The NTT INDYCAR SERIES concluded its first open test of the season Wednesday with 27 drivers using 25 cars to complete 1,480 laps at Circuit of The Americas.
The field included six former series champions and seven drivers who have yet to start an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race. And it was one of those former champs who posted the fastest lap around the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course that will host the season's fourth race, the AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge on Sunday, April 26.
Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet), the 2014 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champ, recorded a lap of 1 minute, 46.7603 seconds/114.987 miles per hour that was not far off his pole-winning speed of a year ago at COTA. He was inside 0.8 of a second from his pole effort of 1:46.0177/115.792 mph last March.
"It always feels great, you know," Power said. "It's good for all my guys to see we have the pace. We went through as many items as we could. Obviously, it was very rushed at the end there with red flags and everything, so didn't get everything done, but kind of some of the big stuff that we needed to know, we understand."
Andretti Autosport's Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda) posted the second-fastest lap at 1:46.9999/114.729 mph. Interestingly, he qualified second to Power here last season.
"It was obviously great to finally get back on track," Rossi said. "It's been a long offseason. The waiting around for weather was hard, but I think the team did a good job. We got through a lot of our run plan with no dramas, despite the delays.
"The Aeroscreen was tentatively less dramatic than everyone was expecting it to be, and didn't have any real issues until some slight, reflection issues at the end which we should be able to rectify. So that was positive. We worked through a good test list and found a pretty decent place in adapting the car with the 2020 needs within a half day. Generally, pretty happy."
Two-time defending Virgin Australia Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin (No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet) made an immediate impression, recording the third-fastest lap of the session (1:47.2630/114.448 mph).
McLaughlin was followed by Team Penske teammate and defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Josef Newgarden (No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet), who was fourth at 1:47.2750/114.435 mph. Colton Herta (No. 88 Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport Honda), last year's winner at COTA, rounded out the top five (1:47.3672/114.337 mph).
Inclement weather hampered Tuesday's opening day of the test, with just 17 laps being run collectively by the field.
This week's test featured a full-field debut of INDYCAR's latest safety innovation, the cockpit-protecting Aeroscreen that is mandated for all cars on all tracks beginning this season. The Aeroscreen will make it competition debut March 13-15 at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network).
Graham Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda): "So far, so good. The Aeroscreen has been no issue. Little bit warmer on the car but not too bad. Visibility is great. I followed someone through a puddle and actually a ton of water came up on the Aeroscreen and it dissipated immediately. Better, better than what we would have experienced honestly before this."
Andretti Autosport's Zach Veach (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda): "Honestly, I think the first real test day with the Aeroscreen was a complete success. The cooling was adequate for the conditions - and a little too good for as cool as it is. I think we're going to be in good shape when we get to St. Pete and it's hotter. We got to run in the rain, and I had no visual issues with the Aeroscreen at all. As different as it is for the car look, I was very happy with what I saw from the cockpit."
Takuma Sato (No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda): "The experience was very interesting and quite cool actually but very different from anything I drove before. It was a lot quieter with no air moving inside the cockpit. Overall, I think it is very positive. I felt really safe and protected. The visibility is better than I expected."
Sebastien Bourdais (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): "No particular complaints at all, you just have to get accustomed to the new environment. We ran somewhat in the wet, a tiny bit, (there were) projections dirtying up the screen when you follow someone, but it seemed under control, so no major complaints. Obviously, it is very cold today, so it was actually not a bad thing that it was warmer than usual inside the car."
Charlie Kimball (No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): "I think there are still some cooling issues to work through. It is not particularly warm today but at the same time, I didn't have any vision issues and it's a lot quieter in the car. There is a lot less wind noise, and I think the radio is clearer, so if we can figure out how to stay cool on a really hot day we'll be in good shape. Even with the puddles and the dirt and all the other stuff that's been on the Aeroscreen today, I haven't felt like I lost any significant vision."
Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Huski Chocolate Honda): "Today was the first time for me with the Aeroscreen. It was a new experience. I think it worked really well and did what it should do. There were no issues whatsoever driving with it. Obviously, it feels a bit different compared to when there is nothing there, but you quickly get used to it. I think INDYCAR has done a really good job there to implement it on all cars for this test - it's very impressive! I look forward to continuing with it."
Felix Rosenqvist (No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing NTT DATA Honda): "I think mainly the Aeroscreen worked really well. In terms of cooling, it was better than expected. Also, visibility was really good. The only thing was when the sun got low there was a lot of glare going on, which will be something to look at and see what the other drivers' feedback will be. I think honestly the biggest difference is the way it affects the car handling in terms of weight and aerodynamics. Otherwise, it was a really smooth day!"
