INDIANAPOLIS – Unfortunately, mother nature won again. She was undefeated this week (2-0) against the NTT INDYCAR Series test on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. See, Thursday was initially supposed to be a rather large test with a majority of the full time teams here. Then, with the forecast looking unfavorable, several teams elected to back out. A lot decided to just use this day for one on Monday at the Barber Motorsports Park before heading west to Long Beach, the site of next weekend’s race.
A few others though, decided to wait it out. Andretti Autosport’s four car team, both cars at Meyer Shank Racing, both at Arrow McLaren SP and the single car team of Juncos Hollinger Racing were slated to still give it a go on Thursday.
The weather had other plans. With cool, wet conditions, the test was moved back a day to Friday. AMSP bowed out leaving just seven cars (Andretti, MSR, JHR) in wake.
Unfortunately, while the sun came out on Friday afternoon, the conditions this morning were just like Thursday’s. There were even snow flurries falling while we were chatting with drivers in the shadows of Gasoline Alley this morning which forced MSR, then Andretti, then JHR to just cancel this test all together.
Instead, Andretti will now join the list at Barber and eye a return here in June. With two more test days planned for later this year, their allocation of 4 is now used up. So, you don’t want to risk a test day like Friday and really waste a limited session.
See, testing and the rules behind it have changed the game. It’s not like it used to be pre pandemic where you can show up and test anywhere you want on any given day. Now, the days are limited. 4 days total is what I was told by drivers on Friday morning.
So with being in season and having 4 days available, you don’t want to waste them. They’re like gold.
“You only get 4 test days a year and you want to make sure that they’re going to make it worthwhile,” Alexander Rossi told a small group of reporters on Friday morning. “As soon as the car leaves pit lane, it counts for the whole team. You wouldn’t want to do that and then realize what you’re doing is counter productive. It could actually lead you down the wrong road for the race weekend.
“The car and tires are so conditions sensitive now and that’s why you’ve got to make them count. You’ve got to use these days and make sure they count for something because they are very important and very limited.”
His teammate, Colton Herta, agreed.
“It sucks that testing is so limited and strict but it is what it is,” he said. “They’re very important which is why we don’t want to waste running when we really don’t have to.”
It didn’t used to be this way though. As veteran Helio Castroneves put it, you used to hate testing because you did it so often. Now, you love it because it can make or break your season.
“Early 2000s, we were actually complaining about it,” he told me. “Every week we were testing.”
Castroneves also told me as to what’s changed now too is the use of simulators. The sim programs have taken over. However, he says that he doesn’t correlate well with sim programs.
“We didn’t have simulators either,” said the 4-time Indy 500 champion. “As the technology is changing, I’m an old timer. I don’t drive with a vision I drive with a feel. It’s hard when you go into a simulator because it may be ‘oh this is good’ but I don’t know if this is going to be good.”
Castroneves also notes that this testing set of rules and how limited that they truly are, well it’s helped aid in smaller teams closing the gap to bigger teams actually.
“They’ve found ways to control budgets,” he continued. “It’s why smaller teams have become competitive as well. It’s why the competition has become so much more stronger because you’re not able to develop. When team member, engineers and people switch around, the cars still the same so it’s very very similar to what they had too.”
So, for them, they couldn’t afford to waste a day here too. It’s not worth the risk when he and the other driver note that the track is 30-35 degrees cooler now than when they come back. By comparison, a 10 degree difference is massive. To triple that?
“It’s a wise decision,” Castroneves noted.
“That’s another reason too. We have such limited test days for us to just go for it, we can rely on it. We’re in the same boat as everybody. Last year, Jack had a phenomenal car, I already was here, so we can use that data when we come back.”
The drivers also say that with limited testing options, it makes each lap ever so important when you do use them. You don’t want wrong data so they’re equally as important as a practice day, if not more so.
“Yes, you’re right, taking away tests and practices during the weekend has just complicated things more,” Castroneves told me. “It’s made it that more difficult for rookies. That’s just the way the series is and why we have so many cars now because it’s making the teams going back to being a little more healthier in terms of economic scenarios.”
For Rossi, he’s eyeing June as a rescheduled date. He says they definitely want to come back because it’s a place where they’ve been stronger at lately, but not to where they need to be. He says it’s a scenario to where they want to improve their car here and finally win a race on the road course layout.
However, why come back in June when you just raced here in May? Is it that beneficial to come back for just 1 more race here in late July?
