If he had his way, J.R. Hildebrand would run the Indianapolis 500 tomorrow.
The 2011 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year is looking forward to returning to the fabled Brickyard for this year’s edition of the 500 on May 25 for three primary reasons.
First, Hildebrand has unfinished business, having crashed out on just the third lap of last year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing, finishing last in the 33-car field.
Second, Hildebrand wants to return to the success he had in his 500 debut, when he finished second to the late Dan Wheldon in 2011.
Third, and perhaps the glue that will tie the first two things together for Hildebrand is driving in this year’s race for Ed Carpenter Racing.
“I am so excited to be coming back to Indy with Ed and his team,” Hildebrand said in an ECR media release. “Ed showed last year that his operation can be extremely fast at Indy with the pole and leading the most laps. And that was a single-car effort. I think we feel very good coming back to Indy with a two-car team.”
Hildebrand will drive the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet as a teammate of owner/driver Carpenter, who earned the pole in last year’s race in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevy.
The groundwork to pair the two drivers together actually began after last year’s 500. While this year’s 500 will be their first race together, both men hope additional funding can be found to bring about additional races for Hildebrand after the 98th running of the 500 next month.
“I truly believe we have a combination to contend in this year’s Indy 500,” Carpenter said. “We are pumped up for May.”
Carpenter and Hildebrand are currently the only all-American team entered in this year’s 500.
It’s been a struggle for Hildebrand, a veteran of 41 IndyCar starts in his career, over the last year-plus. After competing in all IndyCar events in 2011 and 2012, he managed to find a ride and sponsorship for just seven of last season’s 19 races.
This year, Hildebrand has yet to take to the IndyCar circuit, meaning that the Indy 500 will be his first – but he hopes not last – race of the 2014 campaign.
Carpenter is still relishing last week’s win at Long Beach with Mike Conway behind the wheel, which has only heightened Hildebrand’s excitement to get going when practice for the 500 opens on May 11.
“Watching the ECR team in action the past two races (St. Petersburg and Long Beach) with Mike driving has been a good observation for me,” Hildebrand said. “Listening on the radio in the races as well as attending some of the engineering staff meetings has been very enlightening too. I think Ed and (general manager) Tim Broyles have put together a strong unit at ECR. I can’t wait to get started with them in a few weeks.”
Hildebrand will have veteran crew chief Dan Miller atop the pit box. Miller has one Indy 500 victory and four second-place finishes there in his career.
“This team might be small compared to the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti operations but you can see how well they compete,” Hildebrand said.
Construction equipment manufacturer JCB has pegged a deal with Williams Martini Racing, to see the logo on the rear wing endplate of the Williams FW40 chassis, Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll’s helmets, and the full crew uniforms after the British Grand Prix.
Interestingly, the team’s release says this will be the first of “a number” following the signing of Stroll this season.
Company chairman Lord Bamford caught the racing bug in the early 1970s and, according to the team, the JCB Dieselmax car still holds the world diesel land speed record of 350.052mph, more than a decade after it was set on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA.
“I am an engineer and a manufacturer and designing and engineering innovative products is at the core of what JCB does,” Bamford said in the release.
“We frequently combine our engineering expertise with some of the best automotive technologies which means our machines are very fuel efficient and intuitive to operate. Our partnership with Williams Martini Racing builds on that innovative and technological link and our company’s long association with motorsport.”
Quoting Ron Burgundy in Anchorman for a minute, diversity isn’t just an old wooden ship; it’s also the word that can describe the type of drivers who’ve made their Verizon IndyCar Series test debuts in recent months.
Because of the length of the IndyCar offseason between the season finale (September 18, 2016 at Sonoma Raceway) and new season opener (March 12, 2017 on the streets of St. Petersburg), testing takes on a greater bit of interest and attention than it otherwise would.
In recent years, both the series itself and the teams within IndyCar have upped their social media game. It means we get things like ridiculously cool eye-level visor cam (Graham Rahal at Phoenix and JR Hildebrand at Sonoma have done this in recent weeks) and additional cool on-board footage (Spencer Pigot had this at Sonoma).
Usually mundane days of running are spiced up for those watching at home. And to IndyCar’s credit, one of the surprise (I thought) but cool things they’ve done was stream the Phoenix Prix View open test. People watched… which indicated a desire to see cars on track.
And with this year seeing so many changes in the driver roster – not so much new drivers as it is existing drivers changing teams – it’s been a fun and entertaining break even if there hasn’t been any activity that’s counted other than preparing and developing for the new season ahead.
