April 24, 2019 | 8:58 PM
The calendar may still say April, but the focus has turned to the month of May. On Wednesday, the NTT IndyCar Series began preparations for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
29 entries in all took to the track for testing, including 20 participants who have started each of the first four races in the 2019 season. In addition, time to complete the Rookie Orientation and Veteran Refresher programs were made available to the nine part-time drivers required to run them.
Today also marked the debut of Dallara’s Advanced Frontal Protection (AFP) apparatus designed for cockpit protection of the driver.
As is usually the case during springtime at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the weather quickly became a factor. Just 11 minutes into the scheduled two-hour session for full-time veterans of the series, rain caused a delay of over four hours.
Although the rain caused alterations to the day’s original itinerary, all 29 cars entered in the test were still able to make it on the track. At the end of the first session, 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato led the way in both the overall and no-tow speeds charts.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver turned in a fastest overall lap at 226.993 MPH (39.6488 seconds).
Running without a tow – which means lapping without a car within 8 seconds of him – Sato ran the session’s best lap at 222.942 MPH. In the first session, Sato was one of four drivers (and the only Honda) to run above 226 miles per hour overall.
Following Sato on the speed chart was three-time Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Ed Carpenter. With a best lap of 226.414 MPH (39.7502s), the three-time “500” polesitter and 2018 runner-up finisher was the fastest Chevrolet-powered entry in the field.
Carpenter’s teammate Spencer Pigot and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power followed him in eclipsing 226 ranks while Power also had the best Turn 3 trap speed at 234.638 MPH. Rounding out the top five was 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, driving a Honda for Andretti Autosport.
Unfortunately, the session did see issues for two drivers. Plagued by an oil leak, 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan was unable to record a lap at speed in his A.J. Foyt Racing entry. TK managed just a session-low three laps.
In the same session, Carlin driver Max Chilton saw his Chevrolet engine expire. In addition to Kanaan (3 laps completed) and Chilton (18 laps), Chilton’s teammate Charlie Kimball was the only other driver to run fewer than 32 laps (he ran 22).
In all, the 19 cars to take a lap at speed were separated by 1.1502 seconds. Each driver ran a lap in excess of 220 MPH, with nine exceeding 225 MPH (40-second laps).
By the end of the stunted full-timer session, 707 laps had been turned by the field. Eight drivers took 40 or more laps, with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe running the most. The 2016 Indianapolis 500 polesitter recorded 49 laps.
As the full-time drivers exited the track due to more moisture, an additional nine drivers waited for their chance on the 2.5-mile oval.
Four drivers needed to complete their Indianapolis 500 Rookie Orientation Program. Additionally, five drivers were required to run a “refresher Program”, designed for drivers who do not participate full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series.
The Rookie Orientation program calls for 10 laps in the 205-210 MPH range, 15 laps at the 210-215 MPH range and then 15 laps at 215 MPH and above. The refresher program calls for just the latter two of those three requirements to be completed.
When all was said and done, Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta was the fastest in the field. Last year, Herta swept all three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the Freedom 100 on the oval.
The NTT IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year leader led the way on both the overall (226.108 MPH) and no-tow speed charts (223.121 MPH) for rookies and refreshers. At 232.769 MPH, Herta also earned the fastest Turn 3 trap speed of the session.
Following the Dallara-Honda entry of Herta was three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
Castroneves, in his first time on-track since the February open test at Circuit of the Americas, was the fastest Chevrolet-powered car at 225.565 MPH. Herta and Castroneves were the only drivers to eclipse 225 MPH during the session.
Similar to the full-time driver session, the orientation and refresher portion of the day saw two drivers experience issues.
McLaren’s long-anticipated return with two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso was marred with software systems trouble early on. Although the problems were eventually resolved, Alonso completed a session-low 29 laps.
Toward the end of the day, 2011 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and runner-up JR Hildebrand ran into trouble as well. Hildebrand’s Chevrolet-powered Dreyer & Reinbold entry slowed on the backstretch. The DRR crew went to work and quickly restored power to the No. 48 entry and Hildebrand was back on his way.
In addition to Herta, Felix Rosenqvist (Chip Ganassi Racing), Santino Ferrucci (Dale Coyne Racing) and Marcus Ericsson (Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) completed their Rookie Orientation. During rookie and refresher session, Rosenqvist completed more laps than any other driver with a total of 72.
On the veteran refresher side of things, Andretti Autosport’s Conor Daly was the lone driver to complete his requirements during the day and led all veterans with 56 laps run. The remaining drivers will need to complete their refresher programs when official practice starts on May 14.
Per IndyCar, Alonso needs 10 more laps at 215-plus MPH, while Castroneves will require three laps at 215-plus. Hildebrand and Oriol Servia (Arrow SPM) have two and eight laps left on their refresher programs, respectively.
The focus for the NTT IndyCar Series now turns to the May 11 INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A manufacturer’s test on the IMS road course is rumored for Friday, and practice for the race will begin on Friday, May 10.
After the 85-lap race on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course, official preparations for the Indianapolis 500 will begin. Opening practice on the oval is scheduled for May 14.
In addition to the drivers in action today, Sage Karam (Dreyer and Reinbold Racing), Pippa Mann (Clauson Marshall Racing), and James Davison (Dale Coyne Racing with Byrd/Hollinger/Belardi) will take to the track for a veteran refresher program on May 14.
Rookies Jordan King (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Patricio (Pato) O’Ward (Carlin Racing) and Ben Hanley (DragonSpeed) will also be on track for their Rookie Orientation Program that day.
King, O’Ward and Hanley were not eligible to participate in Rookie Orientation today since they are not full-time drivers. Meanwhile, Juncos Racing (driver TBA) will also join the fun on May 14 to make it an even 36 entries vying for one of the 33 coveted spots in the race.
Continue to follow Open-Wheels for the latest coverage from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as teams prepare for the month of May.
Images courtesy of Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.