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Robert Wickens’ open-wheel return ‘like riding a bike’

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After six years, Robert Wickens’ return to a top-flight open-wheel car was almost seamless in two days of testing at the Sebring International Raceway short course, as he made his test debut in an IndyCar.

The Toronto native and DTM regular for Mercedes, who turns 28 later this month, had a sampling of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda on Tuesday before an extended run today in the afternoon for his first ever IndyCar run.

Wickens is no stranger to open-wheel though, having been one of North America’s top prospects about a decade ago. A regular race winner in Formula BMW and Formula Atlantic, Wickens was picked up as a member of the Red Bull Junior Team and his path led to the doorstep of Formula 1.

However, outside of one free practice with the Virgin team at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (before Lance Stroll, Wickens is the last Canadian driver to have participated in a Grand Prix weekend although Jacques Villeneuve is the last to have started a race in 2006) and a further outing with the Renault (which became Lotus, then back to Renault) team at the subsequent rookie test a few days later, he’s been absent from the open-wheel arena as a move to DTM presented itself with Mercedes. There, Wickens has become one of the top drivers in that touring car championship.

Hinchcliffe and Wickens prep for Wickens' maiden run in an IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar
Hinchcliffe and Wickens prep for Wickens’ maiden run in an IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

The idea for a ride swap between Wickens and his countryman, longtime friend and occasional teammate James Hinchcliffe, presented itself over the winter and the first portion of which took place this week. Wickens said it didn’t take him long to get back into the open-wheel rhythm.

“I remember the layout well, with a bumpy Turn 3, Turn 4 and all that stuff. It didn’t take me that long,” Wickens told NBC Sports.

“When I was making the seat, it’s pretty weird to be laying this much down (in the seat)… to have your ass under your legs!

“But once I left the pit lane, it was completely normal. I still have more open-wheel experience than closed-wheel. It’s like riding a bike, being back in the middle of the car again. It wasn’t hard getting comfortable right away.”

Wickens only did a small run on Tuesday while the majority of the 21-car field was running (16 of the 21 cars projected for St. Petersburg tested then, with Andretti Autosport running today), and got the last hour and a half today following Pipo Derani’s debut earlier in the afternoon (Luis Michael Dorrbecker tested today in the second car). Wickens estimated only getting about six or seven proper runs, north of 30 laps on Sebring’s bumpy 1.5 miles.

Wickens at speed. Photo: IndyCar
Wickens at speed. Photo: IndyCar

Wickens adjusted well to the grip levels and brake performance; he admitted he could have been a little harder on new supplier PFC’s carbon brakes.

“You don’t want to be that guy in a media event who’s crashing a car,” he laughed. “I had a decent amount of margin in braking zones. I was more or less there, but I just needed to adjust entries.

“I had my own expectations of the grip level. To be honest it was a little better than I expected. I felt my expectations were managed. Turn 3, I was surprised… it was impressive how stable the car was over the bumps. The circuit changes from asphalt to concrete, to asphalt. I was impressed with how well the car could take that. That caught me by surprise a bit. The dampers in IndyCar are far more advanced than in DTM. We have a spec damper, which is same for everyone.”

It’s easy to think of Wickens as a driver who “got away” from IndyCar, especially as seeing a number of his contemporaries he raced in Europe, notably Alexander Rossi, Mikhail Aleshin and Josef Newgarden are now in IndyCar full-time. Interestingly, Wickens and Aleshin were in Red Bull’s Junior program at the same time and in a funny coincidence, were teammates for this week’s test as Aleshin premiered his new red and black No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 11: Robert Wickens of Canada and and Marussia Virgin Racing drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on November 11, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“Me and Mikhail go way back with Red Bull. We’d been teammates. So four of the five years I was on Red Bull, he was too,” Wickens said. “Then we were teammates 3.5 in ’08, and then again in F2 in ’09. We both lived in a village in Austria. So what are odds of us testing here as teammates the same time?”

Wickens’ circuitous path from 2008 through 2011 saw him acclimate to Europe in year one, then contend for or win championships each of the next three years. He finished second in Formula 2 in 2009, then finished second to Esteban Gutierrez in GP3 in 2010 (and ahead of Rossi, Newgarden, Rio Haryanto, Jean-Eric Vergne, James Jakes and Stefano Coletti among others) and then won 3.5 in 2011 (ahead of Vergne, Rossi, Daniel Ricciardo and Brendon Hartley among others).

He doesn’t have any regrets for the fact this didn’t lead to a full-time F1 seat. Without Red Bull, he might not have got that far anyway, and the experience of jumping around has helped his overall growth and development.

