Aleshin on IndyCar: “I can’t wait to get back”

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Few drivers were exciting to watch as Mikhail Aleshin in the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series, with the Russian’s speed, bravery and bravado showing through at a number of events.

Aleshin didn’t get a chance to end his rookie season as planned though, with a devastating accident at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. in night practice.

He came back proving he’d lost none of the attributes he had on his scorecard in the 2015 season finale at Sonoma, in a third Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry. He out-qualified teammates Ryan Briscoe and James Jakes and finished 10th in the team’s No. 77 SMP Racing Dallara-Honda.

As Aleshin explained, the return to IndyCar – particularly ovals – is something he’s quite excited for.

“It all depends on your feeling about the series, about the team and about your place in the world, I would say,” Aleshin told MotorSportsTalk at this weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, where he’s co-driving the No. 37 SMP Racing BR Engineering BR01 Nissan.

“I really enjoyed this particular team and felt myself like I was back home. And from the physical and mental side, the work on the prototype we did all season, that helped me a lot. I learned a lot as well there.

“For me, I didn’t have any real issues to get back and be in the top-10 in IndyCar. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but it was not harder than when I did it the first year, for sure.”

Aleshin’s bravado shown through most on the ovals in the No. 7 car. With Fontana his last oval memory prior to now Phoenix, which will be the first oval race in 2016, Aleshin is keen to recapture the spark.

“I don’t know why, but I like ovals even more than other tracks, for some reason,” he said. “Here (Daytona), you can’t call it an oval, I mean the configuration that we’re using here at Daytona, but still you take some parts of the oval and it’s a pretty nice feeling, I’ll tell you. I can’t wait to get back.”

He’s had one test already with James Hinchcliffe at Sebring, and the two have gelled well.

“We had a test in Sebring together. He’s a nice guy and I think he’s a good worker. He seems like an open guy and I’m sure we’re going to have some fun times this season,” he said.

Aleshin will share the SMP Racing BR01 Nissan at Daytona with Kirill Ladygin, Nicolas Minassian and Maurizio Mediani for the Rolex 24 at Daytona itself.

The car is a dark horse entry for the overall win, and Aleshin returns to the race for the first time since 2014, when he finished fourth in GT Daytona in an SMP Ferrari 458 Italia GT3.

Aleshin could also do the 24 Hours of Le Mans again, as it does not conflict with IndyCar’s schedule. However, he said that remains to be seen whether he’ll slot in somewhere within SMP’s sports car program.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.