makes most of short day

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Cold, damp conditions may have robbed him (and the other Verizon IndyCar Series competitors) of track time this morning at Barber Motorsports Park, but Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya still made the most of things in the afternoon.

The former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion, returning to open-wheel this season after a seven-year run in NASCAR, logged 55 laps in the first day of the series’ Open Test on the 2.3-mile Alabama circuit and turned in the second-fastest time (1:07.6492) in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet.

That time was only .0678 of a second off of teammate and Monday leader Will Power. And while he not ready to deem himself perfect ahead of the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30, he believes he’s making progress.

“Just trying to get better and figure out new tires a little bit,” the Colombian said during the session. “I’m trying to learn how to get more out of the car and we’re getting there.

“It was good today, but there’s a couple of places that I need to do a little better job and be a little cleaner. But we’re getting there.”

For his part, Power is convinced that Montoya will be a force right out of the gate in St. Petersburg.

“Collectively as a team, we try to improve the car and learn from each other, but when it comes to racing, the better guy is going to be winning,” Power said. “It’s competition; it’s just how it is.

“This series, he could win the first race quite easily. I expect him to definitely drive to the front everywhere, so if you’re at the front knocking on the door, eventually you’re going to get a win.”

Scott Dixon won his first Verizon IndyCar Series title in 2003. He finished 10th in the standings in 2004, hampered by a down-on-power Toyota engine.

He then won his second series title in 2008. But despite leading the standings going into the 2009 season finale, he wound up runner-up to then-teammate Dario Franchitti.

Now, Dixon enters this season coming off of his third IndyCar crown. So, will the third time be the charm regarding a successful title defense?

Time will tell, but as he said today at Barber, the matter of holding on to the championship is “a good problem to have.”

“I’ve been in this situation a couple of times before and we actually haven’t defended it that well,” said Dixon, who was fourth-fastest on Monday. “In ’09, we had a close shot and nearly won another championship. We will just have to sort of see how it goes.

“For us in the past, when we have come close to another three championships, I think it’s always been the start of the year that has kind of hindered us. I think we need to focus on making a good start in the first three or four races.”

Teams are, of course, getting ready for the season opener in a few weeks at St. Petersburg. But they’re also preparing for when the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Barber for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Apr. 27 (which you can see on NBCSN).

The race will serve as the third round of the 2014 championship, and for the next two days at Barber, Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe is making sure to keep tabs on his tires as he zips around the technically challenging track.

“With the treatment that was done to the track last year with some grinding, it improved lap times but it also took a toll on the tires, so you need some sort of compromise,” said Hinchcliffe, who was ninth-quickest on Monday.

Finding a happy medium is also important at Barber in regards to car set-up.

“The other big compromise at this track is setup-wise – the low-speed corners, you’ll be dealing with a lot of under-steer and [in] some of the other corners, the rear slides out,” he said.  “So you want a nice, stable rear and a well-connected front.”

Ferrari, Mercedes launch 2018 F1 cars

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The title combatants from the 2017 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season both launched their 2018 challengers earlier on Thursday, with Scuderia Ferrari revealing the SF71H and Mercedes AMG Petronas revealing the W09.

For Ferrari, the SF71H represents an evolution of last year’s SF70H, which helped produce Ferrari’s best season in several years.

They presented a strong challenge to Mercedes for the championship, even leading the way at various points, with Sebastian Vettel recording five wins along the way. But, mechanical failures and crashes hampered their efforts late in the season, and they settled for second in the driver’s championship (with Vettel) and the constructor’s championship.

Entering 2018, the team is emphasizing the importance of building momentum with every race to ultimately secure their first constructor’s crown since 2008 and their first driver’s crown since 2007.

“There are no challenges actually. There are no challenges in the plural. There is just one challenge, which is the final challenge,” asserted team principal Maurizio Arrivabene. So that’s work that you build and you don’t build that work in one or two races. We’ve seen over the last few years, in the last championships, that you work race by race, and you always try to do the best you can.”

Technical director Mattia Binotto detailed some of the updates on the 2018 car, such as an new power unit and new suspension designs in anticipation of new tire constructions.

“We worked a lot on the power unit, we worked on its reliability and performance. We worked on the packaging, on suspensions in the rear axle because there will be new tires the following season, so we also tried to design the car to accommodate the new tires,” he explained.

Binotto added, “In regards to aerodynamics, we maintained our concept of having the inlets on the radiators, and everybody’s copying that, but we tried to make an additional step forward and what we showed today is not the same element of last year, but it is something more developed.”

Mercedes, meanwhile, will look to take it’s fifth consecutive driver’s and constructor’s championships with the W09. The team even took the car to the track for its launch, conducting a filming day at Silverstone Circuit.

“It is always a very exciting time because what has been designed is coming together and coming alive,”  team principal Toto Wolff said during the launch.

Despite facing challenges with last year’s car, the W08, the team elected to follow a similar design concept with the aerodynamics to improve on the car’s strengths while simultaneously addressing its weak points.

“We like some of the character traits from our diva,” Wolf quipped. “The W08 was the fastest car on the grid, scoring the highest number of pole positions and winning the most races last year. So we were careful not to lose the car’s many strengths just to overcome the difficulties.”

Both Ferrari and Mercedes are expected to slug it out again for the 2018 driver’s and constructor’s championships.

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