“There’s no regrets with the career path. Without them, I would have never left my first year of FBMW,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a perfect way to get to the highest level. There’s a lot of sideways steps. But made me a better driver, because I was always driving different cars, not in F3 with the best car three years.

“Going from Atlantic to F2, GP3 and 3.5, those were all brand new cars. It was three years on the trot of different teams and literally building and that made me a much stronger driver. I was able to grow myself on my feeling, and how I needed to drive.”

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 24: Canada's Robert Wickens in action during the A1GP Sprint Race on February 24, 2008 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – FEBRUARY 24: Canada’s Robert Wickens in action during the A1GP Sprint Race on February 24, 2008 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Ask Wickens his favorite open-wheel series though and it’s none of those. It’s A1GP, the former World Cup of Motorsport championship where he and Hinchcliffe were teammates during the 2007-’08 season.

TAUPO, NEW ZEALAND – JANUARY 20: Wickens came second in a feature race at Taupo, New Zealand. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Wickens reflected on the series: “A1 was an awesome series. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in motorsport. I was young, I had just turned 18, and I was coming out of my Atlantic season. I thought Forsythe had everything… we had a big nice shop, two engineers, three mechanics.

“Then I show up at A1 and it’s five cars, 10 mechanics, media, film stuff and cameras! Whenever I think about it it puts a smile on my face… it was one of those, ‘this is exactly what I want in my life are these moments.’

“You had ex-F1 drivers, future F1 drivers, touring car and top level sports car guys… then me as this 18-year-old guy barely out of Formula BMW. It was all a really cool experience as its own championship, a standalone for nationalities. You got to spend your offseason traveling the world and racing cars. Not too bad…”

Wickens hopes to attend at least one IndyCar race this year and will look to sync up with Hinchcliffe on schedules.

Hinchcliffe now will have his DTM test to look forward to later this month at Vallelunga, Italy, while Wickens has memories of a lifetime delivered from a day a lot of folks have dreamed of witnessing for a long time.

What IndyCar drivers said after the first Indy 500 practice in August

Indy 500 practice quotes
James Black/IndyCar
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A roundup of quotes from NTT IndyCar Series drivers after hitting the track Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first day of Indy 500 practice.

James Hinchcliffe was fastest in the six and a half hour session that started at 11 a.m. Andretti Autosport had three of the five fastest cars.

There will be two more practices Thursday and Friday before qualifying this weekend for the 104th Indianapolis 500.

Fernando Alonso (No. 66 Ruoff Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet): “Today was good. I think we had the day that we wanted, which was a clean day with no issues and trouble-free. In the morning, we got up to speed with the refresher, and in the afternoon we cut it a bit short to work on the car. We may have potentially missed one run in traffic, but it’s nothing we can’t make up tomorrow. We are working step by step, improving the car a little bit each time. We are working on the balance and getting used to the speed again, more in my case than the team. The team is was maybe more ready than me on this first day. We will grow together and got some good mileage today. We have a good understanding of the car and will hopefully have a good setup ready to go tomorrow.”

Marco Andretti (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “It was all good. Funny enough really, I was more focused on the race car. I was trying to bury myself in traffic on older tires a lot today. We didn’t really focus on fast times. It was kind of nice that materialized, as well. Well, second-fastest time. It’s good that the car rolled off with some pace. That’s always kind of like the first hurdle you have to get over. From there, it’s just working on the car balance. That’s what we were able to do. We were one of the better ones in the pack today. It just seems kind of hard to pass where things are at right now. So far so good. It was a good start.”

Oliver Askew (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet): “First day here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an Indy car is pretty special for anyone. It’s great to feel the magic of the place again and to be around other cars. An extra 20-30 mph compared to an Indy Lights car is quite a big difference at those speeds. It’s a bit daunting at first, but as I got used to it I got very comfortable by the end of the day. I’m looking forward to more running tomorrow and to turn up the boost on Friday. Everyone at Arrow McLaren SP and Team Chevy have been doing a really good job so far. The car feels really nice in traffic, and we will continue progressing in all areas.”

Ed Carpenter (No. 20 United States Space Force Chevrolet): “It was an interesting day. I wouldn’t say that it was the day I’ve dreamed of. We have a lot to learn about this car here at this track with the Aeroscreen on. It’s really changed the dynamic. It’s very, very difficult in traffic, but it seemed like everyone was struggling. It’s always this way the first day; you have to figure out what you need to improve on and go from there. I can’t say we found all the answers today, but I’m ready to get the U.S. Space Force Chevrolet back out there tomorrow.”

Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet): “Obviously, big credit to the team. Everything was exactly as if I had not left. It was absolutely the same, which makes it much better for me to get comfortable right away. Great combination. I can’t thank Pennzoil, Chevy and Roger (Penske) for making this happen. I am excited, really excited, even though we have less days. I wish the race would be tomorrow.”

Max Chilton (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet): “We just finished our first day back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and we’ve got two more days of practice to get the car ready for qualifying. We had a really productive day out there. We were able to work through our oval refresher program and get the speeds that we needed fairly easily. Once we got through the refresher, we did some race running and had a few issues with the balance, but we were able to get there in the end, and the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet felt good at the checkered flag. We obviously have more to work through before we’re qualifying and ready, but I’m really looking forward to the next couple of days now.”

Conor Daly (No. 47 United States Air Force Chevrolet): “Obviously, Cole (Pearn, engineer) and I had a lot to learn today, so it was good to get a full day under our belt with the U.S. Air Force Chevy. We ran a lot of laps right up until the checkered flag, which was my goal so I can get used to this car. It definitely has a different feel to what I’ve had in the past, but that’s always the case when I jump in a car for the first time. I think it was a good day. We went through a lot of things that we wanted to, and I think we have a decent amount of speed. We just have to see making it faster and faster, one day at a time.”

James Davison (No. 51 Jacob Construction/Tilson HR Honda): “It was a solid day for the 51 team. Nearly every year for the one-off Indy entries, there is a number of teething issues that needed to be sorted out, so you lose a little bit of track time as a result. However, we ended more or less in the middle of the field on the speed charts. Really, we are no better or no worse than anyone out there, which is to be expected with this aero package. Thankfully, we have a straight car to build on for the next two days leading up to qualifying. It’s a solid platform for us, and I’m excited to see what development we can do tomorrow.”

Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We had a decent start in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. We were trying to get through some items that we have on the list. It’s a pretty extensive list, especially with the condensed schedule. It’s a totally new car for me this year with (engineer) Mike Cannon and with a few offseason projects. I definitely think we’re going in the right direction. First practice, it doesn’t mean anything, we’re just trying to get the car comfortable in traffic and so far that seems to be pretty good. The Aeroscreen when we first tested it seemed like it kind of affected the car a little different aerodynamically. I’d say today actually felt more normal. No real difference, and the vision is good.”

Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think it was a good first day. We did the program plan and went through some different setup directions that we wanted to try. For me, it was great to get the laps in. It’s been a while since we’ve been at the Speedway. It’s definitely a very unique place, so you need laps to gain confidence, and that’s what we did. The No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda felt good out there. We have a good baseline to work off. We’re in a good place. Let’s see how tomorrow goes.”

Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation / SiriusXM Honda): “It feels so great to be back here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Any time you are here it’s awesome. Today was a mix: There were times when I felt like we were doing OK and times when I thought we had some work to do. But that’s pretty much how a normal test day goes at IMS. I think today we found that our qualifying pace looks OK, and we will focus on stepping up our race pace over the next two days.”

James Hinchcliffe (No. 29 Genesys Honda): “Luckily, not a ton of surprises. A couple of new elements, one being the Aeroscreen, but everybody at Andretti Autosport has worked their tails off to prepare for this race. And to have six cars prepared at the level that they do is incredibly impressive, with three of them in the top five after the first day of practice. It’s just practice; there’s obviously a long way to go. But whenever you can kick off the month strong and know you’ve got a decent package, you can kind of work on it from there. It makes your sleep a little better now and between the race.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda): “All in all, it was a promising first day for the DHL Honda team. The guys did a very good job preparing the speedway car over the last few months. I’m optimistic going forward when it comes to our pace for qualifying and as a team. We’ll continue to work on running in groups for race-running, balance and pace. It was a pretty promising day for Andretti Autosport as a whole.”

JR Hildebrand (No. 67 DRR Salesforce Chevrolet): “I felt good with the Aeroscreen right away. Sitting in the pits you can tell it’s a little warmer but not once you are on track – it’s no problem. I felt good in the car. Our DRR team came into this year with a clear perspective with what we needed to do to be competitive in the race. And what we have done so far with our adjustments to the car have checked out. That is good so far. We were focused on trying to answer some of those questions from the last couple of years. Sage (Karam, DRR teammate) worked in traffic more today than we did. He was running in more traffic situations than I was. We don’t have a lot of time this year. And we are moving the right direction with the cars already. Thursday will be a very busy day. So we are prepared to work hard with the cars.”

