Nico Jamin. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Road America test underway with rebuilt cars, Indy Lights quartet

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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.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Road America

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Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say – courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations – after Friday’s two practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we are relatively pleased. The car has been easy to work with, which is great. It is nice when you don’t have to change too much. We’ve been trying things to make sure we understand sort of both ends of the car and where it can go if we adjust either end of it. Seems quick right out of the box. We haven’t had to do too much with it. The Chevy package is working really well, which I felt like it would be strong at this kind of track. We’ve been working hard with that group to make sure our power down and everything else is great. So far, so good with the Verizon car. We have a solid start; we just have to maintain it throughout the weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Pretty productive day. Obviously, we tested here last week, which I think helped us roll off with a solid car. For Practice 2, we decided to go in a little different direction with our setup, just to try and cover our bases, so we have a lot of data to look over tonight. We have pretty good pace on the blacks (primary Firestone tires) and were into the top five, but when we put the reds (alternate Firestone tires) on, we just didn’t find the grip that we normally do; we’ll look into that. This Arrow Electronics SPM team’s got a way of turning things around and being strong in qualifying, so hopefully, we can do that and get the job done tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think it was a pretty decent Friday. The Lucas Oil car feels good and we’re making good progress. We were top five in both sessions, but it’s only Friday, so we still have to work hard and keep our heads down. Initial signs are pretty positive for, hopefully, a good weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think we started a little bit slow for some reason and had some work to do after the first practice session here at Road America. We know our way around here though, and after some changes tonight, I hope we can have the PNC Bank car pointed in the right direction, and closer to the top time the other manufacturer set.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results today with the First Data Honda, but we know Scott (Dixon) had a great car here last year and won the race, so there is good data to look at tonight. We have some work to do for sure, but I’m confident in our team that we can find what we were missing today in practice and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We definitely changed the setup a bit, then went back. I think the track had really low grip at the beginning of every session, then got better. Kind of a little bit hard to pick what to do. But obviously, Josef (Newgarden) is really quick, so got plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “It was a good finish to the day for the GEHL team. We pushed hard and made some changes between the sessions and I think we went the right direction. This morning we had some mishaps, and unfortunately, it lost us the session, but we had a good recovery. We’ll try to keep improving the car a little bit and see what we can do in qualifying.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “(I’m) pretty happy. I think, obviously, we didn’t test, a couple of guys did. Felt a little bit off this morning. We’re pretty confident because it was just mostly understeer in the car. Just pretty happy with the day. Our guys did a good job. The Firestone red (alternate) tires are definitely giving a huge amount of grip in comparison to the prime. But for us, it really wasn’t much of a balance change, so that was nice. Could definitely get a pretty decent run. Consistency was quite good, as well. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s awesome driving an Indy car here. I love the Road America track and I’m excited to be back here. We had a tough second session today in our Paysafe car, but we made big improvements from our first practice, which is really encouraging. What Sebastien (Bourdais) has seems to be working really well, so we’ll look at that and also at what I need to work on to improve. With that and some steady improvements, we should be looking good for tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It is quite difficult to learn the circuit, relative to others that I have driven on. For example, St. Pete, it just felt a little bit easier to pick up the smaller parts. I feel quite comfortable in the car now, but it took a bit longer to get there in this morning’s session. It’s a longer circuit and requires a lot of confidence with the high speed and blind corners; when it’s only 45 minutes, you end up eating into your track time. I felt quite good in this afternoon’s session and we have a better idea of what direction we want to go in. A little bit annoying we haven’t quite jumped on it straight away, still a bit of progress to be made. Looking forward to having a good night’s sleep. I always find that when you are able to chill out, think about it, and sleep well it makes the second day much nicer. We all know where we need to go with the car and should be quicker tomorrow.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “It was a pretty difficult day for us. We are kind of struggling to zero in on the balance and the setup that we want. We know what we need the car to do, we just have to try and find a way of getting it there. We are going to try and find some things overnight, then get the Direct Supply car handling a bit better and get more speed out of it tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We’ve made big improvement this weekend. It is obviously another very important weekend with Menards on the car. This is John’s (Menard) country here. I am eager to do very well, and the whole No. 22 team is using the momentum we gained at Texas. It feels like a really good weekend so far. I think we have more in the car; I didn’t extract all the best out of during practice. But, it felt really good. Chevy is giving us a lot of power around here which is always useful on those long straightaways. Now we are just going to have to put it all together in qualifying tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, that wasn’t the day we wanted for the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet. We’re struggling for balance and grip-a little bit of both. But we’ve got some good ideas, good data to look through and some concepts to think about. We’ll make solid, reasonable, intelligent changes for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can pick a good direction out of that and be ready for qualifying.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, it was a pretty good day for us in the Relay car. We know, confidently, that we have a car good enough to be in the top 10, maybe in the top six. We’re fighting a bit of an issue throughout the second session, but we know what that is, so we’ll fix it and get the speed we need tomorrow. I haven’t felt this confident in an Indy car yet – but I said that at Detroit and I said that at Texas. I really just feel like we are coming into our own and this is going to be our best weekend yet.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Today wasn’t the best Friday that we’ve had. I think we are stepping through changes and making small improvements, but we didn’t find the big improvement that we need, which is disappointing. Fortunately, we have another session tomorrow and three teammate cars to try and put our heads together and come up with a solution. Right now, we need a pretty big step in performance to be fighting for pole.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We made some progress with the DHL car today, we need to make another step tomorrow. We didn’t really have a clear lap, but if we had, I think we would have been around P4 or P5 and we can work from there. We’ll put our heads down tonight, check in with the teammates and see where we are at tomorrow. We have one more session before qualifying and we’ll put it to good use.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a good day, a productive one. We wanted to improve a little more than we did in the second session, but overall, we tried a few things and we learned a few good things and a few not so good. I think we can continue improving for tomorrow.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today was going pretty well until the last practice. The day started off well for us. I was happy with the balance and I am still happy with the balance. We worked on some changes and I was happy with the direction we were going in. The second practice was going pretty good up until my incident. It is really unfortunate we have now lost this track time, but we will work hard and bounce back for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It was a challenging day at the office here at Road America for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. This is one of my favorite tracks – I know I can pedal a car around here pretty well. We were fighting for top six last year, so I’m trying to just drive the same, obviously, with less downforce. We’ve got an underlying balance issue – whether it’s new tires or old tires, it’s really just wherever we are, we’ve got the same issue that we just can’t seem to iron out. It’s slightly frustrating for a new team with the lack of testing we’ve been able to do, so we’ve got limited time to try and sort it. We’ll work it out tonight and if we can make some significant progress toward the end of FP3, I’m sure we can have a fairly decent qualifying.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a great track and a lot of fun. Today was a bit challenging, as we are just working through our plan, but we found a big chunk of time between Practice 1 and Practice 2 today. That is very encouraging as we get ready for Practice 3 tomorrow. There are some things we are going to try out and that will hopefully take us to the next step to doing a great job in qualifying and then the race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I was definitely happier with the car this morning. We kind of went in a different direction for the afternoon session and lost the car. We definitely have a clear direction on where we need to go and we’ll put that to use to go forward tomorrow with the U.S. Concrete car.”

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