By Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer
The stars and cars of the Verizon Indycar Series recently completed a two day test at Phoenix International Raceway where the Series will return for the first time in more than a decade. It was our first opportunity to see the Chevrolet and Honda 2016 configurations head-to-head on the same track. It also offered us the first glimpse of some of the rookies in the 2016 field. Allow me to share some observations.
1) The Speeds are Incredible
Eighteen of the twenty-one drivers involved in the test ran lap times under the official track record set back in 1996. All the drivers ran laps in the sub-20 second range with a mere seven-tenths of a second separating the fastest car of Helio Castroneves from Jack Hawksworth at the bottom of the time sheet.
The re-configuration of the track, completed in 2011, has made turn two a bit less tricky for the IndyCars allowing them to run flat out all the way around in clean air.
Ganassi driver, Scott Dixon, coined the term ‘NASCAR-ified’ to refer to the current configuration of the 1-mile oval. It’s probably a good thing that a race distance of 250 miles was decided upon for the return of Phoenix to the schedule, seeing as how the race could go down at an incredible pace.
2) The Downforce Question has no Easy Answers
Worried that the current configuration might ‘stink up the show’ and see a processional race, team owner, Michael Andretti, has called for more downforce to be added to the cars.
At the same time, 2014 series champion, Will Power, is adamant that what the package needs is less downforce and an increase in horsepower. Power cited the physical demands on the driver with the current package would be phenomenal in a long green flag run.
Scott Dixon suggested that changing the downforce package at this late stage in the game would require a different tire compound, leaving Firestone precious little time to work on that issue. Dixon admitted that passing would be difficult, but not impossible.
Penske Racing’s Juan Montoya chimed in, stating that managing the traffic would be the key to victory in Phoenix.
3) A Chink in the Armor at Chevrolet?
One of the things that both Chevrolet and Honda have brought to the Verizon IndyCar series is tremendous engine reliability. A blown engine is a rare occurrence in the Series this day and age.
However, Penske Racing’s Will Power coasted into the pits during the final session as his Chevrolet engine expired in a plume of smoke. Power had run only sixteen laps on the day when the failure occurred. Couple this with the fact that his Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves had changed engines during the morning session, and one wonders if this is a worrisome pattern.
It may be coincidence, or it may be that the off-season engine development at the Chevrolet camp has produced some mechanical gremlins. This may or may not be a story to follow as the season unfolds.
4) Newgarden Won’t Miss a Step
One of the top stories of 2015 was the breakthrough of young Josef Newgarden with the merged Carpenter/Fisher/Hartman Team. The Tennessee native finished the season with two wins, one pole and four podium finishes.
In 2016 the Fisher and Carpenter merger dissolved as Wink Hartman pulled his financial support. Reverting back to Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was retained as the full-time driver.
At the end of the Phoenix Test sessions, Newgarden and teammate Ed Carpenter found themselves near the top of the time sheets, only behind the top two Penske cars.
This shows us that, even without friend and mentor, Sarah Fisher, present, Newgarden is ready to improve on his 2015 season. The Ed Carpenter Team realistically represents the biggest threat to the domination enjoyed by the Ganassi, Penske and Andretti teams.
5) Aero Kits Look Eerily Similar
The much-maligned aero-kits, now ready for their second season of competition, have undergone a refresher for 2016. Honda had a bit more leeway than Chevrolet with changes to the package, under IndyCar Rule 9.3. The rule granted Honda a few exceptions as to what could be modified due to a performance gap behind the Chevrolet runners.
However, when the cars representing both manufactures rolled off the trailers in Phoenix with their short-oval kits, they looked remarkably similar to one another.
It’s as if the manufacturers incorporated the best bits of their own configuration, while copying their rival with the other components.
The difference between the two cars will be much more subtle this year, with the predominate identifying difference being the airbox profile.
Both manufacturers came to the track with front and rear wing assemblies that are quite similar in appearance. Whether this will lead to more parity on the track remains to be seen.
The Verizon IndyCar Series kicks off their 2016 season on March 13 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Image: Chris Owens/INDYCAR