Thursday was an open test day for all 22 of the Verizon IndyCar drivers at Sonoma Raceway. Yes, I said 22 drivers. Rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo, of Canada, has joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the weekend in No.13 Paysafe Honda, adding one more car to the usual 21.
The weather was sunny and breezy, with mild temperatures. Fourteen drivers were on course in the morning session, with laps varying between four by three drivers to the 32 for Rookie DeMelo. Those who held back said they were waiting for the warmer afternoon temperatures which would be more ideal – more closely resemble the Saturday mid-afternoon Qualifying session or the mid-afternoon Sunday race. Among those who didn’t run in the morning session were four of the five Championship contenders Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda; and three of the four Team Penske Chevrolet drivers, Josef Newgarden/No.2 Hum by Verizon, Simon Pagenaud/No.1 DXC Technology, and Helio Castroneves/No.3.
Four sets of tires were allotted to each driver for the six-hour test, and of these three must be returned to Firestone at the end of the day. One set can be carried over as scuffs for the rest of the weekend. For the weekend, the teams are given seven sets of tires,
The primary and alternative tires Firestone brought to Sonoma are the same as for this year’s Barber race, which Firestone Chief Engineer Cara Adams said is more durable than last year’s primary compound. The 2017 Sonoma alternative tire is similar to last year’s primary tire. The drivers often characterize Sonoma as an abrasive surface, tough on tire degradation.
The contenders joined the media for brief availability during the lunch break, with Dixon coming first, followed later by the Penske Posse.
Dixon said that the tire carryover rule was changed, which shortened the teams’ allotments even further. He waited out the morning, while his three teammates ran. Dixon said they would gather data, and prep during the lunch break, for the afternoon session. “Today is just about trying to understand the car as best as possible, try and get some data for the weekend. But, you know, as far as the race goes, it’s going to be more about trying to eliminate silly mistakes and situations that we can control.”
Castroneves said “We’re just waiting for the weather to be at least closer to what it will be in qualifying or tomorrow’s practice or race. As we all know, the track is very challenging, plus abrasive, which is difficult when you trying something with the tires after about five or six laps, already going to the next level. So you always got to keep that on mind. Right now I think not only ourselves but everyone, at least 10 other cars thinking the same way. As we going to go out, the track going to get better, even with the weather. It will be interesting to see this afternoon for sure. But it’s a lot of time.”
Pagenaud said “The goal is to go for the championship, especially with a great Team Penske that we’re all on. The goal is to come back and win another championship.”
It was variations on a theme when the four Penske drivers were asked about going for the win vs the championship. Basically go for the win and the championship will sort out, and it’s important that the Championship go to Team Penske. And Power and Newgarden proved they have each other’s back. Newgarden said “Oh, it’s business as usual. I think that’s the way Team Penske operates. It’s also what’s helped us have so much success this year, is that’s the way we operate. It seems to make us better every weekend. I think we’re going to need to work together if we want to be better than the field. It’s not going to be, in my opinion, straightforward or easy to be better than everyone this weekend.”
Despite only running four laps in the morning, Will Power/No.11 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was the fastest in the test, at 109.922 mph/1:18. Seven drivers turned laps of 109+ mph.
By mid-afternoon, a couple of drivers went on course, and then the course went Red to rescue Alexander Rossi/No.98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Andretti Autosport Honda, who had stalled on course. It was 71 degrees F ambient and 108 F on track at 3pm, for the few drivers on course. More were waiting it out in pit lane, umbrellas and all. The second Red Flag was to tow in Charlie Kimball/No.83 Tresiba Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Honda.
In other news, JR Hildebrand/No.21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet and the team have confirmed that Hildebrand won’t be returning full time to the team next season, although he could run a third team car in the Indianapolis 500. Spencer Pigot will race the No.21 full-time next season.
Zach Veach was announced this week as the newest member of Andretti Autosport in No.26. His teammates will be Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Veach progressed up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder with Andretti Autosport and drove for AJ Foyt Racing at this year’s Indy 500, finishing 26th.
There are other seats in flux,
Also on track Thursday for testing were the young lions in the Formula Car Challenge presented by Goodyear Series. Sixteen drivers – fifteen fellows and one sixteen-year old gal, mentored by Lyn St James, took to the track.
Everything starts in earnest Friday, with two IndyCar practices, and an IndyCar Pit Stop practice. Also running will be Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge, World Challenge, and Formula Car Challenge. The track will be busy non-stop from 8:15am to 6:10pm, ending with the two-seater IndyCar rides. The weather is forecast to be warmer.