Score two for the “Bowtie Brigade.”
After an offseason full of anticipation and change, the drivers and teams of the IZOD IndyCar Series are now officially on the road to St. Petersburg with a pair of two-day test sessions this weekend at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway. The first session is in the books and it appears that Chevrolet is wasting no time getting back to work in open-wheel racing.
Chevy-powered drivers claimed the top of the time sheets on Monday and Tuesday, with Ryan Hunter-Reay going P1 on Monday and Helio Castroneves topping Tuesday’s action. In fact, Castroneves’ hot lap on Tuesday – a 52.1413-second blitz around Sebring’s 1.67-mile short course – was the fastest of the entire outing.
"It was certainly a long way ahead of everybody in the beginning, all the manufacturers; but Chevy is on-board,” Castroneves said. “[They] took the bull by the horns as they say. It is a very good commitment from everyone. Right now, we are still working, still developing.
“Certainly, it is great to be on top of the charts. But it doesn't pay anything. The first race of the season is what we are looking for. But it feels great to have a good practice."
Not that everything went perfectly for the Chevy teams. Just ask Will Power, who borrowed an extinguisher from a track marshal to put out a fire Monday on his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske machine -- "No, I won't be joining the fire brigade," he later cracked -- only to have a second fire flare up again on Tuesday (an Associated Press story said that Power hustled the car back to the pits, where his team put it out).
Considering he was only six one-hundredths of a second off Castroneves on Tuesday, it’s likely he’s still looking on the bright side of things.
However, the really interesting bit is yet to come from Sebring.
Honda only had three drivers in this first session (rookie Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson and James Jakes), but will have a bigger representation on Thursday and Friday. Pagenaud flew the flag for the “Dreamers” in the meantime, placing the fifth-fastest time overall on Tuesday afternoon at 52.4698 seconds. That’s only three-tenths off of Castroneves’ best, which isn’t too shabby considering that Pagenaud’s team, Schmidt/Hamilton Racing, isn’t considered Honda’s flagship team.
“You can tell the Chevys and Hondas are really close,” said Pagenaud. “We ran together with Will and [Hunter-Reay] at some point and I can see it's going to be close. As Will said, it will come down to qualifying [at St. Petersburg] to see who's strongest."
That ‘flagship’ distinction likely goes to the four-car assault of Chip Ganassi Racing with drivers Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, which will go to work on Thursday and Friday.
With them involved, a better idea of where the Chevrolet vs. Honda engine fight stands at this moment could emerge. We’ll also get to see which teams look set to tuck in behind both camps’ top squads on the initial pecking order for 2012.
As for Lotus, it’s appears to be all about building, building, building at this stage. Simona de Silvestro got in a good amount of laps on Tuesday, but she was the only driver in Group 1 that couldn’t pull off a 52-second circuit throughout the two day session. Considering that the British manufacturer has had to work from behind their rivals throughout this engine process, one could argue the Swiss Missile’s results weren’t entirely unexpected.
But perhaps help is on the way as Lotus will also have more representation later this week. Sebastien Bourdais was set to test on Monday, but the engines for his team, Dragon Racing, hadn’t arrived yet, so he and teammate Katherine Legge are slated to run Thursday. Also joining in for Lotus are Oriol Servia (Dreyer & Reinbold) and Alex Tagliani (Team Barracuda-BHA).
It’ll bear watching to see if that group – especially the three veterans: Bourdais, Servia and Tagliani -- can squeeze more speed out of the Judd-built Lotus V6 and give their group some momentum heading for St. Pete.