Should we read anything into IndyCar Sebring test times?
Two group tests at Sebring Raceway’s short course this week were the closest IndyCar came to holding Spring Training in 2022. But can we truly draw conclusions from the times we saw? David Malsher-Lopez reports.
As is well known, the 1.7-mile, 13-turn short course at Sebring is the nearest that IndyCar squads can get to testing on a street course, its bumps and curbs able to send the chassis into paroxysms, and putting a team’s shock and damper program under the spotlight.
“Yeah, it’s not bad – the best representation we’ve got of a street course,” said one driver. “The two things it helps with, as a driver, are  learning how to make the right calls for keeping the car in the window as the track constantly evolves as more and more rubber goes down. And then  power-down out of turns, when it’s slippery at the start of the day and when it’s rubbered up near the end of a test day… I reckon that’s pretty similar across all street tracks. There’s always bumps to deal with, so if it goes light, you get wheelspin, so you need the rear tires really digging in and finding traction. Testing at Sebring can point you in the right direction there.
“But it’s never going to tell you everything you need to know for street courses. Like, you’d have to really turn in early, go across the curbs, to represent the shit we have to deal with on the racing line in Detroit…”
Still, with five of this year’s 17 races being held on temporary courses, any data gleaned from Sebring is valuable to individual drivers and race engineers. Comparative data within a team will also prove helpful as those involved will know how much fuel weight and tire life needs to be built into the performance calculations. But team-to-team judgments are near-impossible.
Also note that there were discrepancies from our four sources for three of the cars involved, so we have gone with the consensus.
Without touching the push-to-pass boost, Colton Herta topped the times for Andretti Autosport-Honda on Monday with a time 0.17sec faster than that of his new teammate Romain Grosjean. But even if we were to rate their talents absolutely on par, that gap is hardly unusual, even on a roughly 52sec lap. Grosjean is still learning about Andretti’s baseline setup – it’s quite different from that of his former employer, Dale Coyne Racing – and even though he loves it, he was concentrating on the basics. The kind of finessing that finds a driver a few hundredths of a second – or even a tenth if he’s lucky – weren’t on his agenda. For example, Motorsport.com has learned that he and race engineer Olivier Boisson didn’t adjust the front wing, for example. He might have matched Herta’s time then… but then again, maybe something that Herta didn’t try might have put him further ahead of the pack.
And what of their teammates? Well, Alex Rossi is not 0.45sec slower than Herta around a 52sec lap, as Monday’s times suggest, but it only takes a mistake in one corner on his best lap to stretch the gap between them.
What’s most encouraging is that Devlin DeFrancesco, who most felt would have benefited from a second year in Indy Lights, was very much in the ballpark, matching Rossi’s time to the hundredth of a second in the afternoon. He’s a scrapper, is DeFrancesco, but in junior formulas he was also regarded as scrappy, someone who needed to tidy up his style to find those vital tenths that would make him a frontrunner. One day of testing at Sebring can’t prove he’s cured his ills, but he was also better than expected in his tests last fall at Sebring and Barber Motorsports Park, so race engineer Andy Listes appears to have someone worth molding. Occasionally, there’s a driver who simply finds his best form in more powerful cars, and we don’t have long to wait to see if DeFrancesco is that kinda guy.
It’s no surprise to see the fastest Chevrolet driver, Josef Newgarden of Team Penske about a quarter-second off the ultimate pace, since slow turns – the engine’s driveability on exit, to be more precise – have never been the strongest part of the Bowtie’s game. He was 0.13sec ahead of teammate Will Power but then Sebring has traditionally not been a track where the Aussie veteran shines.
What is encouraging is that behind them, Felix Rosenqvist matched Arrow McLaren SP-Chevy teammate Pato O’Ward, the Swede continuing on his improved form from late 2021. It should be noted that O’Ward’s best lap was recorded in the morning, unlike the majority of test participants, so he probably missed his prime moment in the afternoon. But that is not to dismiss Rosenqvist’s efforts: in preseason testing last year, he was way off his teammate’s times as he grappled with AMSP’s very front-downforce-heavy setup.
Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey set all-but-identical times for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda, but were 0.4sec faster than the team’s newest recruit Christian Lundgaard. That is not something we’d expect to see this year and we understand the Dane was on a different program.
A final highlight of the times – with all the usual caveats in place, of course – was the performance of Kyle Kirkwood in the AJ Foyt Racing-Chevy. He’s told Motorsport.com that he’s been impressed with the team’s damper program, and also the team is more than happy to follow the rookie’s wish to dial out the car’s understeer that his predecessor Sebastien Bourdais favored.