Tony Kanaan (No. 14 ABC Supply/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Good first day. I think if you’re going to hear everybody’s quote, it’s everybody’s glad to be back here. It took a lot of effort from a lot of people in the Series, in the teams to be here. That shows how important this place is. A lot of mixed feelings this morning driving in and not seeing anybody. Sitting in Garage 1 at this point in the day today, it would be probably 40 people waiting for A.J. (Foyt) outside. So kind of odd day. But as far as track time it was awesome. We had plenty of track time. We had a little bit of an issue at the end of the day, but it didn’t hurt us and we were getting ready to stop. I’m pretty pleased with the car. It was definitely one of our best opening days that we had. The team came really well prepared, and I’m happy. Obviously, still a long way to go, but it’s good to be back.”

Sage Karam (No. 24 DRR WIX Filters Chevrolet): “Today was pretty good for our DRR WIX Filters Chevy. It was much more solid than last year on the first day of practice. We did a lot of good things today, as I did a lot of traffic running. We got in some big groups and went with the good teams like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. No one was doing anything different from what I could do in traffic. That was very positive. Now we have to find the next step with mechanical grip to move to the next level with this car. Obviously, passing will be very tough, just like last year. Qualifying will be at a premium. Pit stops will be huge, but this DRR crew is always fast on their stops. So I feel good about that aspect. It feels good to be back on the oval. The road course was a good, little challenge for us. It was good for everyone today. Me to get more seat time and the team to get in a few live stops. It is so much fun around this place when the car is working well. We look forward to Thursday.”

Dalton Kellett (No. 41 K-Line USA / AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Finished up rookie orientation, so it’s good to have that box checked off. I did a baseline run at the end on new tires and got a bit of running around some other cars in the draft, so the speed’s getting up there. We started very conservatively, and we’re working through it, taking understeer out of the car. We were taking small chunks out, so it took us a little time to get through everything. I think that analytical, progressive process is going to help us in the end. It feels good to be out on track, the car feels great. The feedback from Tony (Kanaan) and Charlie (Kimball) is that everyone’s pretty happy all around. First day at the Speedway, it’s an amazing place to be, I’m really excited. I couldn’t be happier to be here, so I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.” (About his first lap): “The experience of the first lap is hard to put into words. It’s such a magical place — the feeling of being out on track and you want to take the moment, but you also want to focus on what you’re doing. The first slow stages give you time to get up to speed. The car felt great, and I was just grateful and happy to be here and loving every minute of it.”

Charlie Kimball (No. 4 Tresiba AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I think it was a really good start to on-track activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car felt really good right away. I was pretty comfortable. The guys have obviously done a great job preparing. There was some uncertainty about when we’d get on track, so I’m glad we were able to get some miles in today. The weather looks pretty good for the rest of the week, but we’ve got a lot to do in a condensed schedule. It’s nice to start with a good foundation. Something we can always come back to as needed, but we’ve got to find a little speed – we’re always looking for speed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the Tresiba Chevrolet team to find that as we get into Fast Friday. Ideally we’re looking to qualify in the top nine and race into the top one!”

Josef Newgarden (No. 1 Shell V-Power Nitro Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a good day for the No. 1 Chevrolet. I felt like it was nice to get back out on track and getting through the processes. It is great to be back here at Indy. So thankfuI that we are able to run. I think we are going to put on a great show next weekend. That’s what we are working on, trying to make our race car drivable in traffic. It is interesting to see who is fast out of the gate, who’s not. We have a long process here. This is a good starting point for us. See if we can get the Shell car fast enough for qualifying and then work on the race after that.”

Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “It is just great to be back at the Speedway. Today was like Christmas! It is just an amazing place. Super-excited to be back in the Menards Chevy. We worked on two different packages today. I think that we know what direction we want to go now, which is great. We were able to check off the list one of the important items for our program. So very excited about that. I think tonight we are 100 percent sure on the decisions we are going to make tomorrow. So that is a big leap forward. Excited about tomorrow and qualifying on the horizon. So far we have been working in the right space. I got my timing sorted with passing and comfortable around the big speedway here. Just very excited to be in Indianapolis again this year. Hopefully we can repeat.”

Alex Palou (No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda): “This is such a different place than the two other ovals I’ve been to. It’s a crazy place, in a good way. That was a lot of fun getting to run with everyone after the rookie orientation earlier today. Right now, running alone is easier than with traffic. I think I got really comfortable in the rookie session and again this afternoon running alone. But then I was just getting up to speed running in traffic. I was able to follow the cars ahead of me, but I’m still working on overtaking them. I’m taking it one step at a time. We have a full day tomorrow and Friday to keep working on that. I think we have a fast car. The Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh crew did a really good job on the setup and preparing the car.”

