Less downforce, ‘lively’ new car greet Dixon, Pigot in Sebring test

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Arguably the greatest Verizon IndyCar Series driver of his generation, Scott Dixon, and perhaps the flagship driver in Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Spencer Pigot, had their first chance to test the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit today at Sebring International Raceway’s short course as INDYCAR’s four-day testing program wrapped and manufacturer testing began concurrently.

Dixon ran Chip Ganassi Racing’s all-white No. 9 NTT Data Honda while Pigot was in a carbon all-black No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing while having a busy day of running on Sebring’s 1.53-mile short course.

While Juan Pablo Montoya (Chevrolet) and Oriol Servia (Honda) had handled INDYCAR’s portion of the 2018 car test, and also ran today (along with Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe), Dixon and Pigot had a full day of running apiece as the first two drivers as part of INDYCAR’s manufacturer testing portion that will take place this fall.

For Dixon, who developed a new car per year his first three years in IndyCar from 2001 to 2003 and then was integral in the initial tests for both the Dallara DW12 and then Chevrolet aero kits in 2011-’12 and 2014-’15, respectively, the first bit of running today today provided a first glimpse at what he’ll be adapting too next with the new 2018 aero kit.

Dixon noted the downforce reduction is significant and the braking – now with calipers and rotors both being done with PFC Brakes on both – took a bit of adjusting to.

“I think it was pretty decent. Times were actually fairly decent considering the lack of downforce. It was a quick adjustment to make,” Dixon told NBC Sports.

“The (base) DW12 was actually fairly light, and at the outset this car isn’t too far off of that. From the (Honda) aero kit, having the amount of downforce we’ve had the last few years, this was a big reduction. It made it interesting between braking earlier, and trying to set the car up.”

Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, now enters his first full offseason of development work with Ed Carpenter Racing since getting confirmed for the 2018 season. He largely agreed with how Dixon assessed the car at first glance.

“It was pretty fun. The car like Juan and Oriol have been saying, it’s more of a handful, moves around more, you arrive at brake zones faster… and you have to be a little more careful on putting power down because the wheel spin isn’t far around you,” Pigot told NBC Sports. “It’s different. It’s livelier, especially at the beginning of the day. We made it better throughout, and it started to feel like a really good car.”

Braking was a key topic both brought up. While a combination existed in 2017 between Brembo calipers and PFC pads and rotors, for 2018 with the new kit, PFC is INDYCAR’s sole brakes supplier. Early issues caused by the combination in 2017 actually hit Pigot at St. Petersburg, when his left rear brake disc exploded prior to a pit stop. But brakes quickly died down as a story line throughout the year, with overall consistency observed throughout the year.

Dixon said locking the rears on the new all-PFC units was something to get used to with the change in braking zone length, but hailed PFC’s work for the combination of all components.

“With the aero kit or new brake package – it’s very easy to lock the rears – so that took a bit to get right,” he explained.

“I think they work a little bit different. It takes a bit to adjust, but the bigger difference is the sheer lack of downforce and drag. The braking will be more difficult to get right. PFC have done a pretty stellar job, now with the calipers. Their discs and pads were always consistent. I think now it’s a full package. It works a lot better together.”

Pigot added, “The brake zones are longer… so you’re arriving faster, and coming in with less downforce, so it’s definitely different. It’ll improve as we get a better handle on it.”

Both have further tests to come in the upcoming weeks. Dixon has one more sports car test this week prior to Motul Petit Le Mans next week in his Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT. Pigot, meanwhile, will have another day of running at Road America in mid-October as he continues his testing process.

For Pigot, having the offseason to test more – especially given the new car – will be a blessing to take advantage of. He’s unsure whether he’ll continue with engineer Matt Barnes, who he’s worked with on the No. 20 car each of 2016 and 2017. Justin Taylor, who was JR Hildebrand’s engineer this year after shifting from Audi’s LMP1 program, won’t return to the Ed Carpenter Racing team next season and may head back to sports cars.

“It’s so awesome. I’m not used to it!” Pigot laughed.

“Before I did my first IndyCar race I think I only had a couple days. And two days this year too. It’ll be nice to test all offseason, not to take 2-3 months or 4-5 months off between runs.

“I’ll be in it pretty regularly. It’s exciting. I really hope it pays off. I think we’ll learn a lot.”

Pigot’s last line is a good description of the upcoming 2018 car tests, now in the hands of manufacturers until the end of the calendar year. Team testing starts in January 2018.

Brian Wayne, @LankyTurtle on Twitter, posted video of test, linked below. 

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”