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Drivers not focusing on lap times at Phoenix test

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There’s an old cliche about statistics: “Numbers never lie.” Indeed, this is technically true. Numbers and statistics provide pieces of factual information that cannot be refuted. They are, in fact, incapable of lying.

However, they can often fail to disclose other elements of the story. Case and point: the timing and scoring results of the two-day Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway. The practice results reveal a driver’s fastest individual lap, both during a single session and across the two-day outing. The numbers themselves are 100% factual and cannot be disputed.

However, they do not indicate speed over a series of laps (e.g. 5 laps, 10 laps, 20 laps, etc.). Such data is far more crucial in that it indicates a car’s performance over a stint, the pivotal aspect of dialing in a strong race setup.

Further, the time sheets do not indicate chassis adjustments a team sampled. Test sessions often serve as big science experiments for the race teams. It is their time to take their research and development theories to the track to see what works and what doesn’t.

Did a team adjust suspension and damper settings between runs? Did they alter aerodynamics, either by adding downforce or taking it away with wing adjustments? Did they adjust gearbox ratios? Are they experimenting with engine maps? Did they run on brand new tires or a used set?

All these questions, and more, go unanswered by the time charts. What’s more, the data the individual teams gather about their experiments is proprietary, so they won’t be keen to share it with outsiders. Consequently, lap times need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti explained that new strategist Bryan Herta is keen to keep the focus on the No. 27 hhgregg Honda while blocking what other teams are doing. “Bryan is very good at keeping me focused on the 27. ‘How can we maximize the 27?’ And then it’s very easy to be, ‘Oh, Penske went this fast’ — we need to focus on what we can do to go faster.”

Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay explained this point further, detailing how crucial it is to keep your attention away from your opponents. “It’s just like you’re here by yourself testing, and your teammates. And we’re just going to operate in our own little bubble and (we’re) not really worried about where anybody else is because people are on different trim levels, people are up and down on engine power, people are getting toes, some aren’t,” said the driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda. “Everybody is on a different tire program, tire life, you name it. So we’re just going to stay on our end and focus on it, and like I said, try and bring back the best race car that we can.”

There are more factors to consider as well. Phoenix is one of only three short ovals, along with Iowa Speedway and Gateway Motorsports Park, on the 2017 schedule. The other ovals (Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono) are bigger speedways, and 12 events will be held on road and street courses, meaning the data acquired at Phoenix may be inappropriate to use at other tracks.

Complicating matters more are weather conditions. This open test was held on February 10 and 11, and the ambient temperature topped out at 80 degrees on Friday evening while the track temperature hit a max of 94 degrees on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. But Saturday was much cooler, only into the mid-70s ambient and lower still at night.

With the race itself not scheduled until April 29, weather could be drastically different on raceday, as Team Penske driver and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud indicated. “It was interesting: we come here, the track is perfect right now, temperature is not too bad, and we’re going to come back here (on April 29). And then it’s going to be very greasy, very loose, and it’s going to be very different. So you need to be able to counter effect that.”

There are some observations we can take away. Team Penske looks as stout as ever, though Ed Carpenter Racing looks poised to remain a thorn in the side of all of the big teams in 2017. Chip Ganassi Racing came out of the box down on speed to their rivals, but they’re early in their development with Honda’s engine and aero kit and should find more speed as the year continues.

However, a number of unknowns persist, and they may not get answered until the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12.

Rossi charges to fifth after starting 18th at Barber

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Alexander Rossi has had a black cloud hanging over his head in each of the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner suffered an ill-timed caution at St. Petersburg that hurt his team’s strategy and then dropped out at Long Beach after an engine failure when he was running in the top three.

That misfortune continued on into Saturday, as he and the Andretti-Herta Autosport team couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, leaving him 18th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, everything turned up roses come race time and Rossi had arguably the drive of the day. Rossi was immediately on the charge and used a combination of strategy and speed to run seventh after the opening sequence of pit stops. He hung around the top five the rest of the day, eventually moving up to fifth after Charlie Kimball and Will Power made late-race pit stops.

All told, it was a remarkable run for him.

