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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. 

Davison, Daly, Kaiser, highlight underdogs of Indy 500 qualifying

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James Davison and Kyle Kaiser had uphill battles ahead of qualifying for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Davison, in a one-off joint effort involving A.J. Foyt Racing, Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, and Belardi Auto Racing, appeared to have enough speed to make the “500” field, but a crash on “Fast Friday” put all those hopes in big jeopardy as the team needed to scramble to repair the No. 33 Jonathan Byrd’s Chevrolet in time for qualifying.

However, thanks to a herculean effort that saw the team stay at the track until the early hours of Saturday morning, the car was repaired in time for qualifying, and the team survived a chaotic final hour that saw Conor Daly, James Hinchcliffe, and Pippa Mann all vying alongside them for the final two spots in the field.

In the end, Davison survived the bumping to make the 33-car field, taking the 33rd and final spot in Saturday, and saw a dramatic increase in speed on Sunday to average 226.255 mph, putting him a very solid 19th on the grid.

An emotional James Davison walks back into Gasoline Alley after making the Indianapolis 500 field on Saturday. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s been an incredible weekend for the team after our mishap on Friday,” Davison revealed after Sunday’s qualifying.

He continued, “We had to endure a very long night, obviously it’s always depressing when you have a crashed car around here. We punched above our weight on bump day, and got ourselves in, but didn’t show our hand. We really laid it down on pole day to move from 33rd to 19th. It’s basically two days in a row the team has been rewarded for their hard work, making the show and moving up 14 positions on the grid. Unexpected results are always really nice in motorsports and we got that today with our improvement, substantially. Just very proud of the entire team and want to keep the momentum going next week.”

Conor Daly, too, had a stressful Saturday, as his No. 17 United States Air Force Honda – a joint effort with Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns Racing – lacked speed most of the week.

“Fast Friday” yielded some promise, as his quickest no-tow speed was 226.752 mph, good enough for 26th on the no-tow chart that day.

Saturday, however, proved a struggle. Unable to find the speed on his first two runs – he was bumped out of the field after his second attempt – he needed a third and final effort to make the field.

A four-lap average of 224.874 mph didn’t leave him much wiggle room, but it was just enough to get Daly into the field, as he took 32nd on the board. He’ll start 33rd after averaging 224.429 mph on Sunday.

Conor Daly survived a stressful qualifying weekend to make the Indy 500 field. Photo: IndyCar

“No dramas (on Sunday), but we’re fighting for miles an hour. All I can do is put my foot down and do the best we can for our incredible partners at the U.S. Air Force. It’s incredible to be here with them and at this point, I’m just thankful to be in the field. I’d like to be a lot quicker, but we’ll see what we can do in practice tomorrow to improve our race car,” Daly detailed after Day 2 of qualifying.

Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing faced a similar uphill battle, but theirs was down to experience. Juncos was entering its second “500” after debuting last year, and their debut wasn’t exactly a smooth one.

Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra only qualified 29th and 31st respectively, though Saavedra was able to finish on the lead lap in 15th. Pigot, meanwhile, fought major handling issues all race long and languished six laps off the lead at race’s end, finishing in 18th.

The 2018 outing didn’t appear much easier, as the team tackled it with rookie driver Kyle Kaiser, with last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champ trying to make the “500” in his first attempt.

“Fast Friday” looked to be a bad omen, as they were 33rd on the no-tow speed charts at the end of the day.

But, Saturday qualifying saw a drastic turn in fortunes, and to the positive side. Kaiser qualified with a four-lap average of 225.934 moh, good enough for 21st at the day’s end, and putting them well clear of any bumping drama.

His Sunday run of 226.398 mph exceeded expectations even further, and he will start Sunday’s race in 17th.

Kyle Kaiser during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

“What an amazing day. I am in shock right now that we are going to be starting 17th for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500,” an elated Kaiser exclaimed after Sunday. “It was a stellar performance by the team. They gave me a super quick car for qualifying. The conditions were very challenging as the wind picked up and it got really hot, but we made it through and put in the best lap in these conditions. I am so proud of the entire Juncos Racing crew and I am thrilled to represent NFP in the race next weekend.”

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