Fastest times without push-to-pass, Monday
|1||Colton Herta||Andretti Herta Autosport-Honda||51.85|
|2||Romain Grosjean||Andretti Autosport-Honda||52.02|
|3||Josef Newgarden||Team Penske-Chevrolet||52.09|
|4||Will Power||Team Penske-Chevroelt||52.22|
|5||Felix Rosenqvist||Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet||52.23|
|6||Pato O'Ward||Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet||52.25|
|7||Graham Rahal||Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda||52.26|
|8||Jack Harvey||Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda||52.28|
|9=||Alexander Rossi||Andretti Autosport-Honda||52.30|
|9=||Devlin DeFrancesco||Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport-Honda||52.30|
|11||Scott McLaughlin||Team Penske-Chevrolet||52.32|
|12||Kyle Kirkwood||AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet||52.39|
|13||David Malukas||Dale Coyne Racing with HMD-Honda||52.43|
|14||Kevin Magnussen||Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda||52.46|
|15||Callum Ilott||Juncos Hollinger Racing-Chevrolet||52.48|
|16||Tatiana Calderon||AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet||52.54|
|17||Christian Lundgaard||Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda||52.66|
Simon Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing Honda
Photo by: IndyCar Series
“Jack Harvey’s a very good driver, but why was he so excited to leave Shank and go to Rahal’s team?” remarked one entirely objective paddock luminary after spying Tuesday’s Sebring times, with 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud on top, a few hundredths quicker than Meyer Shank Racing teammate Helio Castroneves. “I think Jack needed to be a bit more patient, give it another year – because I reckon he’s quit Meyer Shank at exactly the wrong time, and he’s going to be kicking himself…”
This observation came from a man who knows as well as anyone that Sebring test times have too many variables to make a completely sound judgment, but Simon Pagenaud was left very satisfied by the handling of his MSR car, and the power delivery of his Honda, after seven years in a Penske-Chevrolet.
Annoyingly, Andretti Autosport and Penske weren’t present on Tuesday to provide a handy reference point. So if Pagenaud’s fastest lap looks worryingly adrift of Herta’s Monday time, well, that’s typical Sebring and why day-to-day comparisons can’t be made. On Tuesday the drivers were having to deal with very tricky wind conditions, the kind one encounters on a flat, unshielded former Army base airfield, and not representative of any street courses on the calendar, save perhaps the main straight at St. Petersburg (which is also part of an airport).
Marcus Ericsson is on a confidence high at the moment, so it’s no surprise to see him a tad faster than his champion teammates in the Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, regardless of slightly different programs for the day. Worries over VeeKay’s form in the second half of last year (not worries that either he or the team expressed, it must be noted) after his clavicle-busting bike shunt, can appear to be put to rest, as he turned the fastest Chevy lap of the day.
And right behind him was the remarkable Kirkwood/Foyt/Chevy combo. Notwithstanding our resistance to reading too much into these test times, it will be a surprise if the reigning Indy Lights champion fails to qualify in the top 12 for his IndyCar debut next week.
Given that they are the only team flying solo, Juncos Hollinger Racing and Callum Ilott deserve much kudos for being only 0.42sec off Pagenaud’s best time.
Meanwhile, Takuma Sato’s first ever test with Dale Coyne Racing saw him finish the day a few hundredths behind his rookie teammate David Malukas, who of course had got dialed in the previous day. We suspect they’ll be closely matched on road and street courses throughout the season, which is a compliment to both the 20-year-old and the 45-year-old.
So, should we draw conclusions from this test? Absolutely not. Can we see any indicators of patterns emerging? Yes… but not enough to provide a hard-and-fast form guide for next week’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg,
Fastest times without push-to-pass, Tuesday
|1||Simon Pagenaud||Meyer Shank Racing-Honda||52.11|
|2||Helio Castroneves||Meyer Shank Racing-Honda||52.19|
|3||Marcus Ericsson||Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda||52.21|
|4||Rinus VeeKay||Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet||52.27|
|5||Kyle Kirkwood||AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet||52.28|
|6||Scott Dixon||Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda||52.32|
|7||Alex Palou||Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda||52.33|
|8||Conor Daly||Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet||52.41|
|9||Callum Ilott||Juncos Hollinger Racing-Chevrolet||52.53|
|10||David Malukas||Dale Coyne Racing with HMD-Honda||52.72|
|11||Takuma Sato||Dale Coyne Racing with RWR-Honda||52.80|
|12||Jimmie Johnson||Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda||52.95|
|13||Dalton Kellett||AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet||53.03|
|14||Tatiana Calderon||AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet||53.05|
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