Team Penske Flexing Muscles At IndyCar Test

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 18 2014

Will Power topped the time sheets on the first day of IndyCar testing at Barber Motor Sports Park. (Photo by LAT/ Scott R. LePage for Chevy Racing)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Team Penske’s Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves began checking-off boxes for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season-opener Monday, posting the top three lap times among 22 drivers participating in Day One of a two-day Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park.

Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet, topped the chart with a lap of 1 minute, 07:6492-seconds/122.396 mph around the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road-course in Birmingham, Ala. Montoya recorded the second-fastest lap at 1:07.7170-seconds in the No. 2 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet. And Castroneves was third with a time of 1:07.7214-seconds in his No. 3 Hitachi Dallara/Chevy.

“We’ve tried a lot of different things, so it’s a good day for that,” said Power, the race-winner at Barber in 2011 and 2012. “Obviously, the track conditions are exceptional _ a lot of grip because it’s so cold, you gain a little bit of downforce. You’re always learning; there’s no use in belting around there not learning anything. We found some more good stuff, crossed-off things that don’t work and I think we’re in a good place.”

Rain and cold temperatures forced teams to forgo the morning session. Teams are scheduled to return Tuesday for two more sessions in preparation for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Fla.) on Sunday, March 30. Additionally, the series will return to Barber Motorsports Park for the third round of the 18-race championship on Sunday, April 27.

Power turned 48 laps during the afternoon while Castroneves, the 2010 winner at Barber, completed 51 laps. Montoya, who is returning to fulltime open-wheel racing for the first time since the 2000 season, led all drivers with 55 laps completed.

“I’m trying to learn how to get more out of the car and we’re getting there,” said Montoya, the 1999 Championship Auto Racing Teams champion and 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner whose resume includes victories in Formula One and NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. “I haven’t experienced for example red (soft compound Firestone) tires. I asked why they don’t give us red tires for practice or like official tests like today. It would have been useful to get on a set of reds to get an idea of what they do, but have to wait until St. Pete and see what it does.”

Power said the exchange of information with Montoya already is operating at full-bore. “Montoya brings some good ideas; he’s very quick so it’s only help for us,” said Power, who finished fourth in the driver standings in 2013. “Obviously, he becomes a competitor but it’s up to me to do the job on the track. We found some good stuff over the winter, worked hard. It looks like everyone is, once again, so close. Running the same setups, it’s just ridiculously competitive. It’s up to me, like I said.

“Collectively as a team we try to improve the car and learn from each other but when it comes to racing, the better guy is going to be winning. It’s competition; it’s just how it is. This series, he (JPM) could win the first race quite easily. I expect him to definitely drive to the front everywhere, so if you’re at the front knocking on the door, eventually you’re going to get a win.”

The enigmatic Montoya – who launched his open-wheel career with rival team-owner Chip Ganassi – indicated he has bought into the “all-in” concept required by new boss Roger Penske. “Yeah, I think we work really well together,” Montoya said. “We have a really good friendship with Helio and Will and we understand that the ultimate goal is the team. We get that. I think we do a really good job of working together and maximizing everything and helping each other. Yeah, I don’t see why not.”

Five Chevrolet-powered cars and five with the new Honda 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 split the top 10 time slots. Chevrolet captured the 2013 Manufacturers’ Championship by three points (144-141) via 10 wins and 11 poles to Honda’s nine wins and eight poles.

Reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, runnerup in each of the four races run at Barber Motorsports Park, was fourth on Monday’s time sheet at 1:07.8225-seconds in his No. 9 Dallara/Chevrolet.

“This early in the season to get miles is the important thing,” said Dixon, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “Everybody has their first new engine spec of the four for the season so there’s a lot to be learned on drivability, there are some brake options that are being circulated that we need to get through and really it’s just about getting ready for that first race that is less than two weeks away. There’s a lot to be achieved.”

Dixon failed to win back-to-back championships after the 2003 and 2008 seasons. But following Ganassi’s organizational switch from Honda to Chevy V6 power during the offseason, Dixon is aiming for a different outcome in 2014.

“I think it’s obviously a good problem to have,” said Dixon, who finished 27 points (577-550) in front of Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves in 2013. “I’ve been in this situation a couple of times before and we actually haven’t defended it that well. In ’09 we had a close shot and nearly won another championship. We’ll just have to sort of see how it goes. For us in the past when we have come close to another (three) championships I think it’s always been the start of the year that has kind of hindered us. I think we need to focus on making a good start in the first three or four races.”

Graham Rahal completed 37 laps and wound up 14th on the time chart at 1:08.4907-seconds in his No. 15 National Guard Dallara/Honda. But the second-generation driver was upbeat heading into Tuesday’s sessions. “We made some changes that really affected the balance of the car,” Rahal said. “We’re still struggling with certain things but I think the engineering group has a really good handle on it and I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. Compared to where we were last year here, we’re in the ballpark, for sure.”

Rahal, 25, is entering his eighth season in a major open-wheel series and his second full campaign with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the team co-owned by father and 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal. “Honda has been creeping up on it,” Rahal added. “I think we were still very conservative with the engine but we’re gaining a little more horsepower. When we get Oriol (Servia) out there to work with us, I think we’ll find a lot more speed in the National Guard car but I can’t say I have too many complaints about it. The balance feels certainly better than it has before here.”

Servia, currently scheduled to run only four races including the 98th Indianapolis 500, completed seven shakedown laps Monday in his No. 16 RLL Dallara/Honda.

Tire degradation will be foremost on the minds of Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz and James Hinchcliffe when they return for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in late April at BMP in their Honda-powered Dallaras.

“With the treatment that was done to the track last year with some grinding _ it improved lap times but it also took a toll on the tires, so you need some sort of compromise,” said Hinchcliffe, who scored the first three wins of his IndyCar Series career en route to an eighth-place point finish in 2013. “The other big compromise at this track is setup-wise, the low-speed corners you’ll be dealing with a lot of understeer and some of the other corners the rear slides out. So you want a nice, stable rear and a well-connected front.

“We have a good basis to go on, but Firestone has a new tire this year and in testing at other places it’s been considerably quicker. I think we’ll be testing the limits of arm strength around here.”

Bits from the BMP pits: Takuma Sato, entering his second season in the No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda fielded by A.J. Foyt Racing, was fifth-quickest Monday at 1:07.8691-seconds. Ryan Briscoe was sixth at 1:07.8834-seconds in the No. 8 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. … Hydroxycut will be primary sponsor of the No. 11 KVSH Racing entry for seven races this season and co-sponsor for the Indy 500. Former CART champion Sebastien Bourdais, fresh off a podium finish in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, wheeled his Chevrolet-powered Dallara with Hydroxycut livery during Monday’s session. Entrant name for No. 77 Dallara/Honda driven by Simon Pagenaud has been changed to Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports in recognition of Davey Hamilton rejoining the team for 2014. Pagenaud scored his first series victory and finished a career-best third in the 2013 driver standings, 42 points behind Helio Castroneves. … Roger Griffiths resigned late last week as Honda Performance Development’s technical director. … The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30 will be televised live by ABC at 3:30 p.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network, including Sirius and XM Channels 209 and the INDYCAR app for most smart phones and tablets.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 18 2014
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