Indy Cars Trying To Get A Grip

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 10 2018

Ryan Hunter-Reay takes his new generation Indy car through a turn at St. Petersburg. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

INDYCAR’s new-for-2018 universal chassis served up grip challenges front-to-rear for the 24 drivers hot-lapping during Friday’s two practice sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport sat atop the leader board at the close of a pair of 45-minute sessions with a best lap of 1-minute, 0.8295-seconds/106.527 mph in the No. 28 DHL Honda on the 1.8-mile/14-turn temporary course encompassing downtown city streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.

“In the past with more downforce, we actually had to go a little bit beyond our comfort level to get the lap time out of the car because there was so much downforce on it,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion who has twice finished second in this event. “That was the most awkward thing about today, trying to rein that back a little bit, try not to ask so much of the thing.

“That’s where it’s difficult. It’s just sliding around. It’s overall lack-of-grip. It’s good, though. It’s a new challenge. Got everybody on their toes. We’ll see who makes the most of it in the shortest amount of time.”

The universal kit supplied by Dallara was rolled out after the 2017 season following three years of aero kit competition between engine manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda. The universal kit is designed with a significant reduction in the downforce level that helps cars adhere to the track and run faster through the corners. Series drivers _ most of whom tested extensively with their respective manufacturers during the offseason _ now are required to brake earlier and work harder to carry speed through the corners.

Canadian James Hinchcliffe was second-fastest for the day with a lap of 1:00.8724/106.452 mph. The 2013 St. Pete race-winner echoed Hunter-Reay’s thoughts on the difficulty of the new car.

“It’s a very different beast,” said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “Having to reprogram your brain as to what ‘normal’ is with this car has been a huge challenge everywhere we’ve gone (in preseason testing). Doing it for a street circuit for the first time has been a bit of an eye-opener.”

Will Power, a two-time race-winner and seven-time pole-winner on the Streets of St. Pete, was third on the overall chart with a lap of 1:00.9933/106.241 mph in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“It was definitely a good start,” said Power, the 2014 series champion. “I think we’re very close to getting the car where we need to be. We’ll work on fine-tuning things, but we’re headed in the right direction. This new car is so fun to drive. It goes so much faster on the straights and it’s very quick in the turns as well. I think it’s definitely going to make for some entertaining racing this year.”

Team Penske has won pole position for seven of the past eight races in St. Pete, with Power setting the track record in 2016 at 1-minute,00.0658-seconds/107.882 mph.

Scott Dixon _ fourth all-time in Indy car history with 41 wins but none at St. Pete _ was fourth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda at 1:01.1004/106.055 mph.

“It was a tricky start to the weekend for us,” Dixon said. “The car is just very different from what we had last year. The car is skating everywhere and that last session I think we just got a little bit unlucky with traffic in the PNC Bank car. I think we’re right there and the car has the speed, we just need to get out of traffic a bit and we hope to show that (Saturday) in qualifying.”

Josef Newgarden began his first race weekend as reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion by placing fifth on the combined timesheet at 1:01.1012/106.054 mph in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. The top 17 drivers were separated by less than a second.

“We had a smooth enough first practice session, and we were really just trying to figure out the new car and how it handled here on the Streets of St. Pete,” Newgarden said. “We started to work some things out in Session 2 and we’re starting to feel really good about the Hitachi Chevrolet. We still have some work to do, but I know the Team Penske guys are the best in the business. Team Chevy is doing a great job giving us all we need, so we’ll be back for practice and qualifying on Saturday.”

Defending race-winner and St. Pete resident Sebastien Bourdais placed eighth overall after lapping on both of Firestone’s rubber compounds. The native of Le Mans, France, posted a best lap of 1:01.2741/105.754 during the second session.

“It wasn’t a bad day,” said Bourdais, driver of the No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing. “We made a change for the second practice and we didn’t go in the right direction. A lot of guys improved on reds (Firestone alternate tire) and we got a red flag when we went out on reds. Then I didn’t get any laps that were representative because there was traffic in front of me. You probably have one lap, maybe two if you don’t hit it too hard, but with the red flag and the traffic, it was game over. On the blacks (Firestone primary tires), it’s not bad. It’s just we are looking for front grip and we haven’t found a friendly way to do it.”

Veteran Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, began his tenure with A.J. Foyt Racing with a ninth-place effort of 1:01.3185/105.678 set during the second session.

“It was a decent first day,” said Kanaan, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet. “The biggest accomplishment we wanted to do was have the ABC Supply team running all day. We did that and everybody stayed calm. We had a very good first session and I knew people were going to step it up (in the second session), so now we just need to keep our heads together.

“It was a decent second session _ we’re there. The goal obviously is to win races, but we came here to be realistic and I think if we are in the top-10 for this first race and what we’re building, it would be really good. We’re there right now (inside top-10), so we’ll see what happens (Saturday).”

