Winter was finally put in the rear view mirror last week as the IZOD IndyCar Series converged on the Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway for its own version of “Spring Training.” Two groups of drivers pounded out laps over a pair of two-day sessions on Sebring’s short course in an attempt to find more speed out of their new turbocharged challengers and gain momentum for the upcoming season opener on March 25.
But while it was nice to see the competitors turning wheels in anger once more, it bears noting that testing can be a tricky thing. As much as we’d like to say that this last week gave us a proper, initial expectation of things to come, we can’t. There are simply too many variables to take into account, ranging from different strategies on each team to possible gamesmanship between manufacturers. And that’s just naming two!
With that in mind, we hope that you enjoy our thoughts on what transpired last week at Sebring. But as the old saying goes…
This is a test. This is only a test.
Who’s winning the engine battle?
(Kyle Lavigne, INDYCAR Nation)
While it is always difficult to gauge actual performance from testing, one of things that emerged is that Honda and Chevrolet may be set for a very competitive, season-long duel. The bow-tie powered cars from Team Penske and Andretti Autosport were quickest during the first two days, while Chip Ganassi’s fleet of Hondas were quickest the next two days.
Overall, Scott Dixon was quickest after the four-day test with a quick time of 51.79, with teammate Dario Franchitti not far behind with a 52.01. But, on their heels were the Chevrolets of Helio Castroneves, Rubens Barrichello, Will Power, J.R. Hildebrand, and Ryan Briscoe. And, the separation between Franchitti and Briscoe was less than two tenths of a second. The competitiveness of the two engines is staggeringly close.
And Lotus, though behind the eight-ball in terms of power, they did show steady reliability and weren’t far off the speed of the Hondas and Chevrolets. Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani each cracked the 52-second range, actually beating the Chevrolets of Tony Kanaan (KV Racing Technology) and Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport). Lotus may have struggled to this point, but they could easily spoil the party at the front of the field in time.
In all, it appears we may have what we wanted out of the engines. Different manufacturers and different sounds, but ultimately a competitive package that doesn’t give one engine a dramatic upperhand over another.
What about the rookies?
(Zachary Houghton, IndyCarAdvocate.com)
With three Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates, one of the interesting aspects of last week's open test was obtaining a rough gauge where each is in terms of development with their teams and the new car. Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Hamilton Racing), Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing), and Katherine Legge (Lotus Dragon Racing) all received seat time, though their results couldn't have been more disparate.
Pagenaud looked sharp in his Honda-powered machine throughout the test. He was one of the few drivers to log over 200 laps, and his times were good enough for P12 on the combined session chart. Many expect Pagenaud to be a welcome, solid addition to the field this year, and thus far, he's done nothing to disprove that notion.
Sarah Fisher's team had received their new Honda engine only days before the Sebring test, and their driver, Newgarden, was getting his first seat time in this year's Dallara. If SFHR or Newgarden were phased by all this, they certainly didn't show it, throwing down respectable times to put him solidly in the middle of the overall time charts. Sarah Fisher's team might have some long-term questions in terms of sponsorship details, but the details of their long-term driver situation couldn't seem clearer.
Regarding Legge, the entire uncertainty surrounding the Lotus Dragon engine program cast a shadow over the first part of the week, but as things cleared by Thursday, Legge was out in the car, getting her first laps in the new DW12. As such, it's difficult to gauge progress, but by the final session, she had at least broken into the 53-second range. With a five-year layoff from open wheel racing, we'll have to watch how Legge fares as she seeks a return to form with Jay Penske's team.
Of course, there's always the caveat that these times don't necessarily hold great significance in the long run; there's still an additional testing opportunity before the season opens, and teams were working on different aspects of setup throughout the Sebring test. The real proof will be weighing results from St. Pete and beyond. Still, right now, it looks like Pagenaud and Newgarden could give us a lively battle for Rookie of the Year, with Legge still somewhat of a question mark.
Is the gap closing?
(Chris Estrada, IndyRacingRevolution.com)
Even with the onset of new cars and engines this season, a “fruit basket turnover” in the IZOD IndyCar Series was an unlikely prospect to begin with. The better bet going into the offseason was that teams outside of the Big Three -- Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport -- would finally be able to narrow the competition gap.
And if last week’s testing on the Sebring short course was an indication, it appears that some of the non-Big Three teams are indeed making strides in performance. Granted, none of this can be completely confirmed until we get to St. Petersburg at the end of the month, but at the moment, things look promising on this front.
The first session on Monday and Tuesday saw an impressive showing from the Honda-powered Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt/Hamilton Racing, who may technically be a rookie but is well-versed in road racing from his Champ Car and American Le Mans days. He was third-quickest on both Monday and Tuesday, roughly two to three tenths off the pace of Chevy-powered Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves, respectively. For a mid-pack team like Schmidt/Hamilton, it should be very encouraging to be that close to two of Chevy’s big fish.
Thursday and Friday had more good efforts in store, with IndyCar neophyte Rubens Barrichello continuing to acclimate himself nicely to the Dallara DW12. Earning P4 on the final combined chart this week had to meet or exceed the expectations of his KV Racing Technology team for the former F1 talent’s first official test. If Barrichello keeps learning fast, he may find himself battling for podiums sooner rather than later.
Not too far down the chart was J.R. Hildebrand, who had the sixth-quickest overall time for a Panther Racing team that must get better results on road/street courses in order to rise up the grid in 2012. Also making noise in ‘Spring Training’ was Mike Conway (eighth-quickest overall), who has delivered steady results in off-season testing for his new team, A.J. Foyt Racing. Could we see the familiar No. 14 make a move toward the lead pack this year?
Of course, the trick for these small to mid-size teams will be to keep cutting into the gap as the season gets rolling while Ganassi, Penske and Andretti will be trying to build it up again.
What happened to the end of the Ganassi era?
(Stephanie Wallcraft, MoreFrontWing.com)
At first blush, the reappearance of Target Chip Ganassi Racing at the top of the speed charts over the open test at Sebring might appear to be cause for despair. Wasn’t engine competition supposed to take us away from the dominance of the big teams?
The key thing to remember, though, is that in the grand scheme of things, testing means nothing.
Other teams may have been working on elements of their programs that didn’t allow for the pursuit of sheer speed. (Or they may not have.)
Other teams may have been sandbagging. (Or they may not have.)
We don’t know who was able to put down a quality flying lap at the peak of track conditions or their tire runs. We don’t know how much more the teams that ran later in the week were able to learn through observing those that went out early.
And – this is a big one – we don’t know how many Honda engines have gone pop since development of their 2012 powerplant began.
For race-starved fans desperate to see the end of the painfully long off-season, it can be far too easy to put too much weight on the open test. However, the fact is that very little of what we saw last week means anything at all.
The fact is that none of us will know who’s made the best use of their off-season development time until the St. Petersburg green flag falls.