Hinchcliffe and Pigot. Photo: IndyCar

First day of Indy 500 practice sees 32 of 33 drivers turn some laps

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INDIANAPOLIS – Monday’s first day of 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil practice was still busy, but down significantly in lap count this year compared to last year.

Admittedly, conditions were warmer today and with teams on different stages of programs, it was always going to be unfair to expect the first day to be as busy as it was last year.

Last year, there were 498 laps turned among 10 drivers in the Rookie Orientation Program/refresher program, followed by 1,474 laps in the full first practice among all 33 drivers later in the day, and a total of 1,972 laps.

This year that number dwindled a bit, to 195 laps among 13 drivers in the ROP/refresher and 1,306 among 32 drivers in the first full practice, for a total of 1,501 laps, 471 fewer than last year.

The two busiest drivers in the first official practice were Americans Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand, two members who are inextricably linked from the 2011 rookie class, with 75 and 74 laps completed apiece.

Meanwhile at the bottom of the charts, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey and Gabby Chaves – Veach and Chaves are close friends, regular IndyCar two-seater drivers and recent Indy Lights race winners and graduates – turned in only 23, 14 and 6 laps on the day.

Harvey completed the first phase of his ROP before his incident at Turn 2 took him out of action for the rest of the day. Veach also completed his first phase near the end of the day, as he only ran three laps in the ROP portion and 23 this afternoon as the team was putting together its third chassis.

Photo: IndyCar

For Marco Andretti, who also led last year’s first day of practice, the goal today was to get the car as dialed in from a race setup standpoint as possible.

Andretti has had a number of extra race teammates at Indianapolis over the years. Extra drivers in recent years, prior to this year, include NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell (2016), Simona de Silvestro and the late Justin Wilson (2015), NASCAR champion Kurt Busch (2014), then-Indy Lights driver Carlos Munoz (2013) and fellow Indy Lights graduates Sebastian Saavedra and Ana Beatriz (2012) since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis.

This year, Andretti is assisting with Fernando Alonso’s high-profile addition under the McLaren Honda Andretti banner, and Harvey joined up as well in the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport car.

“I don’t know if I get them up to speed, but honestly, the way that they do is I just focus on my program and try to pioneer the way if we’re able to do that setup-wise, and then every day they get out on the track, they can put a more and more comfortable setup on. That’s my goal,” Marco Andretti said.

“That means I’m doing a good job, too. Probably just setup wise, I think just trying to get the most comfortable car possible.”

Sage Karam’s No. 24 Chevrolet. Photo: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

Other notes from the field today:

  • Ed Carpenter was the top Chevrolet behind Andretti and Scott Dixon’s pair of Hondas, third place at 224.969 mph.
  • Per Trackside Online, the top-10 no-tow speeds were all Hondas, led by Tony Kanaan at 223.554 mph. Bell led the no-tow speeds this day last year, at 223.940 mph. Seven of the top-10 no-tow speeds last year were Hondas.
  • Alexander Rossi was 13th in his first day of practice as defending Indianapolis 500 champion, albeit only fourth of the six Andretti Autosport Hondas (Andretti was first, Ryan Hunter-Reay fifth, Takuma Sato 10th).
  • Mikhail Aleshin was ninth and James Hinchcliffe 25th on a slightly odd day for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports; Jay Howard was 23rd in the team’s third car, after making 64 laps.
  • Graham Rahal sustained an engine issue in his No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, with Honda officials still diagnosing the extent of the issue. “Obviously, to lose an engine is frustrating but I know the Honda guys are pushing these things as hard as they can. I would have liked to be a little better but we are struggling a little bit in traffic but its early days and we can’t panic. She’s in one piece, we going to change the engine and fire it up tomorrow,” Rahal said.
  • Team Penske appears to have not shown its full hand. Will Power was seventh with Juan Pablo Montoya 12th, Simon Pagenaud 16th, Josef Newgarden 24th and Helio Castroneves 26th. Castroneves premiered his new white and gold Shell Fuel Rewards livery, to considerably less fanfare than other special Indianapolis liveries in recent years.
  • Having their first official days in an IndyCar for 2017: Oriol Servia (11th), Sage Karam (14th), Sebastian Saavedra (21st), Pippa Mann (27th) and Jack Harvey (31st). Other one-off entries Alonso, Jay Howard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Zach Veach and Gabby Chaves have tested or raced at least once thus far in 2017, and Buddy Lazier’s team seems set to hit the track mid-week as he was here, the car was here, but was being assembled.
  • Our NBCSports.com blogger for the month, Sage Karam, seemed very pleased with his first day back. The No. 24 DRR Mecum Auctions Chevrolet was locked into a conservative setup but even so, Karam was fourth among the 14 Chevrolets in 14th place today, at a best speed of 223.398 mph. Said the 22-year-old who is still the youngest driver in the field in his fourth Indy 500, “I just wanted to get in the car. I was really nervous this morning and had a lot of emotions going through me. Once you go through one practice run, all the emotions go away and it feels good to go flat (on the throttle) around here again.” Team owner Dennis Reinbold added, “It was a good solid day. We had a good balance in the car where Sage liked it. We got in some situations with traffic and the car responded. We didn’t get as many laps as we would have liked, but we made gains. We were a little conservative today, and we plan to be more aggressive tomorrow. We got through a lot on our checklist today.”
  • Juncos Racing made its debut in rather fine form, with Sebastian Saavedra ending 21st after 39 laps and Spencer Pigot ending 29th after 36 laps, giving the team 75 solid laps of running in its first day in IndyCar. More is here from the team release. There were another 23 done in the ROP program earlier, for a total of 98 laps.
  • Juncos’ busy first day was put in contrast as the McLaren Honda Andretti entry ran a combined 55 laps, the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti entry ran a combined 29 laps, and the Harding Racing entry ran just 6.

Additional Monday posts from Indianapolis are below:

Tuesday practice runs from noon to 6 p.m. ET.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.