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.

WATCH LIVE: Indy Carb Day, then NASCAR AMERICA from 11a ET, NBCSN

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The busiest and greatest weekend in motorsports takes place this weekend from Monaco, Indianapolis and Charlotte, and you can see quite a bit of it today on NBCSN from 11 a.m. ET. The live stream link is here, via the NBC Sports App.

Indianapolis 500 Carb Day coverage will run from 11 a.m. through to 3:30 p.m. ET, in several chunks:

  • IndyCar final practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil runs from 11 a.m. to noon ET. Kevin Lee, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth with Marty Snider, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller on pit lane.
  • From there, at noon, it’s the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season – the Freedom 100. With finishes of 0.0024 (2016, Dean Stoneman over Ed Jones), 0.0026 (2013, Peter Dempsey over three others) and 0.005 (2014, Gabby Chaves over Matthew Brabham), the Freedom 100 is known for fantastic and close finishes. Lee and Anders Krohn will be in the booth with Hargitt and Beekhuis reporting from the pits. The starting grid for that is linked here.
  • At 2 p.m. ET, it’s the Indy Pit Stop Competition, with the IndyCar crew back in for that. While some of the bigger teams are usually the ones that wins this, others such as Mikhail Aleshin for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Sage Karam for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have stolen the show in this competition in recent years.

The coverage from Indianapolis runs for those four and a half hours, and leads straight into the now-annual NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special, which features live coverage from NBC crews in all of Indianapolis, Monaco and Charlotte and runs from 3:30 to 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. A standard NASCAR AMERICA show runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET.

Among the items to look forward to from Indy and Monaco in that show:

  • An update on Fernando Alonso’s crazy month of May, ahead of his first Indianapolis 500
  • Robin Miller tours the A.J. Foyt Exhibit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
  • A look at Will Power, the dad, and the change that’s come to his life
  • From Monaco, a look at this season’s stellar battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel
  • A look at the magic of Monaco and a simulation of the track

As a reminder, here’s the IndyCar times from this weekend, and a link to the F1 times as well.

Alonso vs. ‘The Other 32’ hits Indy Media Day, plus Thursday notes

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastian Saavedra served as the perfect foil for the attention generated by Fernando Alonso on media day ahead of this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The Colombian driver was never going to be the driver to generate the most attention on this day. He starts 31st and hasn’t started an IndyCar race since the Sonoma season finale in 2015.

But being sat next to Alonso? It gave the impression poor Seb – himself about to start his sixth Indy 500 and a first with Juncos Racing as it makes its debut – was a lost soul in the wrong room, instead of one of his fellow competitors.

Saavedra could well have been speaking for “the other 32” – the drivers not named Alonso racing in 2017 – when he talked about what it meant to be back in this race after missing it for one year, and the preparation that will already begin for the 2018 ‘500, starting Monday.

“We don’t run just to run,” Saavedra, driver of Juncos’ No. 17 AFS Chevrolet, told NBC Sports. “Something needs to make sense. Coming into this year we came in with a different mentality; to build something for the future.

“When you’re not here, you miss this place. On Monday, we want everything to start up again for next year.”

In video and photographic form, the contrast between Saavedra and the scrum around Alonso’s place is captured below (or by satirist, @nascarcasm, here).

Media day inevitably serves up a series of quotes, banter and other topics from the field that we’ll flesh out over the next 48 hours on Friday and Saturday on MotorSportsTalk. As you can see below, here’s some of the facial expressions from the rest of the runners.

In other notes from the last couple days:

  • Team Penske continues to honor its legends. At its now annual Shell media lunch on Thursday, Penske has inducted legendary mechanic Karl Kainhofer and four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears into Penske’s Hall of Fame. Both icons of Penske’s legacy were awarded plaques of honor to join Penske himself and the late Mark Donohue, inducted upon the Penske Hall of Fame’s 2016 debut.
  • This event saw all five of Penske’s drivers speak, and was the second Penske sponsor event in as many days. The first, held at an event at a house in Speedway on Wednesday, saw Verizon debut its 5G LTE technology in-home, done in partnership with Ericsson. Will Power was on hand to witness the public debut of the 5G Smart House; the house is outfitted with wireless technology and ridiculous speed, which also included a Virtual Reality component.
  • We have a pace car driver. Chevrolet announced Thursday that actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who has played major roles in hit television series such as “The Walking Dead” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” will drive the 2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Pace Car to lead the starting field of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil to the green flag Sunday, May 28.
  • The Indy Lights race has a bevy of potential surprise winners. The front row features Matheus Leist, set to run his first ever oval race, Colton Herta, who is set for his first big oval race, and two more Andretti teammates in Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman who looked great in traffic on Monday. Leist’s Carlin teammate Zachary Claman De Melo is another wild card; the Canadian has a “Jekyll & Hyde” nature to him. Then Aaron Telitz had to deal with a bit of mist and rain on his qualifying run and will start sixth. With the top two drivers in points starting 11th and 13th (Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin), it’s a fascinating day on tap.

Watch all of Indianapolis Carb Day coverage and the Freedom 100 starting at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Previewing Indy 500, Monaco GP

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It’s open-wheel racing’s biggest weekend of the year this weekend, with the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix on tap.

It also gives a chance to check in with Stefan Johansson for the latest blog as he chats with Jan Tegler, previewing both marquee events on the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula 1 calendars. Johansson raced at Monaco five times and Indy four times.

First off, Johansson describes how impressive the qualifying run was by Scott Dixon, as he’s on the pole for the race.

“Getting the pole at Indy again is great obviously, and it was a mighty run from Scott for sure. Indy qualifying is not easy under any circumstance. But to go out cold without even one lap in practice all day – he went straight from qualifying on Saturday to qualifying on Sunday – in a car that you have no idea about in terms of how it will perform, that’s impressive.

