Speeds irrelevant, but was Thursday’s test the start of a potential future at Thermal, the drivers talk opening day of the season

The NTT INDYCAR Series season is here. Well, sort of. This weeks two-day test in Southern California is the equivalent to baseball’s Spring Training. Nothing truly to be gained. Nothing truly to be lost. Minimal expectations.

These four combined sessions are more or less about shaking off the cobwebs and getting back into a routine again.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” said Thursday’s quickest on the timing charts, Colton Herta. “It’s quite a long off-season without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.”

When pressed on if its a great start for Andretti Autosport to have two cars in the top four of the speed charts, Herta wasn’t biting. He, as the quickest driver in both sessions, literally couldn’t have cared less about that feat.

“Yeah, it’s too early,” he admitted. “It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell.”

Herta even went as far to say that it really doesn’t even matter what data you get this weekend because it won’t translate over to any of the other tracks on the schedule either.

“No, not really,” he said. “The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in INDYCAR. I don’t know, what, it’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses.

“But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go to.”

He wasn’t the only one saying this.

Most drivers admitted during this week’s pair of Content Days, that they didn’t think that this track would really give way for true data to look at as this was more about getting back in the car again. They even admitted most had not been in a race car since they last hopped out of their ride in Laguna Seca last September. Defending series champion, Will Power, is one of them.

In regards to the test then, it was less about pace, more about shaking these cars down.

“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.”

My eyes are in if Thursday and Friday’s long test sessions could be a precursor of a return to the Thermal Club in the future. That’s the real story now here. Thats if this 17-turn, 3.067-mile layout, has a potential for a return trip.

“It was good. I like this place,” said Callum Ilott after 5.5-hours of testing on Thursday. “It’s a big mix of slow speed, long corners, high speed. I think not very forgiving if you do go wrong. No one has put in the wall yet. That’s a good sign.

“It sets a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series. It’s really, really high level, high tech. As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners.

“Yeah, I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Rookie Marcus Armstrong says that this track actually reminds him more of his European days than anything here in America. Could be a big reason as to why he was the quickest rookie on Day 1.

 “I would love to race here,” he said. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners.

“As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

If a race could take place here, then the series would have a couple problems to address first. One of them would be how to ensure that the series would put on a good show.

While the fact that it’s a fun track to drive, it may not necessarily be a real fun place to “race.” If the drivers learned anything on Thursday it’s that it may not lend a very helpful hand in terms of actual on track passing. That could pose to be a concern for what surely would be a made for TV event.

“In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking,” Armstrong continued. “You’d have to commit hard maybe turn one, wherever you want really. Yeah, you’d have to commit hard. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake.

Colton Herta led the way in testing on Thursday but the speeds were irrelevant. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Ilott echoed the Chip Ganassi Racing drivers’ sentiments.

“I think the overtaking, we’ll find a way, we’re INDYCAR, someone always sends it down the inside,” he said. “I think if we can extend the straight and get some maybe between turn six and seven some overtaking. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.”

One aspect that could help is a tire that falls off quick over the course of a run.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and INDYCAR still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

Herta says that the track seems to be interested in putting the money into the place to bring INDYCAR back, but if the series does truly return, then the second issue that could arise is that the track really does have some updates that are needed.

 “For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work,” Herta admitted. “They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

As far as a main area to fix, Ilott says that in order to come back in an official capacity, then the Armco wall would need some updating too.

“I think the ARMCO might propose a little bit of an issue,” he said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously.

“It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“Yeah, I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Herta’s top time of 1 minute, 39.3721 seconds was set during the afternoon session in the No. 26 Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian. Herta also led the morning session at 1:39.9303, the only driver under 1:40 in that session.

Christian Lundgaard, the 2022 series Rookie of the Year, started his second full season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing by ending up second in the No. 45 Honda at 1:39.3767, just .0046 of a second behind Herta.

2021 series champion Alex Palou was third at 1:39.3970 in the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, .0249 of a second behind Herta. Romain Grosjean continued the traffic jam near the top, ending up fourth at 1:39.4826 in the No. 28 Honda, putting two Andretti Autosport cars in the top four as the team looks to rebound from a challenging 2022 season.

Reigning and two-time series champion Will Power rounded out the top five at 1:39.5690 in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet, the leading Chevy-powered driver.

Less than one second separated the top 18 drivers today overall.

Testing will continue Friday from noon-2:30 p.m. ET and 4-7:30 p.m. ET. Live timing is available at racecontrol.indycar.com, with more content at indycar.com and INDYCAR’s digital channels on all major social platforms.

This is the series’ first preseason open test since the 2020 test at Circuit of the Americas and INDYCAR’s first appearance at The Thermal Club, a private, world-class facility located just outside Palm Springs, California. The 470-acre property opened in 2012 and is known as a premier circuit for club racers and sports car enthusiasts.

Kyle Kirkwood was second quickest in the morning session at 1:40.0236 as he made an impressive debut in the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda after driving for AJ Foyt Racing as a rookie in 2022. But Kirkwood turned no laps in the afternoon session due to a clutch change by the Andretti Autosport crew.

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