AVONDALE, Ariz. – Well, Friday was an interesting day at Phoenix International Raceway. And it’s set up for an interesting race day for tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) as a result.
Here’s what to watch for from the second round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season:
THE OLD GUARD LEADING THE WAY
Thus far it’s been the bulldogs/old guard/pick your superlative for “experienced veterans” that have held the edge at Phoenix, both from testing and in Friday’s practice and qualifying sessions.
The top six drivers on the grid include four of the most experienced drivers in the series, in the form of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon. Then add Ed Carpenter and you have all of the drivers with previous race experience starting up front. The lone exception is Charlie Kimball, who is gelling well with new engineer Eric Cowdin, and qualified an impressive fourth.
The guys who’ve tended to excel on short ovals – the aforementioned veterans plus others like Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the two top qualified Honda drivers (albeit only in 11th and 12th) – are probably the ones to watch.
INDYCAR OVAL DEBUT FOR FOUR
It’s the baptism by fire for four drivers in their first IndyCar oval starts – Max Chilton, Alexander Rossi, Luca Filippi and Conor Daly – who will roll off eighth, 14th, 16th and 18th. Chilton’s seemed comfortable; Rossi was downbeat after his qualifying run, even though he did a very good job to get as close to his teammates as he did; Filippi seems keen to learn while Daly has been struggling, and admitted as much.
The goal for all of these four in their first oval starts, simply, is to finish – any result will come as a result of that.
Perhaps the best – or only – hope for Honda is that their cars run better when cooler and it’s darker out. Because in the heat of the day, they haven’t seemed the measure of Chevrolet… which isn’t good. Neither manufacturer wants the near half-and-half split that existed in practice and qualifying yesterday. It could be a long day for the Honda runners.
Chevrolet runners have the top 10 spots on the grid, with only one Chevrolet (Sebastien Bourdais) in the second half of the grid in 15th. The remainder of the field are Honda runners; and they’re also coming into the race after three heavy accidents sustained by Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz, all with low downforce rear wing mainplane assemblies on the rear wheel pod.
Optimism came from Hunter-Reay, who noted that after Iowa practice last year there was talk that cars couldn’t pass. But Hunter-Reay, a renowned short oval master, is going to give it his all tonight to ensure he’s making up spots from 12th on the grid.
“It’s really tough to say and the reason I say that, for many years at Iowa, following practice, we couldn’t pass,” he told NBC Sports. “But Iowa… is a two-groove track. I hope there’s tire fall off. It could be semi-processional for a bit.
“We need to run in lapped traffic. We need mix up to happen.”
PASS OR NO PASS?
Drivers were mixed on whether you’ll see a ton of passing at Phoenix. The way to set it up, in all likelihood, is to get a run off Turn 4, get side-by-side into Turn 1 and complete the pass through Turn 2.
I’d expect you may start to see some passing 15 to 20 laps into a stint as tires begin to fall off; that being said, expect stints in the 55 to 60 lap range before pitting and it to be a four-stop race.
How big will the crowd be? Optics matter and as it’s already going to be a tough draw for the series, up against the NCAA Final Four semifinals, Phoenix needs to have the “look” and “feel” of a proper event.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Quantity isn’t a problem for NTT IndyCar Series drivers seeking source material for their first test on track at The Thermal Club. There’s plentiful video of the drivers making laps on the private track that bills itself as a world-class facility.
It’s quality that’s an issue with trying to do homework for their first (and possibly last) test on the 17-turn, 2.9-mile road course.
Thermal is billed as a motorsports country club of sorts, giving the rich and famous an opportunity to drive and store vintage cars at racing playground that has more than 200 members and $5 million, 30,000-square-foot homes sprouting constantly.
Colton Herta tried doing some YouTube research on Thermal recently but gave up after watching the third lap of “some dude in a Ferrari” navigating the course that is nestled in the Coachella Valley just south of Joshua Tree National Park and north of the Salton Sea.
“It’s difficult to watch some of the onboards because it’s not really professional drivers, and they have like the cones set out on the track, where to turn in and where to get on the brakes, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” Herta said. “Yeah, I watched a little bit before I got too bored and turned away. But the track walk will be important. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”
The track walk happened Wednesday afternoon after two days of wall-to-wall media obligations at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
Conor Daly and Scott McLaughlin were among many drivers who were antsy to head southeast to the ritzy track (where many drivers have been staying in high-end casitas on the 470-acre property this week). Herta said his main concern was having enough runoff area as drivers knock off the offseason rust because “you do tend to drop a wheel here and there, have a spin if you’re getting back in the car for the first time in a few months.”
