Pigot at Sonoma. Photo: Mike Finnegan/Sonoma Raceway

IndyCar’s test silly season sustaining interest prior to St. Pete

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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.

Ricky Taylor’s test Thursday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 PPG Chevrolet for Team Penske offered the Rolex 24 champion a chance to show his chops in the defending champion’s machinery. He’s the second surprise test driver Team Penske has run in the last eight months, as NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski had a test in Pagenaud’s car at the Road America road course last June.

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.

Felix Rosenqvist's Ganassi test last year was an intriguing one. Photo: IndyCar
Felix Rosenqvist’s Ganassi test last year was an intriguing one. Photo: IndyCar

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)
  • Shelby Blackstock (Watkins Glen test, Andretti Autosport)
  • 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.

Despite three star races in 2016, Enerson was left on outside looking in for 2017. Photo: IndyCar
Despite three star races in 2016, Enerson was left on outside looking in for 2017. Photo: IndyCar

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 three 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.

Might Kaiser be the next Indy Lights driver we see arrive in IndyCar? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Might Kaiser be the next Indy Lights driver we see arrive in IndyCar? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

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.

Given his ability in prototypes and his open-wheel background, Dane Cameron would be a natural if he'd get shot to test an IndyCar. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Given his ability in prototypes and his open-wheel background, Dane Cameron would be a natural if he’d get shot to test an IndyCar. Photo courtesy of IMSA

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.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.

Lewis Hamilton sees off Vettel challenge to take Australian GP pole

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Lewis Hamilton saw off challenges from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to pick up the first Formula 1 pole position of the year in Australian Grand Prix qualifying.

Hamilton topped the timesheets on Friday to give Mercedes hope of continuing its impressive qualifying form from 2016, when it took 20 poles from 21 races.

However, Ferrari looked poised to strike and take its first pole position since Singapore 2015 as Vettel led final practice, setting up a close battle in qualifying.

Hamilton took provisional pole with his first Q3 run, going three-tenths faster than Vettel, and was able to find a further three-tenths on his second run to make pole all but his.

Vettel refused to back down, producing a rapid final sector to gain plenty of time on Hamilton, but it was not enough to deny the Briton his 62nd F1 pole.

On his Mercedes debut, Bottas put in an impressive display to take third on the grid, finishing three-tenths off Hamilton’s time. Fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen ended the session fourth in the second Ferrari.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge in fifth, while Haas driver Romain Grosjean put in a stellar display to take sixth on the grid. Felipe Massa will start his comeback race from seventh ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat.

Local favorite Daniel Ricciardo’s difficult home race weekend continued as he crashed out at Turn 14, wrecking the rear of his Red Bull RB13. While Ricciardo was physically unharmed, the Australian’s ego was left bruised as he was resigned to starting the race from 10th on the grid.

Sporting is bright pink livery, Force India failed to light up the gloomy conditions in Melbourne as it suffered a double-elimination in Q2. Sergio Perez qualified 11th, while rookie teammate Esteban Ocon will make his first start in Australia from 14th on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg saw his 13-race streak of Q3 appearances ended as he could only qualify P12.

One of the biggest talking points from the early part of qualifying was Fernando Alonso’s titanic effort to put his McLaren-Honda 13th on the grid. Following a tough winter marred by reliability issues, Alonso dragged his car through to Q2 and did “all he could”, yet the issues faced by the team meant no Q3 berth was forthcoming.

Sauber enjoyed an impressive start to the year as Marcus Ericsson made it through to Q2, eventually qualifying 15th. Last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi was poised to also get out of Q1 on debut, only for a mistake on his final lap to leave him 16th overall.

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen failed to get in a late lap, leaving him 17th on the grid for his first race with the American team, while a fuel flow issue meant Stoffel Vandoorne could only qualify 18th for McLaren.

Lance Stroll’s baptism of fire in F1 continued as he finished 2.9 seconds off the pace in P19 for Williams, while Renault’s Jolyon Palmer was made to pay for his lack of track time, rounding out the grid in P20.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Lance Stroll set for Australia grid penalty after gearbox change

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Formula 1 rookie Lance Stroll has been forced into a gearbox change ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix following a crash in final practice at Albert Park.

Stroll lost the back-end of his Williams FW40 car coming out of Turn 10, hitting the wall and causing damage to the right-hand side and rear of his chassis in the process.

The crash brought out a red flag that ultimately caused FP3 to end early, with Stroll returning to the pit lane on the back of a marshal’s moped.

After bringing the car back to the pit lane, Williams confirmed that it would have to change Stroll’s gearbox ahead of qualifying, which will trigger a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian.

Stroll’s crash comes after a mixed pre-season program that saw him suffer three shunts in the opening week in Barcelona, raising concerns about his readiness for F1.

Stroll bounced back in the second week of running, racking up plenty of mileage in Williams’ 2017 car to back up his extensive private test program in the team’s 2014-spec F1 car last year.

At just 18 years old, Stroll is set to become the second-youngest F1 driver on Sunday, trailing only Red Bull’s Max Verstappen whose first start came at the age of 17 in 2015.