However it’s been some of the additional drivers that either have tested or are scheduled to in the coming days that have added even more intrigue to again, an otherwise stale and long period of the season.
Pace is never going to be something they’re shooting for in their first day in an IndyCar, but Pagenaud and others such as Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull were quick to identify Taylor’s talent.
The test had been in the works for a bit of time so it was cool to see one half of the dynamic pair of brothers have their first run in an IndyCar; surely now the prospect of eventually seeing younger brother Jordan test one must enter the discussion phase (we know he has pace so imagine that, plus the potential social media hilarity he could provide).
Then there was the first bit of surprise news that arose earlier Thursday, and why it was such a good and genuine surprise was because it was kept quiet and only known to a select few people.
The ride swap set between James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens will see the longtime friends and full-time Canadian fulfill lifelong dreams, if just for a test day. Wickens’ timing was unfortunate for IndyCar because he had the potential to join Hinchcliffe and become the next big star from that country in the series. His career was rising as Paul Tracy’s active driving career wound down, and Alex Tagliani and Patrick Carpentier evolved into racing other types of cars. Hinchcliffe, too, knows how cool it will be to test a DTM car because that is an opportunity afforded to very few North American drivers.
Add in SPM’s next day of testing a day later for Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker and there’s more intrigue there. Derani’s sports car career has grown stratospherically in a very short amount of time but he was an open-wheel guy first; the Brazilian has the talent and should come to grips rather quickly. Dorrbecker is a bit further under the radar but seems keen to deliver in his opportunity.
It’s not just these four that have made testing more intriguing, either. Thanks to the rules that allow Verizon IndyCar Series teams to test Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers, nearly all of the field that raced full-time in 2016 had at least one test day in an IndyCar last year. The list of those:
RC Enerson (testing and three 2016 races, Dale Coyne Racing)
Ed Jones (Watkins Glen test, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)
Santiago Urrutia (Sonoma test, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports)
Zach Veach (Sonoma test, Ed Carpenter Racing)
Dean Stoneman (Watkins Glen test, Andretti Autosport)
Felix Serralles (Sebring test, Andretti Autosport)
Andre Negrao (Sonoma test, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports)
Zachary Claman De Melo (Mid-Ohio test, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports)
Dalton Kellett (Watkins Glen test, Andretti Autosport)
Felix Rosenqvist (Mid-Ohio test, Chip Ganassi Racing)
Additionally, there’s past Indy Lights race winners Jack Harvey and Sean Rayhall, who’ve tested for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively. Both have the talent and chops to be considered IndyCar-level talent. Robin Frijns tested for Andretti at Mid-Ohio and if my MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith pegs it right again as he did with Frijns, perhaps Antonio Felix da Costa could emulate his Amlin Andretti FIA Formula E teammate in a test later this year.
Enerson realistically should be in a car full-time this season thanks to his performances at the tail end of last year, although over the winter was the victim of bad timing for multiple would-be seats. Rather bizarrely, he’s not been an IndyCar since Sonoma while some of these other surprise names have. Other recent drivers with no more than two full-time seasons in IndyCar, Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, Matty Brabham and Stefan Wilson, are along with Enerson the list of this year’s “we wish they were in a car, but there’s not enough seats” drivers.
Anyway, it leaves just Kyle Kaiser, Neil Alberico and Juan Piedrahita as the three full-time Indy Lights drivers returning in 2017 who are yet to have their first day in an IndyCar, and it would not be a surprise to see at least one of those three sooner rather than later. Indy Lights rookies such as Aaron Telitz, Garth Rickards, Nico Jamin or Nico Dapero could be this year’s next batch of drivers making their test debuts as the year goes into the summer and fall.
Consider also Scott Hargrove’s ability and he’d probably be exciting to watch in an IndyCar test as well. The Canadian’s full-time open-wheel career stalled out after losing the Pro Mazda title to Spencer Pigot in 2014. Consider how different history might look had Hargrove, not Pigot won that title… is Pigot an IndyCar driver and Juncos Racing an IndyCar team now if that doesn’t happen? It’s hard to fully say.
Hargrove’s midseason replacement at Team Pelfrey last year, Garett Grist, may well be interested in an IndyCar test program of his own this year if he can gather enough funding to make it happen. The diminutive, talented Canadian has a wealth of Mazda Road to Indy experience and is at the critical point in his career where he needs to step up or explore alternative forms of motorsport.