“It’s good considering we started 18th,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “We were pretty disappointed yesterday. We were on the verge of desperation. We had to diagnose what happened Saturday.”

The result vaulted Rossi all the way up to 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of Tony Kanaan. He trails points leader Sebastien Bourdais by 57 markers heading into the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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Bourdais hangs on to points lead after Barber

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Sebastien Bourdais’ drive to eighth is not quite the headline-maker to match his win at St. Petersburg or his second at Long Beach, but it was still a championship-caliber drive on a weekend where he and Dale Coyne Racing didn’t quite have the pace they had in the opening two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais advanced out of his Round 1 qualifying group, but went no further after turning the 12th fastest time in Round 2, leaving him 12th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, he managed to weather the storm and keep his nose clean, taking home an unspectacular but respectable eighth.

“Yeah not quite sure what did what. Maybe the conditions got us more in the operation of the tires,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee when asked about his struggles during the weekend.

Bourdais also added that might have been able to pass Tony Kanaan for seventh in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite do enough to make a run at him.

“I really thought I had (Kanaan) there. He used the pushed to pass. I didn’t forget! I really thought I had him. He used the push to pass on the way back. Shame on me. It was a good fight. Not the greatest day but top 10 is good for the guys and the Sonny’s BBQ car.”

Bourdais leads Scott Dixon by six points and Josef Newgarden by seven. Simon Pagenaud sits 10 markers behind while James Hinchcliffe is 15 back after three races.

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

Brown and Alonso. Photo: IndyCar
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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso had a quick sit-in in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda:

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).

Dixon maintains excellent start despite another tough P2 at Barber

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Such is the brilliance of Scott Dixon that his start to his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – finishes of third, fourth and second – can be viewed as disappointing because potential wins have gone begging.

The latest chapter of his almost-winning-but-not-quite saga to open this year’s campaign occurred at the track where he has his best results without a win, Barber Motorsports Park.

Dixon was top Honda on the day in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but alas, one spot short of a victory as he scored his seventh Barber podium in eight races – all of them either seconds or thirds.

On this occasion, Dixon did his usual masterstroke of fuel saving by running longest in the first stint, running to Lap 24 and leading two laps.

Dixon also got ahead of Josef Newgarden on the final pit stop sequence despite running behind him and Will Power on the road during the middle stint.

But after a restart from the second and last full-course caution on Lap 68, Newgarden muscled his way past Dixon at Turns 15 and 16 for third place on the inside, leaving Dixon very little room on corner exit in a forceful but not dirty passing move.

While that was for third at the time, it wound up being the pass for the win because Dixon’s teammate, then-leader Charlie Kimball, pitted from an off-sequence strategy and the would-be winner, Power, pitted with a left rear puncture.

It left Dixon high and dry but in his usual so good, yet so close, P2, with three laps led. He felt worse for Power and gave Newgarden plaudits for the move.

“I saw him late coming into Turn 15 or 16. I tried to hold him back, but I wasn’t able to hold him back. It’s deserved for him,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Marty Snider post-race.

“The NTT Data car was strong. I feel bad for Will Power. It was a false flat tire perhaps? So yeah, that and a good job to Josef.”

Dixon elaborated a bit more on the day in the post-race press conference.

“I typically hold a fairly tight line there. But, yeah, he dove it in there, with some speed. He couldn’t make the corner at the appropriate time, so we kind of both ran wide there. But, you know, it was a great move.

“Josef did a hell of a job there on the blacks. Obviously had a clean start and really had some good longevity on that stint and was able to pit short and jump on reds.

“I think, you know, I feel bad for Will obviously with the flat tire issue there, but then also left the door open a little bit in 16. Josef put his nose in there. Tried to turn down, but through that whole complex, 14, 15, 16, I was just so loose. If I turned more, would have spun out.

“Credit to Josef. Drove a hell of a race. Team Penske, congratulations to them. Seventh podium here at Alabama without a win. Good in a lot of ways, but unfortunately we come here to win and we came up short.”

Despite not winning, Dixon still sits second in the points, just six points behind Sebastien Bourdais, who finished eighth.

Dixon and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series head to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix next weekend (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where he has a win to defend.