ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The fact that the six Verizon IndyCar Series cars that are testing today at Road America are, in fact, testing is a small miracle in itself after the tornado of carbon fiber swept through Texas Motor Speedway last Saturday night in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600.
Three Andretti Autosport, two Dale Coyne Racing and a single Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda are all in attendance at the 4.048-mile circuit for a scheduled team test.
Both Andretti and SPM are using this day to test Indy Lights drivers in the opening half. Nico Jamin and Matheus Leist have taken their first ever laps in an IndyCar in the No. 27 and No. 98 Hondas, respectively, for Andretti. Meanwhile Dalton Kellett returns for the first time since Watkins Glen and Zachary Claman De Melo, for SPM, is in a car for the first time since Mid-Ohio last year.
Kellett had tested Marco Andretti’s car last year but is now in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda today. The Canadian who now lives in Indianapolis arrived Tuesday night along with the rest of the Andretti team.
The Andretti trio are in their road course chassis, with repairs coming to the No. 26, 28 and 98 Honda oval chassis from Texas last week. Of those three, the No. 98 was the worst damaged after contact in Texas.
Claman De Melo has taken over James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and PaySafe is on the sidepods, which is more than you usually see changed over for an Indy Lights driver test.
Coyne’s team, though, has had the biggest thrash to get here in what’s been a bizarre, expensive and whirlwind month-plus.
With both cars damaged in Texas, Coyne’s team is down to two tubs and two gearboxes, both of which are on site at Road America.
The team arrived at the track this morning before 6 a.m. to unload its two transporters after a thrash to get two cars built up late Tuesday afternoon, then get on the road before rush hour for the roughly five-hour drive from the team’s Plainfield, Ill. shop to Elkhart Lake, Wis.
The No. 18 Honda running today is the repaired James Davison chassis from Indianapolis, which keeping things straight, was the road course backup car pressed into oval duty for the Indianapolis 500. The No. 18 Honda that was last an oval chassis, Pippa Mann’s No. 63 car from the Indianapolis 500, now falls out of the rotation after Tristan Vautier suffered significant damage in the Texas eight-car pileup on Lap 152. Ed Jones’ No. 19 Honda is repaired from Texas.
As for the identity of the No. 18 driver this test? It’s a weird one, and also recalls the IMSA test at Daytona in November 2015 involving Ford GT drivers.
Back then, the drivers tested the Ford GT but were technically not allowed to say they were there, because Ford had not formally announced them.
The same situation is presenting itself today. A driver known to the Dale Coyne Racing team was in the car today for the test; the team anticipates making its driver announcement for the Road America race in the near future.
Officially, we can say “TBA” was in the car for today’s test, thus making “TBA’s” official debut in an unofficial capacity, because this isn’t an official session.
Jones, meanwhile, now had his first IndyCar running at Road America today, and was the first of the full-season drivers out before the others – Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe – took over in the afternoon.
The four Indy Lights drivers ran the morning session before lunch. Jamin, in his first running in an IndyCar, was the only one who revealed a time – an unofficial mark of 1:44.9 – but figure between the 1:44s and 1:46s, the Lights guys were pretty much on pace.
Jamin was thrilled to add the IndyCar to his other repertoire of cars he’s driven in 2017. He adds the Honda, where he drove at least 35 laps, to the Dallara IL-15 Mazda (Indy Lights), Ligier JS P3 (IMSA) and KTM X-BOW GT4 (PWC).
“It was absolutely incredible. It was a lot more than what I expected,” Jamin told NBC Sports. “As any driver who’d drive it for the first time, I was a bit nervous, but after the install and the first laps it all felt natural. The car felt extremely smooth and it brings confidence to a driver. I was able to get up to speed quickly, we had a good run on the first set, the degradation got worse but I got the same kind of lap times.
“We put new tires on and I was able to do a pretty fast lap time. I did a (1:44) 4.9, which was good, and 10 seconds quicker than Indy Lights! New tires it feels like this car has no limit; it can push like crazy. In less than a year I was here in Pro Mazda; now I’m testing an IndyCar.
“On the power side, the power is linear. Indy Lights has a huge kick on the turbo. It’s easier to put the power down here. 2,000 vs. 6,000 pounds of downforce. The carbon brakes are quite insane as well. You can brake later.”
Leist, who drives for Carlin in Indy Lights, was the other first-timer. Perhaps a surprise nomination, Leist was in Brazil last week when he found out he’d be in the seat. Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta, age 17, is less than the required 18 years old (Leist is 19) to be in an IndyCar, per the INDYCAR Rule Book.
“I think I was fastest on my first set of new tires,” Leist told NBC Sports. “It’s faster, but not as much as I was thinking. The main difference is the cornering speed is amazing because of the downforce. When I tried to go on my second set of new tires it rained. I hope to do two more runs.
“The braking point here is crazy. It’s the fastest car that I’ve ever driven. The high speed corners, there’s a few corners where it’s almost flat in Indy Lights and here with more power, more downforce, it’s easy flat!”
Meanwhile the two returning drivers picked up the slack just fine. Kellett was flat out this morning in 37 laps and didn’t have time to take a breath.
“I think Road America is a friendlier track to be at to learn the car than Watkins!” Kellett laughed. “The cornering speed is maybe 20 mph higher there. It didn’t take long to get to the speed where I was at the level I needed to.
“We’ve been talking about it for a while, but the date I found about maybe a day or two before the Freedom 100. It’s been a quick turnaround.
“We didn’t have a chance to stop and look at anything. It was go, go, go. We went hard this morning! This was different with the (PFC) carbon brakes; at Watkins, we were still with the Brembos. It was a long time ago, but there were no issues today!”
Claman De Melo’s session, meanwhile, was truncated. He had a spin in the morning and after lunch, suffered another engine issue from a Honda, which was confirmed by HPD to NBC Sports.
“It’s been a similar feel. They all helped me at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports,” Claman De Melo said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in an IndyCar.
“Still, everything went according to plan. I had a small spin but got back going. I’m getting used to everything again. It’s been a good morning.”
Further Indy Lights driver test days figure to occur later this summer, as the next round of talent from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder prepares for their eventual ascension into the big show.