Perhaps topping the list of frustrated drivers was Graham Rahal, who placed 20th overall with a best lap of 1:01.9993/104.517 after 33 laps in his No. 15 United Rentals Honda.

“We went down a path in testing at Sebring (International Raceway in Florida),” said Rahal, whose car is fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “Unfortunately, Sebring is a high-grip circuit, which we knew, and I think it just misled us. I fully believe that overnight we will find some changes and get ourselves pointed in a much better position.

“We’re struggling with the rear of the car, which is very strange. We did at our first test, as well, but in general I think it hasn’t been an issue to this magnitude. We have a lot of work to do. Obviously, Taku (teammate Takuma Sato) did a good job putting a lap in and I just didn’t. We’re going back to the drawing board and make the United Rentals car quicker.”

Sato, who won last year’s Indianapolis 500 driving for Andretti Autosport, was 10th overall at 1:01.3491/105.625 in the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda.

A third practice is set for Saturday morning, ahead of three rounds of Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying starting at 2:20 p.m. (EST) and streaming live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. The Streets of St. Pete will be site of the season-opener for the eighth straight year Sunday, and first of a 17-race schedule. Live coverage of the 110-lap/198-mile event starts at 12:30 p.m. (EDT) _ remember to spring all clocks ahead Sunday morning _ on the ABC television network and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Scuderia Corsa, owner of victories in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring as well as three consecutive championships in IMSA’s GT Daytona class, will partner with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to enter veteran Oriol Servia in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Servia, who has logged 201 career Indy car starts including nine Indy 500s, will drive the No. 64 Honda as teammate to RLL full-season drivers Takuma Sato _ the reigning Indy 500 champion _ and Graham Rahal.

“It is an honor to compete at ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’^” Giacomo Mattioli, owner of Scuderia Corsa, said in a statement. “To be a part of this great racing heritage and tradition is something I always envisioned for Scuderia Corsa and running across the Yard of the Bricks this year is a thrill.” 

Servia’s best Indy 500 finish to-date was fourth for Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2012. He finished 21st in last year’s race, his fourth with RLL. Servia is confident the pairing of Scuderia Corsa and RLL bodes well for him.

“Obviously, both teams are very successful, winning teams,” Servia said. “I couldn’t be happier that they agreed. When you put two teams together you never know how it’s going to come out. They both saw the advantage of taking this shot together, with our friends at Honda supporting, too. I couldn’t be happier.”

Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champion and co-owner of RLL, agreed the partnership has great potential for the Month of May.

“I think it’s really kind of a great coming together of three very powerful forces,” Rahal said. “I look at Oriol being a part of the team as he’s really being able to contribute to refining the car, really creating a great setup. Now this year with Takuma and Graham, we have three very, very strong entries in the 500, three strong chances to win. That certainly is exciting.”

American Conor Daly will run the 102nd Indianapolis 500 with Dale Coyne Racing via a partnership with Thom Burns Racing and the United States Air Force. Daly, 26, will attempt to make his fifth career start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27 in the No. 17 USAF Honda-powered Dallara.

Daly’s entry with Thom Burns Racing will be the third fielded by DCR during 2018 at Indianapolis. The team also will compete with fulltime entries for Sebastien Bourdais and Pietro Fittipaldi.

Daly spent the 2017 season at A.J. Foyt Racing, where he recorded four top-10 finishes. The Indiana native started 26th and finished 30th in last year’s 500. Daly’s best results were recorded on ovals, highlighted by a season-best fifth at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., and seventh at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

“We’re very happy to have Conor Daly back with us for the Indy 500,” team-owner Coyne said. “Conor has done a great job for us in the past and we hope to continue that this year at IMS. We also very much look forward to working with Thom Burns Racing and we’re extremely pleased and honored to be partnered and representing the United States Air Force.”

The Air Force’s partnership with Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns Racing _ its initial involvement with the Indianapolis 500 _ will help the Air Force Recruiting Service meet its mission to inspire the nation’s brightest, most competitive young men and women for service.

“We’re thrilled to announce our partnership with Dale Coyne Racing and with the United States Air Force and to be back at Indianapolis again in 2018,” co-entrant Burns said. “The Memorial Day Weekend is a very special time, and for many reasons. The Speedway has always been my dream and to bring an American icon like the Air Force here for Conor Daly gives me great pride. The Air Force helps to protect our freedom so that we can have the ability to participate in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’ the Indianapolis 500.

“It is our duty and privilege to assist with the recruiting efforts of the Air Force. Potential recruits will not only find us on the track but out in the community, as well, as we build awareness of the tremendous career opportunities that the Air Force provides.”

