Some notes, thoughts and perspective follow below after the Verizon IndyCar Series two-day Test in the West at Phoenix International Raceway:
- Back to the glory days speed. You might remember in the late 1990s when CART ran at one-mile ovals in Milwaukee and Nazareth, while Phoenix dropped off and hitched its wagon to the IRL. But for a couple years, speeds at the one-milers were insane: 190-plus mph at Nazareth and mid-180s at Milwaukee were the pole speeds. And this weekend, it came back. Some speeds were tow-assisted but still, seven drivers had best speeds of over 190 mph, and the slowest best speed for the week was 184. For reference, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track record at the same track is in the 143 mph range… IndyCars are running six seconds per lap quicker at the same track. How they’re getting there though, is the big question mark before the race.
- The downforce dilemma. So when the speeds were that high in the late 1990s, CART then struggled with what wing package to bring – it’s the age-old debate between low and high downforce. High downforce brings higher cornering speeds; low downforce brings higher straightaway speeds and a greater gap between terminal velocity and cornering speeds. The super speedway wing package came in 1999 to short ovals, then with an aided Handford Mk II device for a mid-range downforce level. Right now in 2016, it’s skewing to more of a higher downforce package at PIR but even so opinions are split about whether it’s the right amount. Michael Andretti told Motorsport.com he wants more downforce, while defending series champion Scott Dixon told a group of reporters at the end of the session the current level is good. “Starting right now, I think it’s gonna be a good race. Is it gonna be hard to pass? Yes, but I think it’s possible,” said the four-time champ. Watch this space and we’ll have more thoughts about downforce in the days to come.
- Tightly packed field. As noted, the speed gap was only six mph from 1-21 – and an even smaller two mph, or just 0.2964 of a second – from 1-18 in looking at the combined times. With different gearing, Dale Coyne Racing’s two cars could have found an additional tenth or two as well to make it even tighter 1-20. Compared to oval races in the past where there is at least some separation, right now, the quality and depth of field is as strong as it’s ever been, even with a reduced car count.
- On Chevy vs. Honda. One issue apiece for both of them, with an engine failure cutting Will Power’s test short and with a mistake by Jack Hawksworth exiting Turn 2. Honda seems a bit closer to Chevrolet, but times could be a bit deceiving with at least one Honda team opting for qualifying simulations during the evening rather than race runs. Most of the fastest laps of the weekend were set on Saturday afternoon, not evening, as Honda’s best times were.
- A bigger than anticipated fan turnout. Didn’t get over to see it in Turn 1 or from talking to track staff, but it seemed as though more fans came to the test than was expected. I’ll refer you to these tweets from veteran reporter Bruce Martin, who got the lowdown on how track staff handled the influx of fans. The hope and prayer is that between now and April, the marketing push gets hit harder. Two-time Indianapolis 500 champ Arie Luyendyk and 1992 race rookie of the year Lyn St. James are Phoenix locals, and St. James was on site all weekend at PIR helping to get the word out.
- New sheriffs in town. You can read the full transcript of the INDYCAR Stewards Press Conference here if you like. The early takeaway – and it’s early days yet with all we have to go on initial impressions rather than proper race situations – is that you feel as though the sanctioning body has finally taken control of its new staff and management situation after a two-to-three year transition period. It’s obvious that the latest new regime, with Mark Miles and Jay Frye at the top, and then the new quartet of Bill Pappas, Dan Davis, Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk, enter with high expectations and a high sense of optimism. Having Will Phillips gone is interesting/intriguing from a technical side, while without Derrick Walker and Beaux Barfield – Walker gone after 2015 with Barfield having left after 2014 – Race Control now has people who I hope we don’t have to hear from near as much. Accountability is important, for sure, as Miles outlined, but we don’t want the officials to be a story.
- April’s gonna change from now. The race is called the Phoenix Grand Prix and by that point, the NASCAR Sprint Cup race will have also run at the track. That’s gonna be a lot of Goodyear rubber that will have gone down since, which will feel different than the 5,300-odd plus laps completed by Firestone this week. “I think it’s going to be interesting because NASCAR is going to be here about two weeks before we race, two, three weeks, so I think it’s going to change the track a lot with all that rubber they’re going to lay down and everything, so we’ll see how the track changes,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who’s the only driver in the field who by April will be able to say he’s raced at PIR in both events.