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IndyCar teams assess value of rain-plagued Indy 500 test

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INDIANAPOLIS – In a sport where teams of engineers pour over reams of data from computer models and simulations, spend time calculating equations they hope will give their race cars and drivers the winning edge, there is one variable teams in the NTT IndyCar Series have no control over.

The weather.

That was the case in Wednesday’s “Open Test” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

Instead of seven hours of uninterrupted testing time on the 2.5-mile oval, the veteran drivers received 95 minutes of track time. Rookie drivers and Indy 500 “one-off” drivers were on the track for 90 minutes. That amounts to the same amount of practice time teams would receive on the first day of a regular NTT IndyCar Series race.

But this is the Indianapolis 500, where teams will use as much practice time as they can get to prepare for the biggest race in the world.

A normal Indianapolis 500 “Open Test” allows teams to work off a checklist of race setups and suspension configurations they will test as they develop a fast race car that can begin practice for the Indy 500 on May 14. It’s during the practice days that teams “trim out” their race setup for speed in qualifications, and race-ability for the race itself.

Because of Wednesday’s rain-plagued, shortened test session, many of those teams only got one-third of the boxes checked off their testing checklist.

“It was productive in terms of that was a brand new race car for us and we shook it down and we made sure the electronics worked and it runs and it shifts and the data system is fine and it felt OK,” Craig Hampson, Sebastien Bourdais’s race engineer at Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan, told NBC Sports. “The baseline setup feels like the car last year so all of that is good.

“But in terms of, did I get anything crossed off the test list?’ No, I got nothing at all crossed off the test list. We’re a little behind on the plan, but it’s the same for everybody. It was also very cold, and that is not representative of what the weather will be like in May. It was just a good shake-down. The car is one piece, we’ll put it away and come back in May.”

With subtle changes to the aerodynamic package at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway offering teams more adjustability to the car, Wednesday could have been a very busy day for the 30 drivers who took to the track in testing. After determining a baseline, that’s when teams can begin to experience and actually “test” the changes of the car.

Because that did not happen, once the veteran’s session was halted and the rookies finished out the day by running until more rain brought out the checkered flag just past 7:30 p.m. ET, the cars were loaded up and taken back to the various IndyCar race shops.

The majority of the teams are based in the Indianapolis area. But one of the “Power Teams” – Team Penske – is based in Mooresville, North Carolina. That’s 560 miles away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Another competitive team, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan, is based about 230 miles away in Plainfield, Illinois – a far western suburb of Chicago.

Carlin is based in Delray Beach, Florida, a 24-hour drive from Indianapolis. AJ Foyt Racing has two shops for each of its two drivers. Tony Kanaan’s car is prepared a few blocks away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a facility on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana. Matheus Leist’s car is prepared at main shop in Waller, Texas – outside of Houston.

For those teams, Wednesday’s shortened test became another expense item on the team’s ledger.

“Most of the teams are based in Indianapolis, but for us, this is a huge pain,” Hampson said. “To pack everything up, bring it all down here, unload it into the garage, run for one-third of a day, now we have to put it back in the truck, transport it back to Chicago, work all next weekend.

“For a non-Indy-based team, this is big drama.”

Many of Coyne’s employees were going to drive up Interstate 65 to Chicago and be back at the shop for work Thursday morning at 7 a.m.

Team Penske’s crew members were able to fly back to North Carolina on the team’s charter plane or commercial airlines.

“I don’t think it’s any quicker to sit in security and fly back to Charlotte than it is to drive back to Chicago, if I’m honest,” Hampson said. “There are challenges not being based in Indianapolis.

“For those of us who aren’t, ‘Just here’ it is a lot harder.”

Coyne’s team is one of the mid- to smaller teams in the series, so its budget is affected adversely when testing at Indianapolis gets impacted by weather. The same can be said for A.J. Foyt Racing, although one of its two entries have the shortest trip from the shop to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We didn’t get one-third of the way down on our checklist,” AJ Foyt Racing Vice President of Racing Operations Scott Harner told NBC Sports. “We had a few mechanical issues on the 14 car (Tony Kanaan) that held us back today. It would have been nice if the weather had cooperated.

“It’s a tough day where we didn’t get much done. Indiana weather can change every 10 minutes, and it does. For teams that are out of state, you are spending tens of thousands of dollars to get up here. Team Penske spent a hell of a lot of money to come up here.

“For the local teams, you aren’t spending as much other than buying lunch so that helps to be located here. That’s just part of it.”

Despite the rain-shortened session, IndyCar Director of Aerodynamic Development Tino Belli said it was still “better than not doing it.” IndyCar and its teams still collected data that can be useful when practice begins in a few weeks for the Indianapolis 500.

“We have things to go through, but when the weather is warmer, practice will be more relevant than it was today,” David Faustino, Will Power’s race engineer at Team Penske, told NBC Sports. “It’s still worth coming here, just to get the drivers’ heads back in the game.

“They still have to try. I think it’s always worth trying. Those are the breaks, though.”

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.