Two-time defending Virgin Australia Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin was among the NTT INDYCAR Series newcomers for the COTA test. McLaughlin drove Team Penske's No. 2 Chevrolet, running 62 laps and recording the third-fastest time among the 27 drivers on the day.
"It's an altogether new feeling," McLaughlin said. "I'm a race driver. I like going fast, so this is a lot faster. I'm having fun. A lot of grip and it's tough to drive.
"You turn that pit speed (limiter) off and there's a lot of power and a lot of braking. I'm just really privileged to drive this car. Roger (Penske) and Team Penske have given me a go. I'm just trying to enjoy it as much as I can with a smile on my face."
McLaughlin also is enjoying the benefit of working with the accomplished Team Penske trio of two-time and defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Josef Newgarden, 2019 Indy 500 champion and former series champion Simon Pagenaud, and former series champ and Indy 500 winner Will Power.
"I'm really lucky to have them and privileged," McLaughlin said. "But I also have Roger and TC, Tim Cindric, and my engineer Jonathan Diuguid, who has been fantastic with me. I'm just trying to soak it all up like a sponge and at the same time, I'm living the dream. I'm having a great time."
McLaughlin is scheduled to make his series debut with Team Penske on Saturday, May 9 in the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. He already is yearning for more after two days in Austin.
"I'd like to explore (the NTT INDYCAR SERIES) more," he said. "And I'd like to explore more in America. I'd love to get to America one day. That's my ultimate goal. Whether it's here or whether it's anywhere, I just want to try to be here one day. I love the country. I love the people. I love the sport that it is, and we'll see what happens."
The contingent of drivers competing for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie of the year honors currently consists of 2019 Super Formula Rookie of the Year Alex Palou (No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda), 2019 Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Honda), 2019 Indy Lights championship runner-up Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet) and Indy Lights graduate Dalton Kellett (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet).
Kellett is the only one among the group who is not scheduled for a full season. He will be competing in nine races in the No. 14 entry and sharing the seat with veterans Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais. He split time with Bourdais at the COTA test.
Askew was the fastest of this group, finishing seventh on the charts with a lap of 1:47.5611/114.130 mph among the 76 laps he ran. VeeKay completed the most laps of the day with 82.
One of the more significant moves of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES offseason occurred when team owners Mike Harding and George Steinbrenner IV merged Harding Steinbrenner Racing - with driver Colton Herta (No. 88 Capstone Honda) - with Andretti Autosport to form Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Racing.
Not only is the 19-year-old Herta, who won two races last season, expected to be stronger in 2020, Steinbrenner said the program's momentum is generating more interest with sponsors. Herta's inaugural NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory at COTA last season was historic as he became the youngest race winner in the sport's history. His second victory came in the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
"Winning is everything," Steinbrenner said. "It's made the conversations easier. It legitimizes you."
Herta said his expectation is to be in championship contention at the season-closing Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday, Sept. 20. With title aspirations, Steinbrenner said the team must alter its mindset.
"Last year, we were the little team that could," he said. "This year we have to shift mentalities."
Excuse Meyer Shank Racing's Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) for being one of the most eager to get the season started. Officially, this is his fourth season, but the first time he is scheduled for all of the races.
Harvey drove in three races in 2017, six in 2018 and 10 last year - 19 in all - and now prepares for the upcoming 17-race NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. This season also will come with an alliance with Andretti Technologies, which means his car will work in tandem with all of the Andretti Autosport drivers and their engineers.
"It's such a good situation for us," Harvey said. "It's sort of two teams in one, which gives us a wealth of information."
That information should be especially helpful at the tracks where Harvey has not raced an Indy car: Texas Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Iowa is the only one of those tracks where he raced in Indy Lights.
Felipe Nasr, who competed in Formula One for two seasons and was the 2018 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion, shared Carlin's No. 31 Chevrolet with fellow Brazilian Sergio Sette Camara during the COTA test.
Despite the two testing the car at COTA, Carlin has not confirmed a driver for the entry this season. Nasr is scheduled to compete in all of IMSA's sports car races this year for Action Express Racing while Sette Camara's plans are unsettled on the heels of finishing fourth in the FIA's Formula 2 Championship last year.
THAT'S A WRAP
While Tuesday's inclement weather limited on-track activities, it helped give Andretti Autosport time to give Alexander Rossi's No. 27 Honda a different look.
Rossi's car will alternate primary liveries between NAPA AUTO PARTS and AutoNation this season, and the team wanted to showcase both during these two days of COTA testing. Thus, the complete rewrapping of the car, which took five hours.
NAPA AUTO PARTS and its blue-and-yellow colors will be the primary sponsor of nine races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 24. AutoNation and its pink-and-black colors will be the branding for eight races, including the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (March 15) and the AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at COTA on April 26.
AutoNation was introduced to the sport through Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) in 2013.
NTT IndyCar Series PR