Drivers not focusing on lap times at Phoenix test

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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.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.