IndyCar Test Notes: Juan Pablo Montoya makes most of short day

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Cold, damp conditions may have robbed him (and the other Verizon IndyCar Series competitors) of track time this morning at Barber Motorsports Park, but Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya still made the most of things in the afternoon.

The former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion, returning to open-wheel this season after a seven-year run in NASCAR, logged 55 laps in the first day of the series’ Open Test on the 2.3-mile Alabama circuit and turned in the second-fastest time (1:07.6492) in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet.

That time was only .0678 of a second off of teammate and Monday leader Will Power. And while he not ready to deem himself perfect ahead of the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30, he believes he’s making progress.

“Just trying to get better and figure out new tires a little bit,” the Colombian said during the session. “I’m trying to learn how to get more out of the car and we’re getting there.

“It was good today, but there’s a couple of places that I need to do a little better job and be a little cleaner. But we’re getting there.”

For his part, Power is convinced that Montoya will be a force right out of the gate in St. Petersburg.

“Collectively as a team, we try to improve the car and learn from each other, but when it comes to racing, the better guy is going to be winning,” Power said. “It’s competition; it’s just how it is.

“This series, he could win the first race quite easily. I expect him to definitely drive to the front everywhere, so if you’re at the front knocking on the door, eventually you’re going to get a win.”

Scott Dixon won his first Verizon IndyCar Series title in 2003. He finished 10th in the standings in 2004, hampered by a down-on-power Toyota engine.

He then won his second series title in 2008. But despite leading the standings going into the 2009 season finale, he wound up runner-up to then-teammate Dario Franchitti.

Now, Dixon enters this season coming off of his third IndyCar crown. So, will the third time be the charm regarding a successful title defense?

Time will tell, but as he said today at Barber, the matter of holding on to the championship is “a good problem to have.”

“I’ve been in this situation a couple of times before and we actually haven’t defended it that well,” said Dixon, who was fourth-fastest on Monday. “In ’09, we had a close shot and nearly won another championship. We will just have to sort of see how it goes.

“For us in the past, when we have come close to another three championships, I think it’s always been the start of the year that has kind of hindered us. I think we need to focus on making a good start in the first three or four races.”

Teams are, of course, getting ready for the season opener in a few weeks at St. Petersburg. But they’re also preparing for when the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Barber for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Apr. 27 (which you can see on NBCSN).

The race will serve as the third round of the 2014 championship, and for the next two days at Barber, Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe is making sure to keep tabs on his tires as he zips around the technically challenging track.

“With the treatment that was done to the track last year with some grinding, it improved lap times but it also took a toll on the tires, so you need some sort of compromise,” said Hinchcliffe, who was ninth-quickest on Monday.

Finding a happy medium is also important at Barber in regards to car set-up.

“The other big compromise at this track is setup-wise – the low-speed corners, you’ll be dealing with a lot of under-steer and [in] some of the other corners, the rear slides out,” he said.  “So you want a nice, stable rear and a well-connected front.”

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”