Meanwhile it’s tantalizing to think about those talents in the sports car world who like either Taylor or Derani could do well in an IndyCar. The “lost generation” of Atlantic drivers such as Dane Cameron, Jonathan Bomarito, John Edwards, Daniel Morad, Bryan Sellers, Joey Hand or Jon Fogarty come to mind; Mazda prototype driver Tristan Nunez is young and fast; Audi driver Connor De Phillippi was destined for open-wheel success but hit a glitch in what could have been a title-winning Star Mazda season in 2012; Dutch drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and Renger van der Zande themselves have past open-wheel backgrounds on their glittering resumes before moving fully into sports cars.
Will any of those other names mentioned above ever get their day in an IndyCar? It seems doubtful, but then again, we didn’t think we’d get the run on names announced in the last week or so either.
It really gets you thinking about the level of talent that exists in open-wheel and sports car racing worldwide, how many of them were open-wheel first, and how many you wish you could see racing full-time to add to the incredible 1-21 depth that already exists in IndyCar.
Ferrari’s launch time of 9:45 CET for its new SF70H chassis meant that it hit overnight for the U.S. world (3:45 a.m. ET if you felt like getting up, or 12:45 a.m. PT if you stayed up on the West Coast).
Beyond the launch video itself, Ferrari also released video of the first run of the new car at its test track, Fiorano. Kimi Raikkonen was present for the test within the video.
Although no such times are officially recorded, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton has gathered the test appeared to go rather well, and rather quickly.
But it’s what’s powering the orange and black liveried car that will make all the difference as to whether McLaren will continue its ascent back up the field from the depths of 2015, and after a solid step forward in 2016.
Within today’s launch, most of the key stakeholders at McLaren admit that beyond the chassis changes, the Honda power unit will be vital to McLaren’s ability to leap back into the top-five in the Constructor’s Championship. The team has finished sixth and ninth in the last two years, on 76 and 27 points, respectively.
“Based on our two years of acquired experience and constant progress, Honda has made big changes to the concept and layout of our 2017 power unit, the RA617H,” said Yusuke Hasegawa, Honda’s Head of F1 Project & Executive Chief Engineer.
“The main areas of change that we focused on has been to decrease the weight and lower the centre of gravity, so as to improve the balance of the car, while generating more output from the ICE [internal combustion engine].
“Also, owing to the new 2017 regulations fundamentally affecting the design of our new car, Honda has made a lot of changes to accommodate the updated chassis. The team has therefore continued their hard work throughout the winter to find an ideal balance. “The pre-season test in Barcelona will be very important for us, so as to learn the functionality of the car as a whole.
“Our relationship with McLaren will continue to strengthen as we further progress technically and operationally this year, to achieve our ultimate goal.”
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier said real “progress” seems felt thus far, and the preseason quotes speak to that.
“Within McLaren-Honda, there’s a tangible feeling of progress, of change,” he said. “This year’s rules reset is a valuable opportunity for us – it will allow us to make progress with what we feel is a well ordered and clearly defined chassis-engine package, and hopefully to narrow the delta between us and the front-running teams.
“There’s a feeling around the factory that we’re about to turn the corner. Our relationship with Honda has blossomed – there’s a real sense of comradeship to what we do now – and I think we’re all very excited about what we can achieve together this year.”
Chief operating officer Jonathan Neale added, “The journey ahead isn’t going to be easy, and I’ve emphasized that to everyone. We’ve made progress in the past 12 months, but we’re not where we need to be and we expect on-track competition to be fierce. To win in Formula 1 requires any competitor to be good at everything. Thoughtful but relentless pursuit of excellence is required.
“So, do I believe we’ll be back at the front this year? Realistically, probably not quite yet, no. But do I think we’ll continue to make meaningful improvement as a team? Absolutely. And that’s our aim: to make progress by establishing the proper and correct, if sometimes difficult, changes that are needed to go forward.”
Executive director Zak Brown took time to thank the partners which have made the effort possible. Although a significant title sponsor remains to be filled, other partners such as SAP, Johnnie Walker, Castrol, Stratasys, Hilton and Chandon were all mentioned within the team’s release, in addition to the obvious partner of Honda.
With hopes high of improvement this year, quite how much further McLaren can move forward remains one of the biggest question marks of 2017. The team last stood on a podium when Kevin Magnussen was second at the 2014 Australian Grand Prix, in a race Jenson Button got moved up to third post-race following Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification for a fuel irregularity. McLaren’s last win was with Button in the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.