The top step of the Mazda Road To Indy left everyone impressed on Thursday at Sonoma Raceway as seven Indy Lights drivers conducted their first Verizon IndyCar Series road course test.
With six teams taking advantage of a rule that allows extra test mileage if an Indy Lights drivers is used, defending series champions Team Penske fielded two cars (for Indy Lights winner and championship contender Spencer Pigot, and former Formula 1 driver/current Formula E champion/Toronto Indy Lights polesitter Nelson Piquet Jr.), while Chip Ganassi Racing (Indy Lights race winner Sean Rayhall), Andretti Autosport (Indy Lights race winner Matt Brabham), Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Indy Lights winner and championship contender Jack Harvey), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Indy Lights winner and championship contender Ed Jones), and KVSH Racing (Indy Lights competitor Ryan Phinny) ran one driver.
The rule requires teams to use an Indy Lights driver for half the day before giving their regular IndyCar driver the other half of the test time, and with that proviso in mind, most teams sent their Lights drivers out to run the morning session from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Based on the amount of track time those drivers received in the morning, some were given additional runs to complete their 50 percent share in the afternoon.
With the split between Lights drivers, and IndyCar drivers who are preparing for the season finale at Sonoma later this month, Firestone supplied teams with two different tires. The first, a 2014-spec, was used almost exclusively by the young guns, while a newer, faster 2015-spec was saved for the IndyCar drivers. It made direct comparison of lap times a challenge, and changing ambient conditions also influenced speeds.
Barring a harmless spin by one driver who encountered dirt that had been thrown across the track by another car, the Indy Lights competitors shined in the warm Northern California sun. The most notable aspect of the test emerged as seven drivers made no notable mistakes while getting their first taste of a Chevy- or Honda-powered Indy car at a daunting circuit like Sonoma Raceway.
Ganassi’s Sean Rayhall (RIGHT) was the first car out and wasted little time feeling the power and traction offered in Charlie Kimball’s No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chevy. Rayhall could be heard lighting up the tires exiting Turn 7 and running hard through the gears like he’d been in the car for hours. Ganassi put Rayhall to work on his debut as the promising sports car and open-wheel driver turned more than 60 laps before lunch.
“This was such an incredible opportunity for me,” Rayhall told RACER. “These cars have so much downforce–and we did about 63 laps–that my cardio is fine, but my arms feel like they weigh 500 pounds. The cars are so physical to drive, but they’re so much fun and so fast that you really just have to dig in and push and fight and make sure you’re giving your best to help the team. I can’t thank Mr. Ganassi and Mike Hull, and the whole team for giving me a chance. It’s a dream come true, and to do it with such a legendary team is really humbling.”
Hull, Ganassi Racing’s managing director, was highly encouraged by Rayhall’s performance.
“Sean Rayhall demonstrated all of the things we knew he could do,” he said. “He’s almost a throwback. He’s gotten to showcase his talent in oval cars, in sports cars, and in Indy Lights, and he’s won in all of those series. He did a terrific job in the car, didn’t put a wheel wrong, his feedback was amazing, and his ethic—how to work as a teammate—was fantastic, and I think in turn, Sean got a lot out of what Chip Ganassi Racing does and how we run a team and the effectiveness a driver can create. It was truly a win-win situation for us today.”
Hull also praised the Young Guns test and said he would like to see IndyCar increase the amount of future test days allotted for Indy Lights drivers.
“I would say first of all, we looked at the rule in the rulebook and we thought it was a bit of a ruse, but after having done a day of it, I think it’s terrific,” Hull noted. “We have seven drivers, who ran all morning and into the afternoon, with real teams running them like they do their regular drivers, and it was a fantastic format. Today proved there’s a lot of value using the next wave of drivers, and if the rulebook had five or six of these, I think it would be fantastic.”
Team Penske spent most of the morning sending Spencer Pigot and Nelson Piquet Jr out in tandem with Pigot leading, and Pigot’s pace in Will Power’s No. 1 Verizon Wireless Chevy stood out as he maintained most of his gap to the former F1 pilot on multiple outings.
“It’s been great so far,” said Pigot (BELOW, with Penske engineer Dave Faustino). “It’s a blast to drive. It’s a lot different than Lights. A lot quicker, more power, downforce; I’m really enjoying it.”
When Penske’s Will Power took over the driving duties, Pigot’s education continued as he donned a radio headset and listened to the 2014 series champion work with his team to improve the car.
“It’s very interesting to listen to Will’s feedback and the communication between him and the engineers, so that’s something I can bring back to the final Indy Lights race at Mazda Raceway and hopefully it will help us be quick and win the championship,” Pigot added.
“For Spencer to come into that environment—he knows the track, but his impression was the car’s a bit faster than he’s used to, and he took to the speed right way,” said Team Penske president Tim Cindric. “He fully engaged himself within the team all day, and learning to go quick in those cars is a challenge, but he found the limits today.”
Pigot’s demeanor is a perfect fit for the Penske organization, which Cindric confirmed, and said it wasn’t a coincidence they chose Pigot to drive the No. 1 car.
“We know Spencer and his appraoch goes well with ours,” Cindric remarked. “He did a really good job of working up to it, and he knew today was more of an introduction than trying to win the test. He knows what he has to do to get to that next level of confidence. There’s more for him to find in the braking zones, but he was really good in the medium- and high-speed corners. He did everything we asked him to and finished up the day really well.”
