By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
In preparation for the final round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series at Sonoma Raceway, practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma came to a close with the final session on Saturday.
2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud turned the fastest lap on the 2.385 mile road course in Saturday’s third practice session with a fastest lap of 1:16.0329 ahead of second place Scott Dixon’s lap of 1:16.1454.
Championship contenders Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves were third through fifth and Castroneves was only .4453 seconds off of Pagenaud’s fastest lap time.
Further down the field, IndyCar newcomers Jack Harvey and Zachary Claman DeMelo were 18th and 22nd on the time sheet. Harvey’s fastest lap was a 1:17.2646 while Claman DeMelo’s fastest lap was a 1:117.8448, his fastest of the weekend.
Going back to Friday practice, Newgarden led both sessions and it was a nearly Penske perfect day as they finished the first session 1-2-3 (Newgarden ahead of Power and Pagenaud) and the second session 1-2-3-4 (Newgarden ahead of Pagenaud, Castroneves and Power). The only discrepancy from being 1-2-3-4 in the first session was Castroneves in 8th.
Progression and Regression
A handful of drivers were able to improve their position on the time sheets in every session while some lost their footing in every session. Moving their way up the time sheet were Jack Harvey, Max Chilton, Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato and Simon Pagenaud.
Spencer Pigot and Claman DeMelo were both in their same positions of 16th and 22nd across all three sessions.
A few drivers went down the timesheet through the sessions. Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand went down on the time sheet during the sessions ahead of Saturday’s qualifying session.
What do the drivers think?
After Friday practice, the championship contenders had positive feelings about their cars, starting with Simon Pagenaud.
“The car is really good, I’m very happy with how the car behaved,” Pagenaud said. “Whether it’s on new tires or older tires, I think our pace on older tires is best to anyone right now. So I feel very confident that if we start up front, we can be gone. Adapting is going to be key to the race.”
Newgarden praised all of Team Penske for the work they had done in testing.
“I think it was a good session for us, good two sessions really,” said Newgarden. “I feel like the Penske cars are fast. We’ve had obviously a lot of test time, more than others recently. We had last week and then the Thursday, as well. So, it’s plenty of track time hopefully for us to sort out our stuff, and I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job with that, and I think that reflected in the times today from the whole team. We’re all pretty close and have a good handle, I think, on what we want. It’s a matter of putting that together (Saturday).”
Castroneves felt he had a great car but qualifying was where it would all count.
“We had a strong No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet today,” Castroneves said. “My guys have done a great job giving me a fast car. We definitely found speed but still have some areas we can improve on to get a little more out of the car. Qualifying is really key here at Sonoma, so we’re going to try some things in the practice session (Saturday) that we hope to apply to qualifying and see what happens.”
Dixon felt there was more in his car but knows that anything can happen.
“I think toward the end of the day we had a pretty rough run on the red tires and were only about two or two and a half tenths off the pace,” said Dixon. “We’re right there though and we’ll have to see how things shake out for qualifying. I think we need to bring a little more speed and see what happens. Qualifying (on Saturday) is one thing, and I think last time we won this, we qualified ninth, so anything is possible really. There is a lot that can happen especially with strategy in the race.”