The sleek and racy 2018 Indy car had its first en masse showing in the first day of the preseason open test at ISM Raceway, and it couldn’t have come quickly enough.
Twenty-three Verizon IndyCar Series entries took part in six hours of practice on the 1.022-mile oval outside Phoenix that will play host to the second race of the 2018 season in April. More than 2,600 laps were completed to the delight of the drivers involved.
“It was nice to get behind the wheel of a car on an oval after everybody has been talking about it for so long,” said Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda. “Got to get in there, get a feel for it myself. I liked it. It was good fun. Definitely (the car feels) lighter, a lot lighter than when we were here last year.”
PHOENIX OPEN TEST AT ISM RACEWAY: Afternoon practice results; Evening practice results; Combined results
The lighter feeling Hunter-Reay referenced is from the universal aero kit every Verizon IndyCar Series competitor is using for the first time this year. The new design with its bold look produces significantly less downforce than the previous competitive aero kits from manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda.
Most of the downforce now is generated from underneath the car, which can make it feel less stable, or lighter, through turns. It puts driver skill front and center in developing a fast car that handles well.
“It's different,” reigning series champion Josef Newgarden, driver of the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, said of the 2018 car. “I think there's definitely adjustments that need to be made from last year, obviously. It's useful to have this time and to be able to work through everything because I think we're all going to need it.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing set the pace in each of the day’s three-hour sessions. Defending Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, who rejoined RLL this season after five seasons away, led the afternoon practice with a lap of 187.022 mph (19.6726 seconds) in the No. 30 Honda. Teammate Graham Rahal was fastest in the evening practice and quick overall in the No. 15 Honda, at 189.090 mph (19.4574 seconds).
"It's our first time being on a short oval with this aero kit,” Rahal said. “It’s the most fun I have had on a short oval in years. The car is much more driver sensitive. To me, it's what an Indy car should be on a track like this.
“We're good and Takuma is right behind us,” Rahal said. “And frankly, that lap wasn't anywhere near what the potential was. We were on a (19.30-second lap), but I caught traffic.
“The car has pace. Both cars have pace, and so that's awesome. We haven't had a lot of luck here the last few years. We're used to coming here and getting our butts kicked. To be able to come here and be competitive with this aero kit is awesome.”
Sato followed up being fastest in the afternoon by running second to his teammate under the lights with a lap of 189.065 mph.
“I was happy to get back behind the wheel,” Sato said. “This is our first oval test with the team. It wasn’t flawless because we had some electrical issues again, but the engineers deal with it very well. Once we get going, I think we were very comfortable.”
The lone incident of the day came with less than 30 minutes remaining in the evening practice. Rookie Matheus "Matt" Leist spun in the No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet exiting Turn 2, but did not make wall contact.
“I was already doing race stints, we had already done our qualifying (simulation) stint,” said Leist, who was fastest in a Thursday test among five rookies and two drivers who had no previous ISM Raceway experience in an Indy car. “Tony (Kanaan, Leist’s teammate) was coming out of the pits and I was behind him, and he stopped too much. I was carrying a lot of speed and I lost the rear and it just spun. Fortunately, I didn’t make contact.”
Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, who won last year’s Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway, was third at night and overall, at 188.430 mph in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet. Newgarden clocked in fourth overall, at 188.182 mph.
The second day of the open test follows the same schedule as today, with practice set for 3-6 and 8-11 p.m. ET Saturday. Both sessions stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. ISM Raceway is opening the track free to fans for Prix View Day, with a driver autograph session held between the practices.
The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season consists of 17 races and opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11 (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). The Phoenix Grand Prix takes place April 7 at ISM Raceway (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).