Road America test underway with rebuilt cars, Indy Lights quartet

Nico Jamin. Photo: Tony DiZinno
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The fact that the six Verizon IndyCar Series cars that are testing today at Road America are, in fact, testing is a small miracle in itself after the tornado of carbon fiber swept through Texas Motor Speedway last Saturday night in the Rainguard Water Sealers 600.

Three Andretti Autosport, two Dale Coyne Racing and a single Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda are all in attendance at the 4.048-mile circuit for a scheduled team test.

Both Andretti and SPM are using this day to test Indy Lights drivers in the opening half. Nico Jamin and Matheus Leist have taken their first ever laps in an IndyCar in the No. 27 and No. 98 Hondas, respectively, for Andretti. Meanwhile Dalton Kellett returns for the first time since Watkins Glen and Zachary Claman De Melo, for SPM, is in a car for the first time since Mid-Ohio last year.

Kellett had tested Marco Andretti’s car last year but is now in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda today. The Canadian who now lives in Indianapolis arrived Tuesday night along with the rest of the Andretti team.

The Andretti trio are in their road course chassis, with repairs coming to the No. 26, 28 and 98 Honda oval chassis from Texas last week. Of those three, the No. 98 was the worst damaged after contact in Texas.

Claman De Melo has taken over James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and PaySafe is on the sidepods, which is more than you usually see changed over for an Indy Lights driver test.

Coyne’s team, though, has had the biggest thrash to get here in what’s been a bizarre, expensive and whirlwind month-plus.

With both cars damaged in Texas, Coyne’s team is down to two tubs and two gearboxes, both of which are on site at Road America.

The team arrived at the track this morning before 6 a.m. to unload its two transporters after a thrash to get two cars built up late Tuesday afternoon, then get on the road before rush hour for the roughly five-hour drive from the team’s Plainfield, Ill. shop to Elkhart Lake, Wis.

The No. 18 Honda running today is the repaired James Davison chassis from Indianapolis, which keeping things straight, was the road course backup car pressed into oval duty for the Indianapolis 500. The No. 18 Honda that was last an oval chassis, Pippa Mann’s No. 63 car from the Indianapolis 500, now falls out of the rotation after Tristan Vautier suffered significant damage in the Texas eight-car pileup on Lap 152. Ed Jones’ No. 19 Honda is repaired from Texas.

As for the identity of the No. 18 driver this test? It’s a weird one, and also recalls the IMSA test at Daytona in November 2015 involving Ford GT drivers.

Back then, the drivers tested the Ford GT but were technically not allowed to say they were there, because Ford had not formally announced them.

The same situation is presenting itself today. A driver known to the Dale Coyne Racing team was in the car today for the test; the team anticipates making its driver announcement for the Road America race in the near future.

Officially, we can say “TBA” was in the car for today’s test, thus making “TBA’s” official debut in an unofficial capacity, because this isn’t an official session.

Jones, meanwhile, now had his first IndyCar running at Road America today, and was the first of the full-season drivers out before the others – Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe – took over in the afternoon.

The four Indy Lights drivers ran the morning session before lunch. Jamin, in his first running in an IndyCar, was the only one who revealed a time – an unofficial mark of 1:44.9 – but figure between the 1:44s and 1:46s, the Lights guys were pretty much on pace.

Jamin was thrilled to add the IndyCar to his other repertoire of cars he’s driven in 2017. He adds the Honda, where he drove at least 35 laps, to the Dallara IL-15 Mazda (Indy Lights), Ligier JS P3 (IMSA) and KTM X-BOW GT4 (PWC).

“It was absolutely incredible. It was a lot more than what I expected,” Jamin told NBC Sports. “As any driver who’d drive it for the first time, I was a bit nervous, but after the install and the first laps it all felt natural. The car felt extremely smooth and it brings confidence to a driver. I was able to get up to speed quickly, we had a good run on the first set, the degradation got worse but I got the same kind of lap times.

“We put new tires on and I was able to do a pretty fast lap time. I did a (1:44) 4.9, which was good, and 10 seconds quicker than Indy Lights! New tires it feels like this car has no limit; it can push like crazy. In less than a year I was here in Pro Mazda; now I’m testing an IndyCar.

“On the power side, the power is linear. Indy Lights has a huge kick on the turbo. It’s easier to put the power down here. 2,000 vs. 6,000 pounds of downforce. The carbon brakes are quite insane as well. You can brake later.”

Leist, who drives for Carlin in Indy Lights, was the other first-timer. Perhaps a surprise nomination, Leist was in Brazil last week when he found out he’d be in the seat. Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta, age 17, is less than the required 18 years old (Leist is 19) to be in an IndyCar, per the INDYCAR Rule Book.

“I think I was fastest on my first set of new tires,” Leist told NBC Sports. “It’s faster, but not as much as I was thinking. The main difference is the cornering speed is amazing because of the downforce. When I tried to go on my second set of new tires it rained. I hope to do two more runs.

“The braking point here is crazy. It’s the fastest car that I’ve ever driven. The high speed corners, there’s a few corners where it’s almost flat in Indy Lights and here with more power, more downforce, it’s easy flat!”

Meanwhile the two returning drivers picked up the slack just fine. Kellett was flat out this morning in 37 laps and didn’t have time to take a breath.

“I think Road America is a friendlier track to be at to learn the car than Watkins!” Kellett laughed. “The cornering speed is maybe 20 mph higher there. It didn’t take long to get to the speed where I was at the level I needed to.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while, but the date I found about maybe a day or two before the Freedom 100. It’s been a quick turnaround.

“We didn’t have a chance to stop and look at anything. It was go, go, go. We went hard this morning! This was different with the (PFC) carbon brakes; at Watkins, we were still with the Brembos. It was a long time ago, but there were no issues today!”

Claman De Melo’s session, meanwhile, was truncated. He had a spin in the morning and after lunch, suffered another engine issue from a Honda, which was confirmed by HPD to NBC Sports.

“It’s been a similar feel. They all helped me at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports,” Claman De Melo said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in an IndyCar.

“Still, everything went according to plan. I had a small spin but got back going. I’m getting used to everything again. It’s been a good morning.”

Further Indy Lights driver test days figure to occur later this summer, as the next round of talent from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder prepares for their eventual ascension into the big show.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.