Of all the Lights drivers, Piquet was, as one might expect, up to speed immediately and delivering exactly what Juan Montoya’s No. 2 Verizon Wireless Chevy team needed. The low-key Brazilian seemed to enjoy the experience after delivering a flawless day of work.
“It was an unexpected invitation and very welcome, for sure,” said Piquet Jr (TOP), who drives for KVSH co-owner James “Sulli” Sullivan in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, and was loaned to Team Penske before KVSH decided to attend the test.
“I’ve always had a lot of curiosity to drive one of these cars, and now I can say I did,” added the son of three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet (LEFT, with Montoya). “It was amazing. It’s a great track; I’ve never been to this track, I’ve never been in this car, so for me it was all new, but I’m having a great experience.”
Cindric said Piquet blended seamlessly into the program.
“Knowing Nelson’s experience level, we knew he’d be a good gauge for Spencer and he helped Spencer to gauge his progression against him,” he noted. “For Nelson, he was solid all day and stayed within his boundaries and gave good feedback for Juan. He actually had a better way in one corner than we’d seen, which our guys tried and found an improvement. He was certainly a contributor.”
SPM’s Jack Harvey (RIGHT) looked right at home in Ryan Briscoe’s No. 5 ARROW Electronics Honda, and gave every impression he’s ready to make the leap to IndyCar after two strong seasons in Lights. With an Indy Lights test scheduled for Friday, Harvey was forced to leave the test early, and did not get to turn as many laps as some of the other young drivers.
“Sonoma is a track I’ve gone well at in the past; last year we won both the Lights races with double poles, so I was pretty happy when I knew this was the track we’re coming to,” Harvey said. “The team has been great; they’ve given me everything I’ve needed. I’ve loved every second—every minute—of this morning’s running.”
Matt Brabham was the only Lights driver with previous IndyCar testing experience (at the Iowa oval), and it’s possible his familiarity with the car contributed to the third-generation driver locking in to a rapid succession of outings. His test was slightly hampered by mapping issues in Justin Wilson’s No. 25 Honda, but it did not limit his outright performance.”I felt good from the start,” said Harvey.
“It was awesome. Incredible. I loved it. What a racecar,” said an enthused Brabham. “My head’s in the back of the headrest (under acceleration), and my face is in the steering wheel under braking, it’s got serious grip in the corners. It’s definitely a lot of fun.”
Graham Rahal’s No. 15 Steak-n-Shake Honda welcomed Ed Jones (TOP), who was also making his debut at Sonoma Raceway. Jones, like all of the young drivers, was smart and methodical as he worked up to speed, and his professional training with the Carlin Racing team in Europe and in Lights was immediately evident.
“It’s been an amazing morning,” said Jones. “The amount of downforce is incredible. It’s all new for me. We did quite a few runs and put myself in a good position to make more progress this afternoon.”
Ryan Phinny was a blast to watch—and listen to—in Sebastien Bourdais’ No. 11 Hydroxycut Chevy as he attacked the circuit with great intensity. Wheelspin didn’t scare Phinny (LEFT), and it also made for compelling visuals as he explored his limits in a car that made use of the nose from Stefano Coletti’s No. 4 KV Chevy.
“My biggest thing right now has been consistency,” said Phinny. “Obviously speed is important, but I’ve really wanted to work on my confidence in the car and that’s what we’ve been doing. Having someone like Sebastien to compare data with and actually work with me has been a huge help. I’m happy and the team seems to be happy.”
If there was an overriding approach to the day, it was to avoid errors and provide valuable feedback. Massive displays of speed were unrealistic, thanks to the older tires, but their lap times improved as their experience grew.
Sonoma Raceway once again opened its doors to the public as a free preview of what can be found at the season finale on August 30, and with Power, Montoya, Rahal, Bourdais, Andretti, Briscoe, and Scott Dixon there to prepare for the championship showdown, fans had a nice blend of next-generation talent and current stars to follow.
SPM also welcomed Mikhail Aleshin (RIGHT) back to the family as the Russian driver, who was gravely injured in a crash 12 months ago, climbed into the No. 77 Honda in advance of his return to the series for the final round.
A look at the unofficial times in the morning gave a solid indicator of how the IndyCar regulars fared and how the Lights drivers came up to speed. IndyCar drivers dominated the activities in the afternoon, and as the times reveal, a number of Lights drivers lowered their times by a significant margin.
Harvey was fastest of all the young drivers, and with the points lead heading into the Indy Lights championship finale, Jack’s giving every indicator he’s ready for graduation.
AM Times (unofficial)
- Marco Andretti 77.5
- Juan Montoya 78.35
- Will Power 78.55
- Sebastien Bourdais 78.61
- Graham Rahal 78.93
- Jack Harvey 78.93
- Nelson Piquet Jr 79.02
- Matt Brabham 79.04
- Scott Dixon 79.12
- Spencer Pigot 79.29
- Mikhail Aleshin 79.75
- Sean Rayhall 79.96
- Ed Jones 80.77
- Ryan Phinny 81.87
PM Times (unofficial)
- Will Power 77.37
- Scott Dixon 77.45
- Marco Andretti 77.66
- Graham Rahal 77.85
- Juan Montoya 78.36
- Ryan Briscoe 78.76
- Sebastien Bourdais 78.77
- Mikhail Aleshin 78.99
- Matt Brabham 79.03
- Nelson Piquet Jr 79.58
- Ed Jones 79.97
- Sean Rayhall 80.57
- Spencer Pigot 80.93
- Ryan Phinny 82.2