Burns, the owner of an Indianapolis-based property development company, is launching Thom Burns Racing with experience gained from partnerships and many prominent Indianapolis 500 entries over the last 30 years. Burns has been involved since 1987 with entries for drivers including 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier, 1996 IndyCar co-champion Scott Sharp, Steve Chassey, Dominic Dobson and Jeff Andretti. Burns also was instrumental in forming CART team PacWest Racing with Bruce McCaw in the 1990s.

Daly competed fulltime in the series with Coyne’s team in 2016, scoring a career-best second-place finish in Race No. 1 on the Belle Isle street-circuit in Detroit, Mich.

“It is an honor to have the opportunity to represent the Air Force at the Indianapolis 500,” Daly said. “Memorial Day Weekend is an incredible time of appreciation for those who serve our country. I can’t thank Dale Coyne enough for having me back on the team and Thom Burns enough for bringing this program together with the Air Force to give us a fighting chance at the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500.

“In conjunction with an incredible team of people at Dale Coyne Racing that I’ve had the pleasure of working with before, I think we will have a great opportunity.”

As the 2018 season prepares to launch, INDYCAR took a final look back at its 2017 campaign.

The Verizon IndyCar Series community gathered Thursday night at the Birchwood, a few blocks from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street-course, to welcome in a season featuring a new-look car, new teams and new challengers for the championship. It also provided the opportunity to honor last year’s champion, Josef Newgarden of Team Penske.

Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Company which owns INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, served as event host. “People are stoked to be in St. Petersburg, Florida, and get to the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship,” Miles said. “There’s so much anticipation and excitement about this year and this series that it’s palpable.”

Miles celebrated the championship that Newgarden won in 2017 _ his first season driving for iconic team-owner Roger Penske. “Looking forward to 2018, I think we’ve got a pretty incredible opportunity as a series and a platform going forward,” Newgarden said. “I’m really excited about the new car. I think if you ask anyone in here, they’re pretty excited about what we have.”

Bridgestone Americas, Inc. announced a two-year extension of its Firestone brand’s title sponsorship of the St. Petersburg race. This edition marks the fifth year of Firestone as the race’s title sponsor.

“We are proud to continue our title sponsorship of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg through 2020,” said Lisa Boggs, director, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. “The streets of St. Petersburg are an ideal proving ground to showcase the durable, dependable technology built into Firestone tires. The support from the city and its residents, along with the team at Green Savoree Racing Promotions, has made this one of the marquee events on the Verizon IndyCar Series circuit.”

TAG Heuer, premier watch brand in motor racing, has renewed its contract as official timekeeper of the Verizon IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 for the next three years. 

“Motor racing is at the very core of TAG Heuer’s DNA,” said Kilian Muller, president/CEO of TAG Heuer North America. “It is vital that the brand continues its legacy of supporting the sport and what better way than partnering with the Verizon IndyCar Series, one of the most innovative and beloved open-wheel racing leagues.” 

Combined practice results Friday after two sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., on a 1.8-mile/14-turn street course with rank, car number in parenthesis, driver, engine, session, time/speed and total laps run:

  1. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, Practice 2, 01:00.8295-seconds/106.527 mph, 26
  2. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, Practice 2, 01:00.8724/106.452, 32
  3. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:00.9933/106.241, 33
  4. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.1004/106.055, 36
  5. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:01.1012/106.054, 36
  6. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.1542/105.962, 32
  7. (6) Robert Wickens-(R), Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.2190/105.849, 38
  8. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.2741/105.754, 28
  9. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:01.3185/105.678, 32
  10. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.3491/105.625, 31
  11. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.3780/105.575, 26
  12. (4) Matheus Leist-(R), Chevrolet,  Practice 2, 01:01.4385/105.471, 40
  13. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet,  Practice 2, 01:01.4509/105.450, 26
  14. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:01.5505/105.279, 30
  15. (20) Jordan King-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:01.5579/105.267, 31
  16. (10) Ed Jones, Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.5819/105.226, 40
  17. (88) Gabby Chaves, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:01.6177/105.165, 39
  18. (26) Zach Veach-(R), Honda,  Practice 2, 01:01.8423/104.783, 36
  19. (23) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:01.9166/104.657, 37
  20. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, Practice 2, 01:01.9993/104.517, 33
  21. (19) Zachary Claman De Melo-(R), Honda, Practice 2, 01:02.0368/104.454, 40
  22. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:02.0636/104.409, 37
  23. (60) Jack Harvey-(R), Honda, Practice 2, 01:02.1640/104.240, 39
  24. (32) Rene Binder-(R), Chevrolet, Practice 2, 01:02.3254/103.970, 38

Total Laps for Combined Sessions: 816

Note _ All cars use the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Dallara IR-12 universal aero chassis with Chevrolet or Honda twin-turbocharged V-6 engines and Firestone Firehawk tires.

(R) _ Denotes Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate




| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 10 2018
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