Details on Thursday’s NTT INDYCAR Series test on the IMS road course and what I’m watching during it

INDIANAPOLIS — 8 drivers from 4 NTT INDYCAR Series teams will take part in a test day on Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It’s a makeup from the test that was washed out back in the spring with some feeling now still that it’s valuable to test the 2.439-mile layout in June.

Who’s Testing?

Kyle Kirkwood (A.J. Foyt Racing)

Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist (Arrow McLaren SP)

Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi (Andretti Autosport)

Simona De Silvestro (Paretta Autosport)

Back in the spring, Meyer Shank Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing and the 3rd AMSP car were also supposed to take part but with AMSP not running a 3rd in the return race here next month, they and both MSR cars as well as JHR will sit this one out.

What Time?

While no time was available on the release, most testing situations at IMS have seen them run from 9 am to 5 pm locally.

Can I Go?

Fans can watch the test from the Turn 2 viewing mounds, IMS Museum parking lot and South Terrace grandstands. Admission to the track is free.

Why They Postponed The Spring Test

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 per season.

That’s it.

So with being in season and having 4 days available, you don’t want to waste them. They’re like gold. Which is why on a day that saw flurries flying in the spring, you don’t waste a day by turning laps.

“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 back in early April on why they elected to skip that test and reschedule it. “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 then, 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 noted that the track is 30-35 degrees cooler in the spring date then than it would be when they came back in May. 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.”

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.”

Pato O’Ward drives out of pit lane last month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Why The Test Now And What I’m Watching From It?

Some may wonder what they’re testing on Thursday. I mean they just raced here a month ago on this layout and come back in July on the same track. Is it in preparation for 2023 or even a simulated 2024 package? It’s neither actually. This is just one of the few allotted test days available and these teams felt it to still be very beneficial to use one of them at IMS on the road course still.

That’s because of weather conditions. For whatever reason, despite the races being just a couple of months apart, they’re run entirely different than each other.

Some may automatically think that next month’s race would look like May’s. Well, with it raining this past May and for most instances the Month of May being on the cooler side here than it is during the summer months, it completely changes the way that these cars react to this 2.439-mile layout.

“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.”

He’s right. Prior to 2020 when INDYCAR came here more than once, it was always just a May race. Penske won 5 of the 6 years. In 2020 though, the race was moved to July and a 2nd weekend was added in October for a doubleheader. Chip Ganassi Racing won that July 4 race while Penske swept the October weekend.

In 2021, Rinus VeeKay topped the May weekend while in August of that year, it was back to Team Penske. This year, Penske looked pedestrian again in May but I expect that to change in July again.

In the 1st practice session this past May, Penske was 3rd (Will Power), 16th (Josef Newgarden) and 17th ( Scott McLaughlin) on the speed charts. For the 2nd session, they were 10th (Power), 11th (McLaughlin) and 16th (Newgarden) in Practice 2. They qualified all in the 2nd round with 2 of the 3 in the Fast 6 but lacked the pace in the wet to win.

However, in the 2nd race weekend each of the last 2 years, Newgarden dominated the 1st race in 2020 while Power led all 75 laps a day later. Last year, Power once again led 56 of 85 laps for a rout.

With Penske having 4 wins in 7 races run this season, this is a huge test for Andretti and Arrow McLaren SP.

Penske and Ganassi have 6 of the top 9 in points including 5 of the top 6 in general. They’ve won 13 out of the last 14 series titles including 9 straight.

Plus, during the Aeroscreen era (17 races) on natural road courses, both Penske and Ganassi have each won 6 times on them accounting for a 71% win rate.

However, Ganassi was pedestrian again last month and with both them and Penske electing to not test on Thursday, this could open the door for Andretti and AMSP now.

Andretti Autosport has won three times during this span on natural road courses with ECR/AMSP once each.

This year, we’ve seen 3 different organizations win on them (AMSP, Andretti and Penske). 2 of the 3 are here on Thursday. Does this further help their chances for when we come back in July to gain enough information to pass Penske?

Pato O’Ward told me last year that they’ve typically lacked the pace on natural road courses to the Andretti, Penske and Ganassi’s. With this being their Achilles Heel, can they close that gap?

O’Ward won at Barber back in early May but was 19th here in the next race and 26th in Road America. His teammate Felix Rosenqvist was 16th, 6th and 6th respectively in the same races.

O’Ward has never had a podium on this road course with his best result being 5th. He only has 3 top 10’s in 6 tries. Rosenqvist, has also never finished better than 5th in 7 career starts here.

