There’s an old cliche about statistics: “Numbers never lie.” Indeed, this is technically true. Numbers and statistics provide pieces of factual information that cannot be refuted. They are, in fact, incapable of lying.
However, they can often fail to disclose other elements of the story. Case and point: the timing and scoring results of the two-day Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway. The practice results reveal a driver’s fastest individual lap, both during a single session and across the two-day outing. The numbers themselves are 100% factual and cannot be disputed.
However, they do not indicate speed over a series of laps (e.g. 5 laps, 10 laps, 20 laps, etc.). Such data is far more crucial in that it indicates a car’s performance over a stint, the pivotal aspect of dialing in a strong race setup.
Further, the time sheets do not indicate chassis adjustments a team sampled. Test sessions often serve as big science experiments for the race teams. It is their time to take their research and development theories to the track to see what works and what doesn’t.
Did a team adjust suspension and damper settings between runs? Did they alter aerodynamics, either by adding downforce or taking it away with wing adjustments? Did they adjust gearbox ratios? Are they experimenting with engine maps? Did they run on brand new tires or a used set?
All these questions, and more, go unanswered by the time charts. What’s more, the data the individual teams gather about their experiments is proprietary, so they won’t be keen to share it with outsiders. Consequently, lap times need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti explained that new strategist Bryan Herta is keen to keep the focus on the No. 27 hhgregg Honda while blocking what other teams are doing. “Bryan is very good at keeping me focused on the 27. ‘How can we maximize the 27?’ And then it’s very easy to be, ‘Oh, Penske went this fast’ — we need to focus on what we can do to go faster.”
Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay explained this point further, detailing how crucial it is to keep your attention away from your opponents. “It’s just like you’re here by yourself testing, and your teammates. And we’re just going to operate in our own little bubble and (we’re) not really worried about where anybody else is because people are on different trim levels, people are up and down on engine power, people are getting toes, some aren’t,” said the driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda. “Everybody is on a different tire program, tire life, you name it. So we’re just going to stay on our end and focus on it, and like I said, try and bring back the best race car that we can.”
There are more factors to consider as well. Phoenix is one of only three short ovals, along with Iowa Speedway and Gateway Motorsports Park, on the 2017 schedule. The other ovals (Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono) are bigger speedways, and 12 events will be held on road and street courses, meaning the data acquired at Phoenix may be inappropriate to use at other tracks.
Complicating matters more are weather conditions. This open test was held on February 10 and 11, and the ambient temperature topped out at 80 degrees on Friday evening while the track temperature hit a max of 94 degrees on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. But Saturday was much cooler, only into the mid-70s ambient and lower still at night.
With the race itself not scheduled until April 29, weather could be drastically different on raceday, as Team Penske driver and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud indicated. “It was interesting: we come here, the track is perfect right now, temperature is not too bad, and we’re going to come back here (on April 29). And then it’s going to be very greasy, very loose, and it’s going to be very different. So you need to be able to counter effect that.”
There are some observations we can take away. Team Penske looks as stout as ever, though Ed Carpenter Racing looks poised to remain a thorn in the side of all of the big teams in 2017. Chip Ganassi Racing came out of the box down on speed to their rivals, but they’re early in their development with Honda’s engine and aero kit and should find more speed as the year continues.
However, a number of unknowns persist, and they may not get answered until the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12.
The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?