Acura Team Penske pushing, learning hard in Daytona testing

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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There are a lot of standard, run-of-the-mill quotes used to describe the challenge of racing the Rolex 24 at Daytona that largely focus on endurance, persistence and compromise.

And then there is this gem from Juan Pablo Montoya offered during a break in testing for Acura Team Penske today at Daytona, to describe what this race entails.

“The best way to describe is it go down I-95, at 150 mph, running away from the police… that’s kinda the feel you get here,” Montoya said, to lead off a session with reporters Friday, which IMSA was gracious enough to stream live on Facebook.

“You feel like you’re being chased – or chasing someone. They stole your life and you need to get it back and you’re driving the wheels off it, in meantime people get in the way and you’re bouncing into people. It’s pretty cool.”

Canned quote that is not, and for Montoya, it’s also the precursor to both his and Acura Team Penske’s aspirations of coming in hot for the race debut of the new Acura ARX-05 at next year’s Rolex 24.

Penske’s drivers are completing a two-day test this week at Daytona and a two-day test next week at Sebring to continue the intense preparation for the 36 Hours of Florida out of the box to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. The Acura program joins Mazda among DPi manufacturers testing this week at Daytona.

Montoya’s already hailed the car’s early reliability from the first round of testing.

“The reliability of the car has been unbelievable. Acura came out with an engine that just runs. I think the pace we still need to work on it. It’s still early days for the car,” he said.

Montoya and Helio Castroneves are the two star attractions in Penske’s full-season lineup but both are well aware and focused on the fact it’ll be co-drivers Dane Cameron and Ricky Taylor that will ease their respective sports car transitions.

Montoya will share with Cameron (Simon Pagenaud is third driver), Castroneves with Taylor (Graham Rahal is third driver), and the older drivers are moving into a new position of being the relative newcomers learning from their significantly younger but championship-winning sports car veteran teammates.

“Yesterday for example, we were done running and we went for dinner just to talk about cars and get that relationship together,” Montoya said of Cameron, the 2016 Prototype class champion. “The two of us we can talk about what I like and he likes, and what I hate and he hates. So we stay away from the things we hate we can get to a nice compromise.”

Castroneves added, “People don’t realize they’re champions in the series and they have more experience than Juan Pablo and me. So having them as a reference to learn details is key… we’re talking about traction control, electronics and a lot of things we don’t use. We have to smooth it out. We have the current champ in my car. And he has another champ in his! We’re older guys, but we’re rookies.

“I’m not very good at sharing. But it’s another thing. Transitioning from IndyCar to sports car takes time. You gotta share the driving position, driving style, the setup. There is so much. At end of the day it’s a compromise. Like marriage. We all know that. Right now Ricky is phenomenal and Dane is as well. I’m looking forward to 2018.”

Team Penske’s maiden sports car race in its return, Petit Le Mans with the LMP2-spec Oreca 07 Gibson, was a hugely valuable learning experience for the team. Castroneves won the pole and the team recovered from Castroneves getting hit early on to finish third.

The work done this offseason is key in the preparation to ensuring the new car is ready to star out of the box at both next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 and crucially, the Rolex 24 itself.

“The competition level from other teams is incredible,” Castroneves said. “The rhythm in the race was stronger than we expected. We know what we need to do know. Focus on qualifying gets you to the front. There, 10 hours, weather changing, there’s so many different adversity. It was a great learning curve.

“Sure it’s a new team but not new in sports cars, or new in many aspects. We have experienced people around us. That’s one of the reasons we did Petit Le Mans. We’ll face different (challenges). There’s a lot to be prepared for. We’ll do everything in our power.”

Beyond their full-season bow in IMSA, Castroneves is confirmed for a return for next year’s Indianapolis 500 in a fourth Team Penske car.

Montoya’s options now seem limited to a fifth, as the primary Chevrolet test driver under INDYCAR’s directed 2018 Dallara universal body kit program would be highly unlikely to be released away from Penske and Chevrolet to a Honda-powered IndyCar effort. He updated his status today, following on from his most recent comments to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix last month.

“I don’t think I will (race Indianapolis) at the moment,” Montoya said. “I think with Roger … I could either run with him if he wants; if not, I don’t think he’ll let me run anywhere else.”

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”