Saturday, February 27, 2016

What Did We Learn From IndyCar's Phoenix Test?

Two days and nights of on-track are in the books from Phoenix International Raceway. With the season opener a fortnight away, what can we take away from the first official test of the season?

1. The Chevrolets Are Still Quicker Than Honda
But not by much. Hélio Castroneves ran the fastest lap of the two days at 19.2735 seconds with his Penske teammate Simon Pageant 0.0149 seconds back. The Ed Carpenter Racing pair of Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter were third and fourth, 0.0182 seconds and 0.0581 seconds back respectively. Marco Andretti was the fastest Honda over the two days at 19.3351 seconds and Ryan Hunter-Reay was the only other Honda in the top ten, 0.1251 seconds behind Castroneves.

The Honda engines used at this test did not have the 2016 performance upgrades, which are due for the season opener. How much are those upgrades worth? Who knows? Will they give the Honda's an extra tenth or two or are we talking a few hundredths of a second? Either way, Honda got its wish and was allowed to tweak their aero kits and in my eyes, now it's time for Honda to work for that extra tenth. If anything, Honda should realize that while Chevrolet won every pole position in 2015, there were plenty of races where Chevrolets just fell to the back and Hondas moved to the front.

I am sure the politicking will go back and forth between the two manufactures all season. Which brings us to point two.

2. Downforce Has Become a Battleground
Michael Andretti wants more of it. Will Power wants less and wants the turbo boost turned up to road and street course levels.

Both are saying they are looking out for the show just like politicians saying they are thinking about the children.

I don't know whom to believe. Could Michael Andretti be saying "more downforce" because he knows Honda can compete in terms of downforce and Chevrolet has the advantage in terms of sheer horsepower? I can't imagine how these teams could get more downforce generated. Did Michael Andretti not see the times that were posted?

Personally, I am with Power. Turn up the turbo boost, take off downforce and force the drivers to lift in the corners and really drive the cars.

To be fair to both Andretti and Power, we haven't seen how these cars race after tires degradation. The good news is we are getting to these problems in February, five weeks prior to the Phoenix race instead of during the race weekend. New vice president of competition Bill Pappas has already talked about removing downforce. I am sure a solution will be found before the race weekend.

3. The Track Record Was Shattered
A lot of people wondered how fast these cars could go at Phoenix and whether the track record was in danger entering this test. Arie Luyenduk's twenty-year-old track record (granted on a different configuration), was broken by 18 of the 21 drivers who took to the track this weekend. Castroneves, Pagenaud and Newgarden were all over three-tenths quicker. The top seven from the test all ran laps over the 190 MPH average.

Depending on what the aero package is when the series returns in April, that track record could officially fall.

4. Gabby Chaves Passed the Audition
Mikhail Aleshin couldn't enter the United States due to visa issues and that opened the door for Gabby Chaves to substitute for the Russian in the #7 Honda. While Chaves was 17th fastest with his best lap clocking in at 19.5699 seconds, he showed that he deserves a sophomore season and deserves it now.

Unfortunately for Chaves, IndyCar rides don't grow on trees. I bet Sam Schmidt wants to reward Chaves for stepping up at the last minute and being so competitive but that's not going to happen. If only that Colombian coffee company that back Carlos Huertas would sponsor Chaves. Perhaps Chaves could become the road/street course driver in the #20 Chevrolet as that has yet to be announced the full-time status of that car appears to hang in the balance. I hope the 2015 Rookie of the Year returns for an extended period in 2016.

5. The Rookies Held Their Own
While Spencer Pigot and Alexander Rossi were spectators, Max Chilton and Conor Daly were on the track and neither put a wheel wrong.

Chilton was 18th but only 0.2964 seconds behind Castroneves. Daly was 20th but only 0.4755 seconds back. With the field being so close, being toward the bottom of the speed chart isn't necessarily a bad sign. Both gained experience and that is what matters most entering the season.

6. A Lot of People Showed Up When It Was Free. Now, How Many Will Open Their Wallets?
The crowd was so big for this test that the track had to open another parking lot for fans. That sounds great but this is a free test. How many will shell out $50-$75 for two tickets? I was wondering if the track would be selling tickets during the test and I hope they were. I don't know what the crowd will be like. Anything in the 25,000-30,000 range should be taken as a victory by both the track and the series considering it has been 11 years since IndyCar last raced at the track. It's a little late for a title sponsor to jump on but that is something the track and series will need, along with a healthy size crowd, for this race to become a regular occurrence on the schedule.

7. Everyone Is Glad To Be In Phoenix
The Beatles' "Long, Long, Long" should be played prior to the first practice on April 1st. Phoenix is one of the handful of tracks people can't believe IndyCar has been away from for so long. This is a track that is apart of IndyCar's identity and yet IndyCar let it go. IndyCar has had great races on short tracks and the fact there aren't five or six on the schedule is hard to fathom. IndyCar should have figured out a way to make Milwaukee work (Step one: Not moving it to a different weekend every year and at a different time of the day). Along with Phoenix, Iowa and Milwaukee, IndyCar should be at Richmond, Loudon and Gateway as well as return to Fontana and Michigan and experiment with Darlington because I think we would all like to see what IndyCars at Darlington would look like. IndyCar need to find a way to work with these tracks.

It takes years for a race to build a following and they can't be abandoned after three or four tough years. These venues that actually exist and have roots in the ground are the venues IndyCar should be going to if it hopes to grow and not street circuits, which have a shelf life that is shorter than skim milk (Boston, Baltimore, Houston, I am looking at you).

8. Announcing a Driver is Returning is Not a "Big Announcement."
KV Racing tweeted they had a "big announcement" prior to today's test and that "big announcement" turned out to be that Sébastien Bourdais would be returning for another season. That's not a big announcement. You don't know invite your parents over for dinner to tell them that you are your spouse are still married. You do that when a child is on the way or someone got a promotion. The Baltimore Ravens aren't going to have an announcement that Joe Flacco is returning as starting quarterback.

Want to know what a "big announcement" is? KV changing its mind and running a second car for Gabby Chaves after seeing how good he ran on Friday. Or announcing an Indianapolis 500 entry for someone along the lines of Townsend Bell. Or doing something spectacular and announcing that KV is bringing a third engine manufacture into IndyCar for the 2017 season.

Those all would fall in the category of big announcement. Announcing the driver you have had for the last two seasons is returning for a third isn't a big announcement.

With that cleared up, we can now turn our eyes to the final two weeks of the IndyCar offseason. Teams will be testing in Sebring later this week. Two weeks. Two more weeks.