It’s the holiday season, but NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams and drivers have more tasks at hand than making a gift list and checking it twice.
Four teams had offseason testing on their holiday to-do list Monday, Dec. 6 on the short course at Sebring International Raceway in Florida, with three performing evaluations of potential drivers for the future and the fourth turning laps with its full-time driver.
Mercedes EQ Formula E teammates Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck de Vries participated in evaluation tests with Arrow McLaren SP and Meyer Shank Racing, respectively, while Ed Carpenter Racing evaluated FIA Formula 2 race winner and one-time Formula One race starter Jack Aitken. Juncos Hollinger Racing tested full-time driver Callum Ilott.
Here are five takeaways from the Sebring test:
De Vries Could Be Hot Prospect
No official times and speeds were released from the test, but media reports indicated de Vries was the quickest Monday at Sebring in his first try of NTT INDYCAR SERIES machinery. The Dutchman was three-tenths ahead of Ilott, the second-quickest driver at the test.
“First of all, I'd like to thank Meyer Shank Racing for the opportunity,” de Vries said. “They gave me a very warm welcome, and it was an absolute pleasure to see the kind of different racing scene and world in the U.S., which is significantly different than how we experienced it in Europe but very encouraging.
“We had a very good day, and I am overall very pleased with how it went. I felt fairly comfortable in the car and was up to pace, so good day. Let’s see what the future brings.”
De Vries could become an attractive candidate for series teams in the second half of the 2022 season and beyond. He won the 2020-21 FIA Formula E Drivers’ World Championship for the Mercedes EQ team, which is withdrawing from the all-electric championship after the 2021-22 season, which ends Aug. 14 in Seoul, South Korea.
Netherlands native de Vries, 26, has an impressive resume. Besides his Formula E championship, de Vries also has won season titles in FIA Formula 2 in 2019 – the last step before Formula One – and the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 in 2014. He serves as a reserve driver for the Mercedes Formula One team, a role he shares with Formula E teammate Vandoorne.
De Vries also has extensive sports car experience in the FIA World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series and has made three starts in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
What made de Vries’ speed Monday even more impressive is that he turned just 62 total laps, with his best lap coming after just 25 laps. Each of the other three drivers at the test turned at least 109 laps or more.
Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Emerge
Ilott started the last three races of the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES for Juncos Hollinger Racing before being named the team’s full-time driver for 2022 shortly after the season ended, so it’s obvious he has more experience behind the wheel of these cars than de Vries, Vandoorne and Aitken, who each were driving an INDYCAR SERIES car for the first time Monday at Sebring.
But those three drivers were testing for teams that earned victories in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES, while Juncos Hollinger has not as it prepares to embark on its first full season in the series in 2022.
Yet Englishman Ilott and Juncos Hollinger ended up second on the time sheets in an impressive display of pace, just three-tenths of a second behind de Vries in Meyer Shank Racing’s Honda. Ilott ripped off his best lap of the day on his final trip around Sebring’s notoriously bumpy short course.
Perhaps no team did more with less in the last two or three seasons in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES than Juncos Racing, so the outfit could be poised for a new era of competitiveness with Formula 2 veteran and Ferrari Young Academy driver Ilott behind the wheel and fresh support from new co-owner Brad Hollinger.
“Overall, it was a very positive day at Sebring for the Juncos Hollinger Racing team,” Ilott said. “This was my first time at Sebring and the first time for me with the team since the end of the season, so we had some catching up to do. It was good to get going and find our feet and find our rhythm together again. It was a really positive day to finish the year off strongly with a positive test.”
Said team co-owner Ricardo Juncos: “Today was a very successful day for our final time on track before the new year. We have a lot of new members and new equipment that we were able to work with, along with Callum, as this was his first time on track at Sebring. Everyone performed amazingly together all day, and we made a lot of progress and positive steps.”
INDYCAR Attracting Attention
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES continues to draw attention from drivers around the globe as a destination location to show their skills, with all four drivers testing at Sebring a testament to the series’ burgeoning strength.
De Vries, Vandoorne and Aitken are among the more well-regarded European prospects in the sport not racing currently in Formula One.
Dutchman de Vries, 26, is the 2020-21 Formula E World Champion and was the 2019 Formula 2 title winner.
Belgian Vandoorne, 29, raced full time for McLaren in F1 in the 2017 and 2018 seasons after winning the GP2 (now Formula 2) title in 2015 with five wins, beating runner-up and current NTT INDYCAR SERIES star Alexander Rossi to the championship by 160 points. He finished second in the 2019-20 Formula E season for the Mercedes team.
“Today was my first experience in INDYCAR,” Vandoorne said. “I had a really great day testing the Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Before I came out here, I spoke to a lot of people about racing or driving an Indy car, Felix (Rosenqvist) being one of them. It was kind of what I expected, more or less.
“It was a positive day. We managed to cover a lot of laps and get through a big testing program. I’m happy we managed to cover everything without any issues. I just want to say thanks to Arrow McLaren SP for giving me the opportunity, and it was a great experience for me to try out INDYCAR. Let’s see what the future will bring.”
British-Korean driver Aitken, 26, won the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 title in 2015 and has four wins in four seasons of FIA Formula 2 competition. He made his F1 racing debut for Williams in December 2020 at the Sakhir Grand Prix, replacing George Russell, who was promoted to the Mercedes seat for that event after Lewis Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19.
“The test was productive,” team owner Ed Carpenter said of Aitken’s test. “We were able to evaluate Jack as we continue to process the ECR’s options for the 20 car road and street course seat. He made a good impression with team, and it’s always good to see Indy cars on track.”
Englishman Ilott, 23, decided to hop off the F1 ladder and race full time in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 2022 after driving for Juncos Hollinger in the three-event Western Swing that finished the 2021 season. He served as a test driver for Ferrari and an official reserve driver for Alfa Romeo last season in F1. Ilott won two races en route to finishing second in the F2 championship in 2020.
Most open-wheel drivers from other series notice something right away when testing an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car for the first time – the lack of power steering. The visceral, raw “beastly” nature of the cars usually surprises even the most fit, experienced drivers.
Mercedes EQ Formula E teammates de Vries and Vandoorne were no different Monday at Sebring, where they tested in a Meyer Shank Racing Honda and an Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, respectively.
“A very cool car,” de Vries said. “Big, fun, fast, good tires, but very heavy, very heavy. I think I need a few more gym hours to cope with that steering weight.”
Said Vandoorne: “I did a simulator day before coming out here, but the real car is always something different. It is pretty much everything that everyone’s been on about. It’s a very big car, powerful and a heavy steering wheel. You’re really fighting the car a lot, so it’s really a beast of a car to hustle around a track.”
Monday’s laps at Sebring comprised the last major test session of 2021 for NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams.
Four Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires teams fielding a total of 13 cars took over the historic Sebring circuit today for two days of testing. Smaller Lights tests also are scheduled for Dec. 14-15 at Sebring and Dec. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.