Photo courtesy of IMSA

Acura Team Penske pushing, learning hard in Daytona testing

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There are a lot of standard, run-of-the-mill quotes used to describe the challenge of racing the Rolex 24 at Daytona that largely focus on endurance, persistence and compromise.

And then there is this gem from Juan Pablo Montoya offered during a break in testing for Acura Team Penske today at Daytona, to describe what this race entails.

“The best way to describe is it go down I-95, at 150 mph, running away from the police… that’s kinda the feel you get here,” Montoya said, to lead off a session with reporters Friday, which IMSA was gracious enough to stream live on Facebook.

“You feel like you’re being chased – or chasing someone. They stole your life and you need to get it back and you’re driving the wheels off it, in meantime people get in the way and you’re bouncing into people. It’s pretty cool.”

Canned quote that is not, and for Montoya, it’s also the precursor to both his and Acura Team Penske’s aspirations of coming in hot for the race debut of the new Acura ARX-05 at next year’s Rolex 24.

Penske’s drivers are completing a two-day test this week at Daytona and a two-day test next week at Sebring to continue the intense preparation for the 36 Hours of Florida out of the box to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. The Acura program joins Mazda among DPi manufacturers testing this week at Daytona.

Montoya’s already hailed the car’s early reliability from the first round of testing.

“The reliability of the car has been unbelievable. Acura came out with an engine that just runs. I think the pace we still need to work on it. It’s still early days for the car,” he said.

Montoya and Helio Castroneves are the two star attractions in Penske’s full-season lineup but both are well aware and focused on the fact it’ll be co-drivers Dane Cameron and Ricky Taylor that will ease their respective sports car transitions.

Montoya will share with Cameron (Simon Pagenaud is third driver), Castroneves with Taylor (Graham Rahal is third driver), and the older drivers are moving into a new position of being the relative newcomers learning from their significantly younger but championship-winning sports car veteran teammates.

“Yesterday for example, we were done running and we went for dinner just to talk about cars and get that relationship together,” Montoya said of Cameron, the 2016 Prototype class champion. “The two of us we can talk about what I like and he likes, and what I hate and he hates. So we stay away from the things we hate we can get to a nice compromise.”

Castroneves added, “People don’t realize they’re champions in the series and they have more experience than Juan Pablo and me. So having them as a reference to learn details is key… we’re talking about traction control, electronics and a lot of things we don’t use. We have to smooth it out. We have the current champ in my car. And he has another champ in his! We’re older guys, but we’re rookies.

“I’m not very good at sharing. But it’s another thing. Transitioning from IndyCar to sports car takes time. You gotta share the driving position, driving style, the setup. There is so much. At end of the day it’s a compromise. Like marriage. We all know that. Right now Ricky is phenomenal and Dane is as well. I’m looking forward to 2018.”

Team Penske’s maiden sports car race in its return, Petit Le Mans with the LMP2-spec Oreca 07 Gibson, was a hugely valuable learning experience for the team. Castroneves won the pole and the team recovered from Castroneves getting hit early on to finish third.

The work done this offseason is key in the preparation to ensuring the new car is ready to star out of the box at both next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 and crucially, the Rolex 24 itself.

“The competition level from other teams is incredible,” Castroneves said. “The rhythm in the race was stronger than we expected. We know what we need to do know. Focus on qualifying gets you to the front. There, 10 hours, weather changing, there’s so many different adversity. It was a great learning curve.

“Sure it’s a new team but not new in sports cars, or new in many aspects. We have experienced people around us. That’s one of the reasons we did Petit Le Mans. We’ll face different (challenges). There’s a lot to be prepared for. We’ll do everything in our power.”

Beyond their full-season bow in IMSA, Castroneves is confirmed for a return for next year’s Indianapolis 500 in a fourth Team Penske car.

Montoya’s options now seem limited to a fifth, as the primary Chevrolet test driver under INDYCAR’s directed 2018 Dallara universal body kit program would be highly unlikely to be released away from Penske and Chevrolet to a Honda-powered IndyCar effort. He updated his status today, following on from his most recent comments to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix last month.

“I don’t think I will (race Indianapolis) at the moment,” Montoya said. “I think with Roger … I could either run with him if he wants; if not, I don’t think he’ll let me run anywhere else.”

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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