SEBRING, Florida – As drivers sped through a quick right-left portion of the club course Wednesday at Sebring International Raceway, their hands were notably busy as they got back into the throttle.
Occasionally they made sudden corrections. Sometimes they slid to the right on the exit of the left-hand corner. More than once, they kicked up dirt as they used all of the exit and drifted off the pavement.
The overall theme derived from that portion of the track? The drivers best able to adapt quickly to the changes brought from a new universal aero kit will be the ones who win races.
Welcome to what is bound to be an eventful 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. The introduction of the kit has changed everything for drivers. The car is lighter on downforce, especially in the rear end, making cornering, braking and throttle control more difficult – and more essential to success.
As Ryan Hunter-Reay put it when asked to describe the car: “It’s alive.”
Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi and Ed Jones had their first shot at the new kit during Wednesday’s test session. Like others who have tested it previously, they described it as completely different from what they’ve driven in the past.
“It still has four wheels, but it’s a different car,” said Andretti, driver of the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda this season. “There are a couple of inherent things that it does differently. I think we’re yet to know if it’s something we can fix or something we’re just going to have to get used to as drivers.”
They cautioned against making final judgments about the effect of the kit after only a few hours of testing, but all repeated the theme about the difference between it and what they’ve driven previously.
“It’s definitely more alive,” said Hunter-Reay, who's back in the No. 28 DHL Honda. “It’s been a busier car to drive. We still have a lot of work to do. We only just started.”
All four Andretti Autosport drivers – Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Rossi and rookie Zach Veach – took part in Wednesday’s session alongside Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jones and Scott Dixon. Zachary Claman DeMelo, the 19-year-old Canadian who won an Indy Lights race last season at Road America and made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, was scheduled to test for Dale Coyne Racing, but a paperwork issue with results of a recent drug test kept him from participating.
Team officials said results of the required test, which was taken Monday, weren’t delivered in time to clear DeMelo to drive. They also indicated they planned to reschedule DeMelo’s time in the Coyne car.
Those who drove the car for the first time Wednesday spoke about braking stability and rear grip. They also spoke about the challenge of adapting to a new style of driving.
“You’re always looking for new challenges,” Jones (left) said. “Everyone is in the same boat. Obviously, some people have done more testing with it, but it’s going to be good. It’s good for the series to change things up after a while. The cars will be a lot more challenging to drive. It should equal out the playing field a lot more in terms of the difference between teams.”
Additional team testing is scheduled for Sebring in late and more at Sonoma Raceway in California in early February before the entire series heads to ISM Raceway outside Phoenix for an open test Feb. 9-10 on the short oval. The season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is set for March 11. Until then, the familiarization continues.
“We’re at Day 1. We’re super green,” Andretti said. “We don’t really know if these new characteristics are permanent or not. We’re still going to try to mechanically fix them. If not, then we adapt.”