5 things to watch for this week’s INDYCAR preseason test

INDIANAPOLIS — The NTT INDYCAR Series comes out of hibernation this week for the return of a preseason test. Due to COVID restrictions, the series has recently went away from this winter session in order to not taking a risk for a delayed start to the season.

Previous preseason tests have been done in Sebring, COTA, Phoenix and Barber. However, since the spring of 2020, nothing like this has been done with the full field.

Preview Video Here

Now, 27 teams will take part in the two-day session at the Thermal Club in Thermal, California.

All full-time 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers are expected to participate, including six-time series champion Scott Dixon, four-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Helio Castroneves and two-time series champion Will Power. Drivers will use a combination of the North Palm and South Palm circuits to create a 17-turn, 2.9-mile layout during the two-day test.

10 drivers and 6 organizations are represented down in Daytona for a 24 hour race this weekend Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

No Rest For The Weary

There was a plethora of INDYCAR connections down in Daytona this past weekend as those drivers and teams will have a quick turnaround to media day activities early in the week across country in California only to turn around and test their 2023 INDYCAR Dallara’s by the end of the week.

That’s a grueling stretch when you think of the Roar one weekend, a 24 hour race the next weekend, 2 days later going across country for media days and 5 days later back in the car for testing.


Speeds Are Of No Relevance

How about a hyperbole? A thing to watch on this list is actually something not to watch – the speeds.

I get why some outlets will report on speeds and will say this driver felt strong and felt comfortable, blah, blah, blah. Don’t buy what they’re selling. No one is coming out of this session panicking. No one. Everyone is going to have the normal PR speak, so I urge you to tread lightly on what you consume out of those reports.

Speeds?

Who cares. This is INDYCAR’s version of spring training or training camp or whatever you want to call it. Everyone in baseball and the NFL think that their team is championship material at that time of their respective year. Everyone. If you don’t, why play the game?

Some teams think that they’ll fly under the radar. Some will feel disrespected. Some will neume confidence. Nevertheless, this test is just a way to knock off the cobwebs, get seat time and to learn. It’s not to be broken down any further than that.

So if you see an article that states, “insert name here led the speed charts for insert session here with a breakdown of the test,” save yourself some time and just skip it. There’s nothing relevant coming out of it. A quick car in this test doesn’t mean the driver and team is on a path for a championship just like if a team is marred deep down on the speed chart are their championship hopes dashed.

Teams have varying agendas for test dates. Some may elect for full fuel runs. Others for partial. Some may run scuffed tires. Others new. Some will experiment with different maps for fuel consumption. None of which will be done simultaneously with one another. It doesn’t happen and isn’t mandated that they do so.

Which is why testing speed charts are completely irrelevant. They’re not true numbers or definite metrics because it’s not the same for everyone involved in every session.

Plus, the series won’t race on this track this season either… There’s not much you can take from Thermal and apply to other tracks on the schedule. Maybe you can get a bit of a direction on natural road courses, but again, that’s testing information for those and not all around speed.

Which is why cars on track is one thing, but to sit on the edge of your seat and basis predictions off a two-day test session at Thermal, well that’s foolish.

“Well, and I’m not sure how much it relates,” Rahal said on testing at Thermal. “Obviously we’re running a Barber tire. We know it’s going to be the Barber tire for this year, similar to the Laguna Seca tire. Who knows what the track grip is like in the dessert here.

“If you look at a lot of the corners, a lot of hairpins, a lot of slow speed corners, but then you’ve got like the end of the back straight is quite a fast left-hander. But they’re very shapes of corners, decreasing radius, on increasing radius. We don’t have any tracks that do that traditionally.

“As I look at it, we’ve got to pick and choose exactly what we get out of it, but I’m all on board for the Thermal thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m not. I think it was great to have change.

“We’ve kind of gone to the same places time and time and time and time again. It’s good to see something new.”

Josef Newgarden agreed.

“You probably shouldn’t come out of here either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance,” said the Team Penske driver. “We’re never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn’t say that. We’re not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it’s not relevant.

“What it is relevant for and what I’m excited about is just being on track. We definitely need it on the 2 car. We have a lot of new people. We’re going to maximize this time by just treating it like a race weekend in that we’re doing all the things we would do on a normal weekend to be fast and work well and efficient together. When we come out of the weekend we’ll have something to look at, what did we do well or not well. We have a good, relevant conversation piece to take into (the season opener at) St. Pete. From that standpoint it’s excellent. If we finish 15th on the charts, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.”


Is This An Audition For A New Track? Why Test Here

I ended the last point and start this one with the same theme – the track. This is the first time the series has visited it. Will it be the last? There’s discussions on if you can make this an annual landmark for the series to visit. Why not utilize spring training here and come back during the season for a full-blown points race?

However, is this place to swanky for the INDYCAR crowd too?

This is a race track that’s a version of a ritzy country club. It costs more than most average Americans make in a year just to be a member there. They don’t just let anyone on these grounds and have made so many concessions to open the doors for INDYCAR to venture out to their club for a test.

They’re loving this exposure and the value INDYCAR brings. However, for a sport that prides themselves on being the common man’s sport that features access to drivers and teams and their cars for mostly low prices, would staging a points paying race here send the wrong image and impression?

Part of me thinks so, but another part of me thinks it would make this track and a potential event something different and glamorous. What’s wrong with glaming it up a bit? While most of the fan base couldn’t afford to attend, that allure sometimes makes it more special too.

F1 pales in access to their paddock than that of INDYCAR. Good luck getting even in shouting distance of one of their drivers. But that intrigue is what sells them. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for INDYCAR to live that for this track.

Still, that’s a big IF.

If things go smoothly and the drivers and teams like the track, why not come back?

However, for this being the first and only visit this year at this track, why here and why now?