“It’s such a swing event,” Herta said. “When you look at when people are fast here, it’s very rare that you see people fast here in the spring and the fall races. It’s bizarre. I still haven’t really figured out why. We’ve been in the same situation. In May we were maybe in the top five but when we came back we were the 2nd or 3rd best car. It’s such a swing event. I’m not really sure what causes that.”
Plus, Rossi notes that you focus on testing on tracks you’re not at you’re strongest at and he feels like this is a place they need the most help in. Does this mean it’s a wasted opportunity then that Penske and Ganassi each backed out and they had a chance to learn something here that they didn’t?
“I don’t know we were ever thinking of that as an advantage of it,” he noted. “Everyone picks and chooses where the tracks that they want to test at based on where they think that they’re lacking the most. Obviously we’re stronger at some places that they choose to test at so it’s all a wash at the end of the year.”
Also, he says that they found last year that their road course package is kind of the same no matter what track they’re at.
“I think from our stand point on the 27 side is our road course package is our road course package. It hasn’t really changed much from tracks. When we go to Barber on Monday, I think we will find things that are applicable to here. Either way we’re going to have things in our pocket to take things to other places.”
The thing is, you don’t want to waste your test days so early too. There’s a balance here. Save a few for the end of the season and you could use them on tracks later that decide the championship. Use them all early and your rivals could do so and have a leg up.
Romain Grosjean says he prefers to get them out of the way early.
“We were trying to figure out if we can learn anything interesting or not,” he said of this test. “We’ve had a pretty big test list to do. I’m keen on getting on the track early this season rather than later. I think we can learn and fine tune our notes to be interesting for the rest of the year.”
Andretti’s Season So Far
Speaking of the rest of the year, Andretti unfortunately has a ways to go back up. They’ve had some bad luck to start 2022 off with. Herta has had pit stop problems in both races. Rossi and Gorsjean each saw mechanical failures in Texas.
Has the goals shifted?
“We’ve moved on from Texas. It didn’t really matter,” Rossi said. “When it’s a mechanical issues for a driver, you don’t really care. It’s out of your control. There’s nothing you can do. Obviously if it’s a self inflicted mistake you kind of want to get back on the horse but it is what it is.
“Last thing you want to do is overcompensate and make up for lost ground.”
For Herta, he says that while the struggles on pit lane are frustrating for sure, he’s not losing any sleep over it.
“You just have to understand it,” he said. “I make mistakes on the track. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s just kind of one of those things that happen unfortunately. I know the guys are back in the shop working on pit stop to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
We head to Long Beach though to where Rossi and Herta have combined to win the last three races there. However, Herta notes that you can never get too complacent in this series that even if you are good one year, it doesn’t mean you’ll be good the next.
Rossi noted that not much has changed from Long Beach via 2019 to 2021 but last year it seemed like the bumps did. Then they looked at the data and noticed they truly didn’t. It was just that there was an Aeroscreen now compared to then that was more sensitive to vertical movement.
Plus, Firestone has brought a new tire to street courses for both primary and alternates which kind of threw the Andretti guys for a loop in St. Pete.
“The tires were very different,” Herta said. “Both the compounds are different this year compared to last year.”
He says that probably allowed Penske to close that gap. But, they have a smoking gun in their camp with MSR driver Simon Pagenaud. MSR is an alliance team to Andretti and Pagenaud is also a former Penske driver, just as recent as last year to be exact and he has some ideas too which Herta says is interesting.
He says that plus some tweaks from what they’ve learned in St. Pete should put them in the window.
In terms of Grosjean, he was fifth in St. Pete and says that it was a good solid weekend. Texas was a good experience but he feels like this team can win this year.
As far as now that he has two races under his belt with Andretti and what’s different already compared to last year with Dale Coyne/Rick Ware Racing, he says a lot.
“They’re quite different,” he told me. “Funny enough, it’s the same Dallara-Honda car but the set up feels a bit different. In INDYCAR the dampers does a lot. Definitely interesting being in an Andretti car. I feel like a couple of areas where we can make it more to my liking and then go from there. I’m convinced we can win races.”
Helio’s Return To Indy Next Month
Helio Castroneves has been back to Indianapolis multiple times since his record tying 4th Indianapolis 500 victory last May. But, he’s not been back during the Month of May. It seems like this place comes to life differently in May than any of the other 11 months during the year.
So, now that it’s officially April, 1 month from May, and Castroneves is here in Indy, does the thoughts come back to how magical next month is going to be for him to return?
“I started thinking about May last year when we were on the podium,” he told me. “No question. The car that we have is already being prepared and prepped for the Month of May and we are going to be strong.”
[…] — Mother nature spoiled Helio Castroneves’ on track time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week. It’s a track that that the real life version of […]