AUSTIN, Texas – If 11 hours and more than 8,000 miles of on-track testing over two days showed anything, it’s that the NTT IndyCar Series fits in marvelously at the sparkling Circuit of The Americas and the competition will be deep and intense in the 2019 season.
Twenty-five drivers completed 2,367 laps at INDYCAR Spring Training, the only officially mandated testing prior to the NTT IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10. Rookie driver Colton Herta surprised many by turning the fastest lap on the 3.41-mile permanent road course and topping the timesheet in three of the four sessions in the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda.
Savvy veterans were close on Herta’s heels, however, with Alexander Rossi, who led Wednesday’s final session, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud rounding out the top five on the combined-session speed chart. It left drivers and fans alike itching for the season to begin and the return next month for the INDYCAR Classic on March 24, the first Indy car race hosted by COTA.
“The track is phenomenal,” said Power, the 2014 series champion and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner driving the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “I love it, love it, love it! Very technical, obviously a lot of complexes. … Great facilities, all the drivers are stoked to be here.”
Herta, the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires runner-up who made his NTT IndyCar Series debut for Harding Steinbrenner Racing in last year’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway, set the overall best lap of 1 minute, 46.6258 seconds (115.132 mph) in Tuesday’s afternoon session. The 18-year-old Californian backed it up by leading Wednesday’s practices and running second to Rossi in the afternoon session..
“This track just suits my driving style a lot,” Herta said. “The team has been working really hard to get the car where it needs to be. Obviously, they’ve made really big gains in the winter time compared to last year, and we’re kind of seeing that. Really stout job by the boys.”
Herta and fellow NTT IndyCar Series rookies the likes of Felix Rosenqvist (sixth on the combined speed chart), Marcus Ericsson and Santino Ferrucci have only added depth to a full-season field of drivers already considered the deepest in motorsports.
“Every year it just gets better and better, which is a testament obviously to the series and the value that drivers are placing on it,” said Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner and 2018 NTT IndyCar Series championship runner-up. “We’ve seen guys come over from Europe, which is a super positive thing. I would completely agree that 2019 will be the most competitive season that I’ve been a part of.
“If you look at the top 15, top 20, in reality there are a lot of really good guys. That’s pretty much unlike any other series when you look at it, and I fully expect there to be 10 to 12 guys every single weekend to beat in the race.”
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series calendar features 17 races, all airing live on NBC or NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Opening with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10 (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and followed by the INDYCAR Classic at COTA on March 24 (1 p.m., NBCSN), the schedule is highlighted by the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26 (11 a.m., NBC) and closes with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (2:30 p.m., NBC).