“I sort of don’t really know where the track goes,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like I’m going to get lost out there.”
With IndyCar increasingly limiting test time, Daly said sessions such as Thermal “are really, really important. We can train all we want, but there’s nothing like getting in these cars to drive to really prepare yourself for the first race. It’s going to be important to try to do as many laps as possible.”
Of course, what makes Thermal even more rare is that it’s not on the IndyCar schedule nor has it been a testing venue in the past. Sebring International Raceway also doesn’t play host to a race, but it’s become a tried and true place for teams seeking to hone their setups.
Thermal will be the first time IndyCar is learning an entirely new track since the streets of Nashville nearly two years ago, but in this case, it’s unknown how applicable it’ll be in the future. Some drivers speculated that it could translate to Portland with its length (lap times are projected at more than a minute and 40 seconds), but it’s an unknown how slippery the surface will be for tire wear (probably 20-lap stints, which are relatively short).
“It’s hard when it comes to just two full days of testing because obviously some people will adapt to it quicker than others,” Daly said. “You might feel like a hero, then the next day you might feel like a zero because some people have caught up.
“But these days are important because hopefully it is an indication for us on all the permanent road circuits that we go: Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Indy GP. Hopefully it’s helpful for us in all those scenarios. We’ll see what happens, I guess. It doesn’t matter to us how fast we go, as long as we get something out of it, right? How do we judge some changes? If that’s great for a certain section of the track, right, that could represent a section of another road track we go to. There’s a lot that we can learn, for sure. Realistically we kind of have to keep ourselves in check with our expectations.”
Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said drivers “probably shouldn’t come out of here either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance. We’re never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn’t say that. We’re not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it’s not relevant.
“What it is relevant for and what I’m excited about is just being on track. We definitely need it on the 2 car. We have a lot of new people. We’re going to maximize this time by just treating it like a race weekend in that we’re doing all the things we would do on a normal weekend to be fast and work well and efficient together. When we come out of the weekend we’ll have something to look at, what did we do well or not well. We have a good, relevant conversation piece to take into (the season opener at) St. Pete. From that standpoint it’s excellent. If we finish 15th on the charts, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.”
Said Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal: “I’m not sure how much (the Thermal track) relates. We’re running a Barber tire, similar to the Laguna Seca tire. Who knows what the track grip is like in the desert here. If you look at a lot of the corners, a lot of hairpins, a lot of slow speed corners, but then you’ve got like the end of the back straight is quite a fast left-hander. But they’re varying shapes of corners, decreasing radius, on increasing radius. We don’t have any tracks that do that traditionally.
“We’ve got to pick and choose exactly what we get out of it, but I’m all on board for the Thermal thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m not. I think it was great to have change. We’ve kind of gone to the same places time and time and time and time again. It’s good to see something new.”
IndyCar also will be measuring the results of the test beyond timing and scoring.
The Indianapolis Star reported there have been informal talks about having a pro-am event in the future. With the test closed to the general public but open to its high-dollar clientele, there could be potentially millions of liquid capital at stake for future team investment if the Thermal Club’s members take a shine to IndyCar.
Thermal was throwing a posh welcoming event Wednesday night that was expected to have drivers, series executives and residents mingling with dancing and drinks.
Simon Pagenaud, who has explored the concept of starting a motorsports country club in his native France, is intrigued by the long-term marriage of IndyCar and Thermal.
“This kind of racetrack — what they do with their members, the passion of cars — is really something,” Pagenaud said.
Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson likes the appeal of testing in Southern California instead of Central Florida.
“This time of the year, it’s really hard to find places for us to go testing,” Ericsson said. “I’ve only been here for four years, starting my fifth year, and I feel like I’ve done I don’t know how many days of testing at Sebring.
“For me, this is a lot better to come here. I like the idea a lot of having the preseason testing back on the calendar to get all the teams and drivers together.”
Said Alexander Rossi, who will be making his debut in an Arrow McLaren Chevrolet this week: “It’s always a difficult situation in January, February, in the United States to find a track that has the appropriate climate. Not only do we have a beautiful place to come with seemingly good weather, but you’re introducing IndyCar to obviously a demographic that has an interest in racing, with some decent capital behind them. They may not know of IndyCar. They may have known of IndyCar but never seen it in person.
“We’re able to bring and showcase what we believe is the best series in the world in front of people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen it before.”
McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist already has been staying at the villas inside the track all week.
“It’s an amazing facility,” he said. “I’ve never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks.
“I don’t know if there’s ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I’m just pumped to be in California in January. There’s worse places to be.”