Daly, Rossi star at Indy GP, where results don’t tell full tale

Daly out front. Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – A pair of Verizon IndyCar Series rookies who’ve spent a lot of time at the current home of the U.S. Grand Prix, Circuit of The Americas in Austin, had damn good runs Saturday at the former home of the U.S. Grand Prix, the now redone Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Conor Daly led 14 laps in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda and finished sixth in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, after starting 22nd.

Alexander Rossi set the fastest race lap by several tenths, and finished 10th after starting 12th in the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda.

And in both cases, the good friends and current Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contenders could have had even better results to show for their efforts – which in many respects tells the stories of their year.

In Daly’s case first, he was running 17th behind Helio Castroneves in the No. 3 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet in 16th, both having just made a pit stop two laps earlier on Lap 37.

And then their good friend the full-course caution came out on Lap 38, for Sebastien Bourdais stalled on course at Turn 2.

It meant Castroneves and Daly would cycle from the last two cars on the lead lap to the front of the field shortly thereafter.

Daly took off from there and using one of his push-to-passes, went for it on the inside and passed Castroneves for the lead into Turn 1 after the restart on Lap 46. He held the lead for 14 laps until his final pit stop on Lap 60.

Ultimately he’d fall back in the final stint, the car not as good on the last set of Firestone red alternate tires as it had been when he was leading. He fell into the clutches of Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal and lost spots to them, but held off Scott Dixon in the waning laps.

“We had a good start. Got around some people on restart. Then I got around Helio,” Daly told NBC Sports post-race. “The car was good and we used it to pull away. We still have a lot to work on. We had a lot of upshifts denied. The engine was over mileaged out. It was really tugging hard. We tried to keep it together!

“I used an overtake on the restart instead! Helio was going every which way. We were good on brakes and we were really trimmed. But that was my second to last one. Then had to use it on out laps trying to get through traffic, then ran out.

“Dixon was behind me, which isn’t normal this year, and he didn’t pass us, which was great. If we can hold off Dixon and fight at the front we’re doing our jobs and getting better. We have to keep improving.”

With the 14 laps led, Daly increased his season total to 29 laps led. He’s tops in the field among Honda drivers in that department – Rahal has led eight laps this year and Ryan Hunter-Reay three. That’s it, total.

Fellow Honda runner Rossi was unlucky not to lead because he was driving better than ever in his first stint, having ascended from 12th on the grid up as high as sixth from Laps 28 to 39. He’d even snookered Will Power into a mistake at Turn 7, pressuring the defending race winner and 2014 series champion into a spin.

However Rossi was later assessed what he deemed a questionable penalty for exceeding track limits and had to cede ninth place to teammate Carlos Munoz. It dropped him to 10th, and like at Phoenix earlier this year, the result did not tell the story for him.

“The pace we had was one of the best on track,” Rossi told NBC Sports post-race, having as noted been set the fastest race lap.

“It’s disappointing to be 10th. I would have been pleased to be 10th a week ago. So it’s weird how goals shift. Really questionable penalty on the next to last stint and we’ll have to review that. But the Andretti Autosport team did a great job, and the car was fantastic the whole race. There’s something positive to build on.”

Rossi did laugh in noting that considering it’s been a tough start to the season for the entire team, he’s almost happy to be frustrated with his best career finish to date.

“The car was a huge step forward all weekend,” he said. “It’s tough but I’m a bit relieved at the same time.”

Team co-owner Michael Andretti expressed effusive praise for Rossi post-race, while noting his frustration with the rest of his other cars.

“Yeah it was his best event,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I think they did a good job with getting the setup early, more to his liking. They’re making progress.

“But as a team, we had a horrible weekend. We have a lot of work to do.”

Daly’s teammate Gabby Chaves finished 17th in his first start; Rossi ended second best of the Andretti quartet with Hunter-Reay ninth, Munoz 12th and Marco Andretti 15th.

With Max Chilton an anonymous 14th, the rookie battle between Daly, Rossi and Chilton remains tight. Daly now sits 13th in points with 88, while Chilton is 16th on 80 and Rossi is 17th on 79.

Spencer Pigot and Matthew Brabham drove well most of the weekend and ended their races 11th and 16th, respectively.

IndyCar has big plans on, off track for first test at Thermal Club: ‘It’s an amazing facility’

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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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.

IndyCar’s arrival Thursday and Friday for its first full-field open test in the preseason since 2020 will mark a new era of professional racing at Thermal, which primarily has catered to amateurs (often in a fantasy camp-type setting).

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.

An IndyCar Series hauler is unloaded Monday at The Thermal Club track ahead of preseason testing Thursday and Friday (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

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.”