Spencer Pigot (No. 45 Hy-Vee Embrace Pittsburgh Honda): “Overall, it’s good to be back at Indy. I think we’ve all waited a long time for this so it’s nice to be here. On track, things went pretty well in the first session. It’s cool to be going those speeds again. I haven’t been on an oval since late August last year, so it felt great to go over 220 mph again. The No. 45 Hy-Vee / Embrace Pittsburgh car looks great. I thought we made some good improvements and changes, and the car was feeling pretty good. The afternoon was a little tougher for us. We tried some things on our list, and, even if we don’t go that direction, it was good to get some reads and data on that. We definitely have a good idea of what we want from the car, so hopefully tomorrow we can find it.”

Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Edge Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was actually a pretty good day. I feel like the cars are a little harder to drive now. I feel like the balance of our car is really good now, really good. I feel like we are right in the window right now. We will work on some different philosophies tomorrow. We are in a good spot, so we will try some other stuff to see if we can get it better.”

Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet): “I think it was a solid first day for the entire Arrow McLaren SP team. I think we still have some work to do, but I think we are in a good spot. Today was about running in traffic and trying to create the best package for us for Race Day. We have to keep chipping at it and working at it. We will start off tomorrow where we ended today and keep improving. Thank you to everyone on the team and at Chevrolet for giving us a good starting point.”

Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “End of Day 1 here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I think it was a solid day for our team. I know that sometimes on the timesheets it doesn’t look like it, though. I didn’t get the big tow, in the traffic on new tires, light fuel and all that sort of stuff. In fact, our goal today was to use as little tires as possible. We ended up running two sets of tires almost two full stints per set, so I’m pleased with that, pleased with the consistency of the car. Obviously, we need to find a little bit of speed, find a little more grip in traffic, and I think every driver here is saying that tonight. And if you saw us on track, it’s definitely quite a challenge, for sure. We’re going to sit down with the engineers and try to work on not only the United Rentals car but also our teammates, and hopefully we can get Takuma (Sato) and Spencer (Pigot) a little more competitive, as well. The team had a long list of things we wanted to get done, and we got those done, so now we can go forward from here.”

Felix Rosenqvist (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It’s good to be back on the speedway. I think everyone has missed this place a lot. We had a solid first day. We still need to work on our car in traffic a little bit. We started to run in packs in the end to work on getting the car to stay close to the guy in front. I think we made good progress in the last run. We’re hoping to continue progressing tomorrow. We have some good practice coming up the next two days. I won’t say we have time to relax, but we have time to take it slow here and get up to speed. Overall, it feels good in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda so far.”

Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS / Auto Nation Honda): “Opening day wa OK. We were pleasantly surprised that the screen didn’t create too many issues balance- and performance-wise, which was interesting. I think it’s going to be pretty fast with the boost on Fast Friday, which is exciting for everyone. I think on our own our car is pretty good, but we need to work on when we’re in traffic. It’s still early on. I think it’s always kind of like this on Day 1 running in traffic for the first time. It’s a lot more difficult than you remember, but we’ll definitely have to spend some time tomorrow on group running to make sure we’re happy with our car come Sunday next week. Today was more focused on getting reacquainted with the car and what we learned last year, so I wasn’t too aware of my surroundings, but as the week goes on there will definitely be a noticeable difference without having fans here. It sucks. The energy that you get walking down pit lane or through Gasoline Alley really is a motivating factor going into a session whether its practice, qualifying or the race. It’s unfortunate and sad, but this event still carries a lot of weight and is still as important to everyone now as it has been in the past.”

Takuma Sato (No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda): “We’re back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it is a very happy time for us. This is a moment we waited for, for a long time. It’s August, but it is a fantastic feeling. We jumped in the car and went fast, not 230 mph yet because of the boost level today, but it’s a great feeling. We did a number of test items today, splitting over three cars because this year the schedule is compressed a lot. We literally have today and tomorrow for the race setup and then Friday is Fast Friday. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we did a solo run and a group run and were relatively competitive, so it was a very good day.”

Zach Veach (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda): “Really happy with our day. Looked like we were in the top five of the no tow charts for both sessions, but just didn’t get a tow lap to put us up high on the overall speeds. Really excited to get back to work tomorrow. I think we have a great car.”

Rinus Veekay (No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet): “I had a really good first day. I built it up slowly, but we had a lot of time. Especially on my own, the SONAX Chevrolet is amazing. We needed to do some work in traffic, but we made some really good steps, and I’m very confident for the coming days. We’re heading in a good direction with a really strong car and a really strong team.”