It was wet, it was dry, and it was certainly cold on Wednesday at Circuit of The Americas where 2019 COTA polesitter Will Power flexed his muscles to lead the field of 27 NTT IndyCar Series drivers in 25 cars at the Open Test.
The Team Penske driver led the six hours of running with a 1m46.7603s in the No. 12 Chevy, followed by Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (+0.2396s) and the stunning rookie Scott McLaughlin, whose pace in the No. 2 Penske Chevy (+0.5027s) was good enough for third on his debut alongside the rest of the field. Reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden was a whisker slower than McLaughlin (+0.5147s) and Rossi’s teammate Colton Herta, the defending COTA race winner, completed the top five in his No. 88 Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Honda (+0.6069s).
“It always feels great,” Power said of leading the first session of the new year. “It’s good for all my guys to see if we have the pace and definitely went through as many items as we could. Obviously, it’s very rushed at the end there with red flags and everything, so didn’t get everything done, but some of the big stuff that we need to know.”
Centered between the Chevy-powered cars, Rossi was pleased with his No. 27 Honda’s pace. With the series running until 6 p.m., just 17 minutes before sundown, glare on the new aeroscreens posed a new challenge for the Californian and others to overcome.
“It was obviously great to finally get back on track,” he said of the long winter layoff. “The waiting around for weather was hard, but I think the team did a good job. We got through a lot of our run plan with no dramas, despite the delays. The aeroscreen was tentatively less dramatic than everyone was expecting it to be, and didn’t have any real issues until some slight, reflection issues at the end which we should be able to rectify. So that was positive. We worked through a good test list and found a pretty decent place in adapting the car with the 2020 needs within a half day. Generally, pretty happy.”
McLaughlin was feeling the physical effects of lapping the busy road course with north of 4,500 pounds of downforce and 700-plus horsepower to wrangle. He’ll make use of all he learned when May’s Indianapolis Grand Prix arrives on his IndyCar race debut.
“It’s fast, it’s so much grip,” the New Zealander said. “It’s hard on your neck and everything, and your body, but I’ve been training really hard for this, to get a bit ready for it. Really happy with the car so far. I felt really comfortable, and my seating position and all that sort of stuff’s really good. So that’s ideal, because I’m not going to have many times in this car before the Indy GP.”
Power, along with the rest of the drivers, adapted to having the 58-pound aeroscreen cockpit protection device mounted atop the chassis, which posed some new engineering puzzles for teams to solve.
“It’s definitely a lot more weight up high and forward,” the Australian said. “So you’ve got to work out what makes the car work well with that and it’s still early days. I mean, you’ll go through the whole season changing, and switching [setups], and trying to work it out. But I think we’re in a good window right now.”
Outside of McLaughlin’s shocker, it was fellow rookies Oliver Askew from Arrow McLaren SP in seventh, (+0.8008s) and Dale Coyne Racing’s Alex Palou in ninth (+0.9467s), who was unable to set a similar new-tire lap late in the day, who sent a clear message that IndyCar’s youth movement it only gaining momentum.
Add in Carlin Racing’s Felipe Nasr, who was 10th at the time in less favorable track conditions when he stepped out of the No. 31 Chevy, and there’s another reason to be excited about what the future might hold for the series.
With poor weather delaying the proper start to the day’s activities, IndyCar opted to scrap its plans for holding two separate sessions in favor of giving teams one long window — starting at approximately 11:50 a.m. — where a total of 1,480 laps were turned in changing conditions.
Once the track and ambient temperature combined to reach 100 degrees, many of IndyCar’s younger drivers ventured out first on Firestone’s wet tires to navigate the 20-turn circuit that was mostly dry. As the session progressed, and the air warmed to 55 degrees or so, the field traded wets for Firestone’s primary black tires and got within a reasonable distance to last year’s pole time of 1m46.011s. Power’s 2019 pole, it’s worth noting, came when the series allowed cars to maintain a higher rate of speed through Turn 19 by running beyond the exit curbing; the practice is disallowed in 2020.
According to the on-board data systems, forcing drivers to take the slower, intended path through Turn 19 cost 0.2 seconds per lap and dialed peak cornering speed down by 10mph. Adjusting Power’s best lap from today on Firestone blacks, rather than the faster reds reserved for qualifying, he was a half-second or so shy of his pole-winning time.
A mad dash following a red flag with one hour left saw the field head out on new tires to post their fastest laps of the day where Power took P1 with the 1m46.7, and with another red pausing the action with 30 minutes remaining on the clock, the process repeated itself as McLaughlin shot to third with the 1m47.2. The final red arrived with 15 minutes to go, yet consumed enough time to leave a single flying lap on the clock, which did not afford enough time to generate heat in the tires to displace the leaders.
A few stalls were seen once the session got going as Marco Andretti’s car ground to a halt on the exit of pit lane. His No. 98 Honda was taken back to the garage where his crew tore into the rear of the car to address the issue. Penske’s McLaughlin fared slightly better by making it to the top of the hill before his No. 2 Chevy fell silent. Both instances led to red flags, which were quickly resolved.
Two hours later, McLaughlin authored another red flag with a harmless spin atop Turn 1, which took some time before the Kiwi was able to get moving and return to the pits. Adding to the reds for spins or stalls throughout the day, Alexander Rossi, Marcus Ericsson, Rinus VeeKay, Santino Ferrucci, Colton Herta, Sergio Sette Camara, and Pato O’Ward made for a busy day of recoveries by the AMR Safety Team.
Two teams split their efforts on Wednesday as A.J. Foyt Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais logged 35 laps and posted the fastest lap of the session before handing the No. 14 Chevy over to Canadian rookie Dalton Kellett. Like Bourdais, Carlin’s Felipe Nasr also took the early shift in slower conditions with the No. 31, recording 49 laps prior to countryman Sergio Sette Camara climbing in for his maiden IndyCar outing.
For Kellett, who completed 17 laps, his best was 4.2s off of Power’s time set in the same conditions. Camara’s first 26 laps in an Indy car brought him to within 1.7s of Power.