Marco Andretti tops Friday night test session at Phoenix

Photo: IndyCar
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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Yes, it’s only a test session, but Marco Andretti was fastest during the second of two three-hour test sessions on Friday for this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View at Phoenix International Raceway.

Interestingly, the 29-year-old also led last year’s Friday night test session at PIR as once again Honda-powered cars excelled in the cooler conditions.

Last year, five of the top-10 speeds in the night session were Hondas and this year, it was seven of the top-10, including the top six.

Andretti’s best speed in the No. 27 hhgregg Honda of 189.122 was almost two mph faster than his best speed in this session last year, 187.678. From a timing standpoint, that’s a time of 19.4541 seconds compared to 19.6038 seconds last year.

Earlier in the afternoon, Andretti described some of the changes coming to his No. 27 team, with Bryan Herta his new strategist and with Eric Bretzman taking over as technical director for the team.

“It’s too early to tell about anything. Probably these two days will still be early as hell, but good so far, steady, really having fun working with Bryan (Herta), and even having Eric Bretzman there has been a good addition, as well,” Andretti said.

“We’ve been pushing it. That’s for sure. All I can say is the only thing that I think can help is just closing the holes up on the bottom of the floor. But that’s just me.”

Graham Rahal was second, having experimented with an earlier version Honda aero kit rear wing package for his No. 15 United Rentals Honda, at 188.642 mph. Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Charlie Kimball completed the top-six Honda sweep, with JR Hildebrand best of the Chevrolet runners in seventh.

Several yellow flags flew for track inspections, but there were no mechanical ailments or incidents during the session.

Arguably the most interesting part of this one was that Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay briefly swapped seats at Andretti Autosport, Rossi taking laps in the No. 28 DHL Honda and Hunter-Reay stepping into the No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda, to see where each other was from a setup standpoint.

Rossi (24 laps) and Hunter-Reay (11 laps) added those laps to their laps in their primary cars to provide 23 car/driver combinations that took place in the session.

Although the ambient and track temperatures both dropped into the 70-degree range this session, Josef Newgarden’s lap from earlier Friday stood as the day’s fastest.

Another set of three-hour sessions, in the same time frames of 1-4 and 6-9 p.m. MT (3-6 and 8-11 p.m. ET) take place tomorrow. Session times from the evening are below:

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IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area. The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean, who finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full season, said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps another his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”