IRL: Castroneves flies in Sonoma

The Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series teams and drivers took their first laps on the 12-turn, 2.26-mile Infineon Raceway Sears Point road course today under clear, cool and windy skies. Eighteen drivers took 671 laps over a three-hour period without major incident.

Helio Castroneves.
Photo by Kurt Dahlstrom.
Taking on new tires after running out of methanol late in the day, Helio Castroneves emerged at the top of the charts on his final of 44 laps in the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota/Firestone entry at 105.418mph. "Unbelievable!" he exclaimed. After taking a few reconnaissance laps in a rental car, "Then you're a few inches off the ground and wow, the difference. I could not see anything.

"This is a hard track to drive," Castroneves admitted. "Because of the elevation changes and the different styles of corner. The track should be even better tomorrow because we've only done half a day. The strange thing is," he continued, "that you think you know where you're going and boom! You end up in the grass."

Like most everyone else, Castroneves intended to run only one set of Firehawk tires this afternoon, but when faced with the opportunity to improve his practice speed, the Brazilian and his team opted to make the change. "I was pretty fortunate not to have any traffic," he said.

Second place went to rookie Ryan Briscoe in the #33 Team Target Panoz/Toyota who used his 31st of 38 laps to run 104.610mph. The Australian, who never did change tires during the afternoon, called the Infineon circuit "a great track. It was quite amazing elevation changes and it's a good track to drive on," Briscoe said. He had been fastest in the League's initial open test at Homestead-Miami Speedway this January.

Ryan Briscoe.
Photo by Todd Corzett.

The sole IndyCar Series driver to take laps here prior to this open test, Dario Franchitti's #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda came third, as the Scot's eighth lap (of 28) yielded a speed of 104.461mph. Franchitti believes "you need a lot of commitment at this circuit. Every corner is so different that you must have compromise with driver and car set-up. It's almost like a street course," Franchitti stated.

Buddy Rice took a total of 49 laps around the Infineon Raceway course in his #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda and turned the fourth quickest speed on lap 45 at 104.159mph. Building on what he learned in St. Petersburg, Rice believes "We're not going to get too excited about results from a test, but looking ahead this is a good sign for our team when we come back in August."

Fifth in the #8 Delphi Panoz/Honda, Scott Sharp used his final and 44th lap to run 103.981mph. "I feel like we've been trying to catch up on the road courses," Sharp admitted. "We learned a lot today and we've got the car working pretty good. I love this track," the veteran explained. "Infineon is an awesome driver's track. You get so much thrown at you and the team; it's a challenge" to get a quick lap.

Tony Kanaan.
Photo by Kurt Dahlstrom.
Tony Kanaan's #11 Team 7/Eleven Dallara/Honda took 34 laps on this road course for a sixth best overall and 25th lap of 103.978mph. Scott Dixon's 35th and final lap in the #9 Team Target Panoz/Toyota came in at 103.892mph, good for seventh. Dan Wheldon was eighth with the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda at 103.697mph, also on his final, 27th lap.

Sam Hornish Jr. spent some time off the track as he continues his learning curve in the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota and he was ninth at 103.670mph, the quick tour coming on his 29th of 40 total laps. Still, the Ohioan thought his "car handled well today. I flat-spotted a set of tires early this afternoon so we couldn't do a sticker run late in the day," he explained.

Patrick Carpentier, who is sharing the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota with teammate Alex Barron (who has the wheel tomorrow) rounded out the top ten at 103.560mph on his 44th of 53 total laps. Despite making "many improvements all day, we are still lacking some grip in the rear of the car over the bumps."

Jeff Bucknum is off to Road Atlanta tomorrow for the American Le Mans Series race and used his innate knowledge of this track to help set up the #24 Investment Properties of America/Racing for Kids Dallara/Honda for teammate Roger Yasukawa.

Bucknum was having issues getting the rear of the car to stick but felt comfortable enough to cede the seat to Yasukawa late in the afternoon. Bucknum's speed of 102.752mph on his 31st of 33 laps was good for 14th; Yasukawa had time for only six laps and was slowest at 99.226mph.

Signed to assist IndyCar Series latecomers Vision Racing in accelerating its learning curve, Roberto Moreno got behind the wheel of the #20 Dallara/Toyota this afternoon and began to prepare the car for regular driver Ed Carpenter. "I'm here to help any way that I can," the veteran explained after running 15th over 37 laps.

Roberto Moreno.
Photo by Kurt Dahlstrom.
"These cars remind me of the good days in Formula One from the late 1980s and early 1990s," Moreno remarked. "They have a lot of grip and a fantastic feel. I had so much fun today, more than I've had since those Formula One days."

As the track rubbers in tomorrow with more and more laps turned, times should plummet. Since most of the drivers are here at Infineon Raceway Sears Point for the first time, today's test session was one for acclimatization.

"This track is good for our cars," Vitor Meira noted after exiting his #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda. "This track is not easy to drive; you really have to make an effort. "The key," he believes, "is getting through turn six (The Carousel), a fourth-gear turn. You spend a lot of time in that corner, the biggest chunk of time there."

The Indy cars have a full day of practice on the Infineon road course tomorrow before packing up and heading for Twin Ring Motegi and the Japan Indy 300, race #4 in the 16-event campaign for the Indy Racing League's tenth anniversary season.