“I think this time of the year, it’s really hard to find places for us to go testing,” said Marcus Ericsson. “Usually we test at Sebring, like the short course at Sebring. I’ve only been here for four years, starting my fifth year, and I feel like I’ve done I don’t know how many days of testing at Sebring short course.

“For me this is a lot better to come here. I like lot the idea of having the pre-season testing, official testing back on the calendar to get all the teams and drivers together. For me, that gives more because testing is testing, but you can still sort of compare a little bit to your competitors, see a bit where you stand compared to the others. I think that’s a big plus.

“But, yeah, I’m happy we’re here. Like I said, I prefer this over doing private testing in Sebring like we’ve done the last couple years.”

Fellow countrymate, Felix Rosenqvist, agreed.

“I mean, honestly, I don’t know the reason why we’re going here, but I’m happy we do,” he said. “I think personally it’s always exciting to come to new tracks. It’s an amazing facility. We’re staying at the Villas inside the track area. I’ve never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks.

“I don’t know if there’s ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I’m just pumped to be in California in January. There’s worse places to be (smiling).

“Learning the track will be a good kind of lesson who’s going to get up to speed the quickest, and are we going to race here in the future maybe, are there going to be other tracks similar to this. I think the closest one we raced at is probably COTA, a smooth F1 style of layout in a way. Maybe this one is a bit smaller. We’ll see.

“I just think everyone has taken on the challenge. We haven’t really done it in the simulator, but I’ve been practicing on YouTube and stuff just to see which way it goes.

“Yeah, fun challenge.”

His new teammate Alexander Rossi agreed with both he and Ericsson’s assessments.

“It’s always a difficult situation in January, February, in the United States to find a track that’s climately appropriate,” Rossi said of why test at a track that they don’t race at. “I don’t even know if that’s a phrase. Has the appropriate climate to be at.

“But I think on top of that, not only do we have a beautiful place to come with seemingly good weather, but you’re introducing INDYCAR to obviously a demographic that has an interest in racing, with some decent capital behind them. They may not know of INDYCAR. They may have known of INDYCAR but never seen it in person.

“What we’re doing is we’re able to bring and showcase what we believe is the best series in the world in front of people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen it before.”

When looking at potential tracks on the schedule to host a preseason test, there’s truly not many.

You have to first look at climates.

St. Pete, Texas, Long Beach, Barber and Laguna Seca would be the only realistic spots to make it happen. However, St. Pete and Long Beach are off because each are street courses. Barber is a risk because COTA’s weather wasn’t very good and Barber’s climate in late winter isn’t all that much different.

Laguna could be but they already test there at the end of the season. So, you’re really just left with Texas, but does it serve any sort of purpose to test on a superspeedway when you only have 2 of them on the schedule and you get a two-day open test at Indy in April?

Which is why outsourcing your testing venues is honestly the only path.


New Faces In New Places

Half of the 8 organizations in the series will run it back with the same driver lineup as they had in 2022. RLL has Graham Rahal, Jack Harvey and Christian Lundgaard returning. Ed Carpenter Racing has both Conor Daly and Rinus VeeKay back. Same for Meyer Shank Racing with Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves. Team Penske has their three driver lineup returning.

The rest have changes.

Arrow McLaren returns both Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, but also adds Alexander Rossi from Andretti Autosport. Andretti in turn signed Kyle Kirkwood from AJ Foyt Racing to replace Rossi. Foyt will bring in 2 new drivers with Santino Ferrucci replacing the departing Kirkwood and rookie Benjamin Pedersen in favor of Dalton Kellett. It marks the 2nd time in 4 years that Foyt will roll out a completely new driver lineup.

Chip Ganassi Racing returns their top 3 drivers but is without Jimmie Johnson. Rookie Marcus Armstrong and veteran Takuma Sato will share that fourth ride. Rookie Sting Ray Robb replaces Sato with Dale Coyne Racing with it marking the 10th straight season that a new driver is in this ride. It all started in 2014 with Justin Wilson, then in 2015 and 2016 a cast of drivers, 2017 was Ed Jones, 2018 Zachary Claman De Melo and Pietro Fittipaldi and Santino Ferrucci shared the seat, 2019 was Ferrucci full-time in it, 2020 was Alex Palou, 2021 was Romain Grosjean and Fittipaldi and 2022 was Sato. 2023 the keys are handed to Robb.

Another rookie on the grid is Agustin Canapino who is handed the keys to the 2nd Juncos Hollinger Racing entry.

Those are the new faces in new places this upcoming season.


Alex Palou celebrates his win in last year’s season finale Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

How Much Information Is Shared With Palou?

In saying that speed charts don’t matter, one nugget to watch is the atmosphere around Alex Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing. Ganassi now has clarity that he’s likely not keeping Palou past this year, so wouldn’t he get excluded for most things within those walls? Why have him sit in on strategy or R&D meetings and get too much data for this test? Why would Ganassi and Honda for that matter want Palou taking new details to McLaren and the Chevrolet camps respectively? You know Alexander Rossi has some info from Andretti and Honda he took with him, why would Chevy want Palou taking Ganassi’s secrets too?

So what does that do to him?

He struggled with the drama was circulating this past year. Prior to the drama surfacing, Palou had 3 podiums in the opening 4 races of the season. He then had just two Top-5 finishes over the next 12 races. When a settlement was to be had, Palou won by a half-of-a-minute in the season finale at Laguna Seca.

He showed what he is capable of if operating with full resources and also showed what he is made of when he’s not. Which is why I’m curious what that aspect looks like between he, Ganassi and Honda in 2023. They can legitimately win a title this season if they go full bore. But the question is, do they?

He said that he has all his access back again and that things are going as well as ever with the team. However, how long does it stay that way?

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