IndyCar Prix View recap, notes, musings, observations

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The first and only official open test for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ full field is in the books for 2017 at Phoenix International Raceway.

After two days, here’s some notes and other takeaways from the weekend:

  • Drivers atop the timesheets in the four sessions: Josef Newgarden, Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand, Ryan Hunter-Reay, with Hildebrand fastest overall. Four Americans, two Hondas. Two Chevrolets leading in the heat of the day, and two Hondas leading in cooler temperatures at night. While Helio Castroneves was able to carry over his test pace to the race weekend last year, remember conditions will be entirely different in April for the series return, and there will also be NASCAR rubber down from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in March. The fact Hildebrand crashed and neither Andretti nor Hunter-Reay was overly enthused about where they stood fully, yet, says more than their P1 time at some point this weekend.
  • Wrecks hurt, but drivers carry on with aplomb. It was surprising to see Alexander Rossi, who hadn’t had his first accident in IndyCar, have one to kick off Saturday’s running. It was also surprising to see one for Graham Rahal, whose only incident last year came following contact with Charlie Kimball in Watkins Glen. Takuma Sato had a rough encore of his practice accident here last year, while Hildebrand’s otherwise near flawless test came to an abrupt end shy of the checkered with a wreck off Turn 4. Rossi’s Andretti-Herta Autosport crew worked wonders to get him back out and Rossi, expressing his gratitude, could be seen thanking them profusely after they built up the repaired No. 98 Honda to get back out. Rahal and Hildebrand were disappointed for their crews. Sato, classily, stuck around for interviews with the usual contingent of Japanese media. All good responses from these drivers given their unfortunate setbacks during the day.
  • We haven’t seen Team Penske play its full hand yet. Oddly, although Penske went 0-2 on short ovals last year with Scott Dixon and Newgarden winning in Phoenix and Iowa, you have to figure that stat will not repeat itself this year. Newgarden is clearly fine on the short ovals and has spoke highly of his confidence on them. Defending champion Simon Pagenaud will be even better on ovals than he was last year. Will Power is in good spirits and better health while Castroneves is always a threat on these circuits.
  • The Honda teams are still expecting to struggle in race trim. Honda teams weren’t particularly confident coming into the weekend and didn’t appear to be much happier coming out of it. Mikhail Aleshin perhaps summed it up when I asked whether he thought with the new construction on Firestone’s right side tires for this track (it’s now super speedway construction because of the high loads), whether passing might be easier this year. “The Mad Russian’s” succinct response? “No. Just being honest.” And that’s coming from a guy renowned for his bravery… While Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport both have solid engineering strength this year, it’s hard to project more than maybe three or four of their combined eight cars cracking the top-10 in race week.
  • There are still no weak spots in the field. As rookie Ed Jones seemed to get acclimated decently well at Dale Coyne Racing – better than I would have expected for his first major short oval running in an IndyCar – it’s now confirmed this year’s field of 21 is as deep as ever. “When you look at the field, every single driver on that board can win a race in the right situation,” Power said on Friday. “Yeah, and the continuity is really good. There was a few years there where almost the whole field would change every year.” There isn’t really a “this driver is missing” feel either. Sure, it’d be great to have Oriol Servia’s effervescent veteran presence and young guns Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam, RC Enerson or Matty Brabham also in cars this week, and same with Spencer Pigot stuck here watching but not driving for two days. Thing is, it’d be great to have them in addition to the 21 drivers who tested here this week, not necessarily in place of any of the talents that are here.
  • Hinchcliffe preparing to get back going.
    Hinchcliffe preparing to get back going. Photo: IndyCar

    Watching IndyCar at night is still mesmerizing… Perhaps the coolest moment of this test for me was standing in James Hinchcliffe’s pit during the final session Saturday night as Hinchcliffe waited to go back out for a final run. Hinchcliffe, his girlfriend Becky, their friend Tim and I all watched from ground level as others were out making their usual 190-mph laps. Hinchcliffe, who on “Dancing with the Stars” dazzled a national audience and joked this week he became “everybody’s grandmother’s favorite,” was taken aback at just how surreal 190-mph looks when you’re outside the cockpit. It’s cool to see when one of the guys who’s out there doing the ridiculousness behind the wheel appreciates how freaking fast it looks outside the seat. In a weird way, it almost looks faster watching than doing; as a driver, you know you’re so in the zone, but as a spectator, you’re in awe almost. It was fascinating to witness.

  • … but this year’s Phoenix test felt like two long days. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but the buzz and positivity that came from last year’s test here seemed to shift to levels of either apathy or monotony this year. One of the most common refrains I heard this weekend was, “We still have that much more to go today?” Perhaps it’s the downforce levels making passing difficult if not outright impossible; perhaps it’s the fact there’s not really a controversial or major series drama coming into the year (which should be hailed as a good thing, actually); perhaps it’s the fact that with 12 hours of running available and only six sets of tires, you have to be limited on your runs. But the crowd in the grandstands for the free day on Saturday seemed down from last year, although still dedicated for the autograph session. It might behoove INDYCAR for 2018 to see if it’s possible to have a one-day Phoenix test paired with a one-day Sonoma test in the spring, for a two-in-one West Coast series test swing that would allow for teams to gather more data for both types of circuits and could be easier from a logistics standpoint. Ed Carpenter Racing, which tests at Sonoma next week after switching from earlier this week, might well serve as a test case for this theory working.
  • A plea for fun, eye-popping liveries. If you have a red, white and blue livery, you’re going to be likely one of six different cars in the field. Factor in some other heavy white or heavy blue liveries and it’s not much better elsewhere in the field. Good color is noticeably absent throughout most of the 21 cars, and from a photographic perspective, it won’t allow the allure of a sleek IndyCar to really showcase itself this year. Fortunately, once the Menards livery returns to Pagenaud’s car and RLL debuts another AERO Advanced Paint Technology livery or two, we might get some color back from a fairly drab set of liveries.

We’ll have more from this weekend’s test, in terms of interviews, features and analysis, in the days to come.

IndyCar’s season starts at St. Petersburg on March 12 and returns to NBCSN with Round 2 at Long Beach on April 9.