NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers and teams stayed busy during the Olympic break with another significant private test Tuesday, July 27 at World Wide Technology Raceway just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Eleven drivers from five teams turned laps on the 1.25-mile oval, which will host the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Saturday evening, Aug. 21. It’s the final oval race of the season.
Hot, humid weather prompted many teams and drivers to wait until the cooler temperatures of the evening to get busy, running in conditions similar to the race.
Times and speeds aren’t released from private tests, but various reports and social media content offered us a look at how these drivers got around the tricky, asymmetrical oval that features 11 degrees of banking in Turns 1 and 2 and 9 degrees in Turns 3 and 4.
Here are five takeaways:
Andretti Back on Track?
It’s no secret that Andretti Autosport is struggling this season, as Colton Herta has the team’s only win, at St. Petersburg, and his two podium finishes are the team’s only results in the top three in 2021.
But the results of this test and a private session last week on the road course at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca indicate perhaps the championship-winning team is poised for a late-season renaissance.
Colton Herta led an Andretti sweep of the top two spots on the time sheets in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda, ending up just a whisker ahead of teammate Alexander Rossi in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda. Ryan Hunter-Reay was fifth, just a tenth behind Herta, and James Hinchcliffe was sixth, two-tenths behind his leading teammate.
That strong test comes on the heels of Herta ending up a close second to Josef Newgarden last week at Laguna, where Andretti also put Rossi fourth and Hunter-Reay sixth.
To be fair, neither Chip Ganassi Racing nor Arrow McLaren SP were at either test. But Andretti still seems to be finding answers to some of the problems that have sapped its speed this season.
Grosjean Goes Round and Round
Formula One veteran and NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie standout Romain Grosjean turned laps on an oval for the first time in his No. 51 NURTEC ODT Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing, taking the final steps toward his oval racing debut Aug. 21 at WWTR.
Grosjean was impressive, as he has been all rookie season, by ending up about one-half second behind leader Herta. He also said the technique of oval racing was far more difficult than it looks but that he enjoyed the experience and wants to race ovals.
More importantly, Grosjean’s wife and children were at the test to see him turn his first left-only laps of his life and also exorcise any remaining demons about oval racing, especially since his death-defying escape with serious burns to his hands from a fiery crash in his final F1 start last year in Bahrain.
It also appears that another global racing superstar is ready to try ovals in an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car for the first time, as seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson said Tuesday afternoon that he and Chip Ganassi Racing are planning on a test in late August at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with an eye on Johnson possibly racing in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and other oval events in 2022.
Scotty Mac Takes to Ovals Smoothly
One of the most impressive drives of this season was Scott McLaughlin’s runner-up finish to six-time series champion Scott Dixon in the Genesys 300 on May 1 at Texas Motor Speedway in McLaughlin’s first career oval race.
It appears that result was no fluke, as the Kiwi was third quickest Tuesday at the test in the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, less than a tenth behind leader Herta. Even more impressive was that McLaughlin was the only team Penske driver at the test, so he didn’t have the active data of oval race-winning teammates Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud to review.
McLaughlin must be considered a contender for victory in the race Aug. 21, and it wouldn’t be considered a big shock judging by his performance so far this season on ovals.
He’s not part of the championship picture, but it’s safe to say Ed Jones needs a strong final stretch of the season as much as any of the drivers contending for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES title.
This hasn’t been the season Jones or Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan expected, as Jones is 21st in the standings in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda, with a best finish of ninth in the first race of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.
But Jones rebounded from a last-place result in the last event, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio presented by the HPD Ridgeline on July 4, to wind up a strong fourth in the WWTR test. He was just slightly more than a tenth of a second behind leader Herta and was faster than INDYCAR oval race winners Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Carpenter.
Jones hasn’t raced at the oval formerly known as Gateway since 2018, when he was with Chip Ganassi Racing. But he finished ninth that night, one of his eight top-10 finishes that season.
If Jones can build upon this strong test with a strong WWTR race result, it could go a long way toward rescuing what so far has been a tough season.
That’s Not All, Folks
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule resumes Friday, Aug. 6 with the opening practice for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, but there’s still time for more testing.
Chip Ganassi Racing, Meyer Shank Racing and Arrow McLaren SP will comprise a 10-car test Friday, July 30 at Portland International Raceway in preparation for the Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday, Sept. 12. That race starts the crucial West Coast swing of three races in consecutive weekends to close the 2021 season and crown a champion.