Then you have Andretti who did win here in May but that was in the rain. Conditions on Thursday are slated to be in the upper 80s and sunny. That’s more indicative of a July date than a May one which is a great data finding test.

Plus, it’s not like Andretti was strong here in the dry conditions in May anyhow.

Friday’s practice action last month on the road course weekend featured 2 practice sessions and qualifying. All on a dry track. Romain Grosjean was their best starter in 10th but he was only 12th and 6th respectively in the pair of practices. Herta failed to get out of the first round and would start 14th. He qualified 4th, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 8th and 5th in his 6 previous IMS road course starts prior.

Rossi started 1 row behind in 16th. He was 15th and 17th respectively in practice and had his worst starting spot here since 2019. Devlin DeFrancesco would roll off 17th.

Colton Herta won in May but that was under completely different conditions than what we’ll see on Thursday and likely again next month. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

They’ve not had very good luck on this track either when its been dry so why not try something to gain some momentum back.

Prior to the 2020 Harvest Grand Prix, Marco Andretti struggled, Rossi had no podiums and just one top five, Ryan Hunter-Reay had two podiums but only three top 10’s while Herta was 23rd in his first start back in 2019 and fourth that July.

This test can go a long way into improvement for the return trip. Plus, the tracks that they tested on last year they had great races at when they came back to them.

They had a test at the World Wide Technology Raceway and Laguna Seca last year and one could say those were two of their stronger events. Ganassi tested at Portland to where Andretti didn’t and it showed in the pace at the end.

Does a test this time around help the same psyche and pace as last year?

Same can be said for Arrow McLaren SP. They did test in Portland during the summer break last year and learned a lot. They used that to help alter the course of the final half of the season. Will this help here?

This test could help move them up the needle especially with Penske and Ganassi not being on track this week here.

The other factor to this is, Rossi notes that most information from natural road courses translates well over to the others.

“I think from our stand point on the 27 side is our road course package is our road course package,” he said back in the spring. “It hasn’t really changed much from tracks. Either way we’re going to have things in our pocket to take things to other places.”

Among the final 9 races of the season, 4 of them are on natural road courses including the final 2.

For Andretti, they will have data now to take with them as well as data from Meyer Shank Racing who won’t test here like initially scheduled but the two aligned teams can share information in a sense that MSR went to Iowa on Monday to take part in the open test where Andretti decided not to.

MSR can share the Iowa data to where they were able to use both veteran drivers in Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves. Andretti has 2 rookie drivers for Iowa so it made more sense to use them on a track that they’re familiar at for the Indy road course and share all the info as an open book in the end.

It gives Andretti and MSR data for Iowa which could translate well over to World Wide Technology Raceway in August too as well as the Indy road course test which could translate over to Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca.

That would give them information for their books for 7 of the final 9 races with the 2 exceptions being street course races at Toronto and Nashville.

For AJ Foyt Racing and Paretta, this is a great day of learning.

Paretta made their debut in Road America and it was an eye opening one. Simona De Silvestro spoke on Friday of that weekend to how she had to get acclimated to the speed in these NTT INDYCAR Series machines. While it’s the same Dallara as the last time out, this was the first race away from Indy for her in the series since 2015 and her first race in general since last October. She felt like after Day 1, the car was driving her and not the other way around.

She finished a respectable 21st still. Now, she’s back in a car on Thursday and will do so again next weekend in Mid-Ohio. It’s more about repetition.

For Kyle Kirkwood and Foyt, this is a way to improve on these tracks. Foyt has finished 22-23-26, 15-26-27, 20-23-25 on natural road courses this year. They were better on the streets and ovals so why not use this as a day to look at improvement.

Of Note:

I find it interesting that Alexander Rossi is testing only in the sense that it’s a double edged sword. He’s the top Andretti car in the championship and still very much has an outside shot of a title in 2022. He also enters with some big momentum on his side. However, he’s not returning next season and will be driving for another team on the property in 2023 instead.

How much does Honda want to share with Rossi when he can take what he learned and share secrets over at AMSP and Chevrolet? I mean they’re also here this week testing too.

It puts Rossi, Andretti and Honda in a weird position because you don’t punt on a championship when things are going right. This data is crucial for Rossi and his 27 team at putting up a challenge for this year’s title. However, it could come back to bite them in the end too.

It goes to show you that there’s still adults in the room and in a paddock that’s seen the same car since 2012 and plenty of turnover to where a number of engineers and crew members have worked for numerous teams, it makes you wonder how much there truly is to learn and keep a secret anymore anyways.

Which on the opposite side of the coin, you’re testing for a reason and to find something of value too.

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