Should we read anything into IndyCar Sebring test times?
The 2022 IndyCar season gets underway on St. Petersburg's streets this weekend, with last week's two days of group testing on the Sebring short course all we have to base predictions on the pecking order. But can we truly draw conclusions from the times?
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 kerbs send the chassis into paroxysms, while putting a team’s shock and damper programme under the spotlight.
“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 tyres 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. You’d have to really turn in early, go across the kerbs, 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.
There were discrepancies from our four sources for three of the cars involved, so Autosport has gone with the consensus.
Herta sets Monday pace
Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport Honda
Photo by: IndyCar Series
Without touching the push-to-pass boost, Colton Herta topped the times for Andretti Autosport on Monday with a time 0.17 seconds faster than that of his new team-mate, Romain Grosjean. But even if we were to rate their talents absolutely on par, that gap is hardly unusual, even on a roughly 52-second lap, especially given that second-year driver Grosjean is still learning about Andretti’s baseline set-up. It’s quite different from the ex-Formula 1 man's only previous reference, the Dale Coyne Racing team he drove for in 2021.
In any case, Grosjean was concentrating on the basics at Sebring. 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. Autosport has learned that he and race engineer Olivier Boisson didn’t adjust the front wing, for example. Had he done so, Grosjean might have matched Herta’s time, but perhaps something Herta didn’t try might have put him further ahead.
What of their team-mates? Alexander Rossi is not 0.45s slower than Herta around a 52s 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.
Encouragingly, rookie Devlin DeFrancesco was very much in the ballpark, matching Rossi’s time to the hundredth of a second in the afternoon. Many felt he would have benefitted from a second year in Indy Lights to tidy up his style and 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 year at Sebring and Barber Motorsports Park, so engineer Andy Listes appears to have someone worth moulding. It could be that DeFrancesco - who set a faster lap than both Herta and Patricio O'Ward when the trio drove the same DragonSpeed ORECA to LMP2 class victory in the Daytona 24 Hours - finds his best form in more powerful cars.
It was no surprise to see the fastest Chevrolet driver, Team Penske's Josef Newgarden, about a quarter-second off the ultimate pace of the Honda-powered Herta, since slow turns – the engine’s driveability on exit, to be more precise – have never been the strongest part of the Bowtie’s game. Newgarden was 0.13s ahead of team-mate Will Power, but Sebring has traditionally not been a track where the Aussie veteran shines.
Behind them, Felix Rosenqvist matched Arrow McLaren SP team-mate O’Ward, the Swede continuing on his improved form from late 2021. 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, as he adapted to the team he'd joined from Chip Ganassi Racing, he was way off O'Ward'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, but were 0.4s faster than the team’s newest recruit Christian Lundgaard. That is not something we’d expect to see this year and Autosport understands the Formula 2 graduate - who shone on his debut at the Indianapolis road course last year - was on a different programme.
Lundgaard lagged behind his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team-mates
Photo by: IndyCar Series
A final highlight of the times – with all the usual caveats in place, of course – was the performance of rookie Kyle Kirkwood in the AJ Foyt Racing. He’s been impressed with the team’s damper programme, and the team is more than happy to follow the Indy Lights champion’s wish to dial out the car’s understeer that his predecessor Sebastien Bourdais favoured.
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|
Hélio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, 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 paddock luminary after spying Tuesday’s Sebring times, with 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud on top, a few hundredths quicker than Meyer Shank Racing team-mate 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 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.
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 team-mates in the Chip Ganassi Racing stable, regardless of slightly different programmes for the day.
Worries over Rinus VeeKay’s form in the second half of last year (not worries that either he or his Ed Carpenter Racing 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. Right behind him was Kirkwood, while the only team fielding a solo car, Juncos Hollinger Racing and Callum Ilott, deserve much credit for being only 0.42s off Pagenaud’s best time.
Meanwhile, Takuma Sato’s first test with Dale Coyne Racing saw him finish the day a few hundredths behind rookie team-mate David Malukas, who had run the previous day. They are expected to be closely matched on road and street courses this year.
Should we draw conclusions from this test? Absolutely not. Can we see any indicators of patterns emerging? Yes, but not enough for a hard-and-fast form guide.
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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