“Everybody is trying to trim their cars to the absolute limit and I think Scott and his engineer Chris Simmons went all out this time. Scott said he had a small breather in turn 2 every lap just keep the front tight and he was still doing 232 laps so the car must have been extremely light on downforce. Typically, if you have to lift anywhere on the four lap run the time won’t hold up.”

After Fernando Alonso’s taken to the Speedway, here’s Johansson’s thoughts on how he’s gone so far:

“With Alonso being there this year as well, I think a lot more people that normally would not tune in are going to realize again how incredibly exciting it is and how great IndyCar racing and the Indy 500, in particular, are. It’s an outstanding event and qualifying is really an event in itself, apart from the race.

“Alonso also mentioned that he wants to be a “complete driver” which I think is fantastic coming from him. I think his involvement this year could start a trend. I’m sure he’s loved every minute of this experience so far.”

Here’s what Johansson thinks of the magic of race day morning, which is something Alonso is set to experience for the first time on Sunday.

“I remember the first time I raced there, walking out onto the grid for the first time after having been there all month and it’s amazing. Qualifying has a pretty good crowd but when you walk out onto the grid on Sunday morning before the start you suddenly see this mountain of people in front of you. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s an incredible experience.”

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MAY 14: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talk in the post race press conference during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 14, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

And after a dramatic Spanish Grand Prix, here was Johansson’s take on the Ferrari vs. Mercedes battle and his take on how Ferrari managed to muck up strategy for Sebastian Vettel in Barcelona.

“It boggles my mind why Ferrari didn’t stop when there was a VSC. That’s race strategy-101. If you have a virtual safety period and you’re in a pit stop window, you have to stop.

“I am not 100 percent clear if the pits were closed during the safety car period or not, in which case maybe Vettel passed the pits as the track went green and Hamilton being 8 seconds behind was able to duck in just as Vettel passed the green flag.

“It’s fantastic that the championship is so close and we now have two teams fighting for the title.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

2017 columns:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Indy field keen to beat him, but agree Alonso Indy 500 win would boost IndyCar globally

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INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal wants to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. If not him, he’d like to see a Honda driver in victory lane.

Ditto for James Hinchcliffe, who’d like to win but would also be happy to see a Honda winner, as well.

Will Power is also of the same mindset. If he can’t win, he’d like one of his Team Penske teammates take the checkered flag.

But those same drivers interviewed by NBC Sports Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are also well aware of the potential impact of having two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the race.

And make no mistake, even though this is Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar and oval racing, when it comes to Sunday’s race, he’s in it to win it. And some of the drivers he’ll challenge for the ‘500 win are well aware of that.

“Obviously, selfishly, for a lot of us, we hope he doesn’t,” Rahal said with a smile.

Rahal then grew serious, adding, “But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s driving the same car Townsend (Bell) drove last year, which was one of the favorites to win until the pit lane accident. So it’s a fast car, it’s a good machine, I’ve worked with some of his mechanics in the past.

“They’re quality guys. It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s going to be in the hunt. But I hope it just continues to draw more eyes. I think he’s had a great time here this month. It would be great to have him continue to come back, amongst others. Clearly, we hope one of the regulars wins this thing, there’s a lot of guys that deserve a lot of credit and maybe have been overlooked this month, but that’s just part of it. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Hinchcliffe also wants to win Sunday, but knows Alonso brings an additional dynamic to the table that is kind of a mixed blessing.

“That’s one of those bittersweet situations,” Hinchcliffe said with a chuckle. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous amount of coverage for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, but if a rookie comes in and wins it on pace, it just makes us look a bit silly.

“Now, if you’re going to be made to look silly, if it’s going to happen at the hands of Fernando Alonso, you’ll sleep a little bit better at night because he’s pretty much the greatest living racing driver.

“The fact of the matter is he’s got a really good shot at it, man. He’s been incredible. There’s a lot of difficult situations that you get put into during a 500-mile race here or in practice and we’ve watched him handle them like a seasoned veteran. It’s been very impressive, honestly. He’s in one of the best cars, he’s starting near the front (middle of Row 2), he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

In addition to Alonso’s massive talent, Hinchcliffe has also been impressed at the Spanish driver’s personality.

“He’s super down to earth, very friendly and has really embraced this experience,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar paddock is a very different world from the F1 paddock.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of (F1) drivers that wouldn’t handle the atmosphere here very well, but Fernando hasn’t been like that. He’s embraced the whole experience, the fan interaction we have, which is a massive degree higher than what you see in F1. He’s been an awesome addition to the field. I hope it’s not the last IndyCar race that we see him at.”

And then there’s Will Power, who has an IndyCar championship trophy on his mantle, but not the Borg-Warner Indy 500 winner’s trophy.

Power feels he has a good chance to finally break through and win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. But he also knows Alonso presents a formidable challenge in addition to the regular IndyCar drivers he does battle with in every series race.

But Power agrees with his counterparts that an Alonso win would bring a great deal of worldwide attention that would provide a big boost of attention and popularity into the IndyCar Series.

“I think you’d have a new group of Spanish fans if Alonso happened to win the race, plus a lot of interest from Europe, which there already is,” Power said. “He definitely has the car and the capability to do it – but so does a lot of people in the field.”

When asked if he can relate his own first 500 (finished 13th in 2008) to that of Alonso, Power said it was completely apples to oranges.

“It’s not similar,” Power said. “When I came here the first time, the team had never raced ovals and we got the car two weeks before the first race of the season and had no idea of the setup. And my engineer had never run ovals, either.

“(Alonso’s) been placed with one of the best teams, one of the best cars and much more experience. I would have dreamed of having that experience in my first time. It would have made it much easier and given me way more confidence on the oval.”

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