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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. 

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

Follow@KyleMLavigne