The last laps of the 2018 season will be turned next week when Team Penske and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports head to Sebring.
Penske’s trio of Chevy-powered champions, Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016), and Josef Newgarden (2017) will be joined on the one-day outing by SPM newcomer Marcus Ericsson in his Honda-powered Dallara DW12.
Once the December 4 run at Sebring is complete, which serves as the final test listed on the series’ calendar, a blackout period from Dec. 15 through January 6 will have teams waiting until the new year to resume on-track preparations.
Selecting Sebring in early December — approaching the midway point in the offseason — to test was done for specific reasons, according to Penske’s new managing director.
“As you might guess, it’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision to test in December,” Ron Ruzewski told RACER. “As a group, we starting talking about where our deficiencies are months ago, decided we needed to come out of the gate better [in 2019], and felt we should concentrate on finding improvements for some of the early road and street course races. Places like St. Petersburg, even Detroit and Toronto, we felt we could do better next year, and we chose December because we didn’t want to go testing right away.”
For Ruzewski, who was promoted from his role as technical director of Penske’s IndyCar program, taking time to formulate a testing plan that will help the team to capture another championship was the top priority. Where some tests are used to pursue smaller changes and improvements, Penske is headed to Florida to work out the ways to overtake Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport when the new season kicks off in March.
“You need to spend some time with the drivers to understand our weaknesses, and we also felt like we should try some philosophies and some bigger [setup] direction changes to learn what we might’ve been missing,” he said. “And to curtail some of our development on the simulator and damper dyno testing so we can test now, get a feel for what we’ve come up with, and then use what we learned [at Sebring] to hit it hard again when we go testing again in January and February.”
Of Penske’s three IndyCar drivers, only Pagenaud has been behind the wheel — racing a Penske’s Acura ARX-05 IMSA DPi — since the Sonoma finale in September. For Power and Newgarden, the day at Sebring will come as a welcome chance to ply their trade after nearly three months of inactivity. From Ruzewski’s perspective, the quick trek to Sebring will also help the entire team to remain sharp.
“After Sonoma, all the guys needed to step away,” he added. “They did post-season debriefs, but then they all needed time to collect their thoughts, and that’s for the crew, the drivers, and the engineers. That said, once you get a chance to refresh, everybody wants to get back into it. The drivers do iRacing and simulators, and ramp up their training programs, but it isn’t the same as being in a race car.
“And independent of that, it’s important for the team to stay fresh. It’s the right time for us to answer some questions as a team, and keep all personnel focused as to what the expectations are for us. If you sit dormant too long, that first test can be somewhat wasteful because you spend so much time getting back up to speed. Not waiting too long by getting in a test before we’re into 2019 is helpful for everyone.”