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.”

Fernando Alonso completes first test with United Autosports

Photo: United Autosports
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Two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso enjoyed his first outing with United Autosports, with whom he will contest the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona, in their Ligier JS P217 LMP2 chassis.

The McLaren Formula 1 driver completed the test at Motorland Aragon in Spain alongside co-driver Phil Hanson, who will be a teammate with Alonso at next year’s 24-hour Daytona enduro. Filipe Albuquerque, a former GT class winner at the Rolex 24, was also on hand to help Alonso and the team ahead of Alonso’s first run in an LMP2 car, which comes only a couple days after he made his LMP1 testing debut with Toyota. Albuquerque races with Mustang Sampling Racing in IMSA, but will return to United’s European Le Mans Series program for all but one race in 2018.

“I had a great first test with United Autosports. Obviously, we are on a really tight schedule between now and Daytona, but it was nice to jump in the car for the first time,” said Alonso, who will rejoin the team at the official Roar Before the 24 test on January 5-7.

Alonso added, “There’s quite a few switches and things to study so it was important to do this initial shakedown before Daytona, so I could fully learn about the car. I’m happy with everything – the car felt great and the team were fantastic. The atmosphere here is wonderful, like a big family, so today has been amazing. I cannot wait for Daytona.”

Team owner Zak Brown, who also serves as executive director of McLaren Technology Group and helps lead the McLaren Formula 1 effort, shared Alonso’s enthusiasm and was not surprised he was able to acclimate himself relatively quickly.

“Fernando’s first test with United Autosports went awesome as expected. He is a world champion and it is a pleasure to have him in our car,” he said of Alonso’s debut with the team.

Alonso is currently schedule to contest the Rolex 24 with the aforementioned Hanson and McLaren test driver Lando Norris.