Kyffin Simpson

It’s time to make some itemized deductions after the final tune-up before the start of the 2024 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, a test session featuring 26 drivers Feb. 26-27 at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.

While it’s impossible to judge the focus of each team’s testing program, the stopwatch doesn’t lie. And it’s not in racers’ nature to resist the temptation to go as fast as possible at some point.

Plus, the season starts in a little over a week, March 10 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on the streets of St. Petersburg. And it would be no fun to not try to connect some dots from this test. So, let’s get started …

Parity City?

There has been a “Big Two” of teams in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES for more than a decade, with drivers from Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing winning every season championship since 2013. Andretti Global and Arrow McLaren have taken seats at that party with title contenders in recent years.

But this test saw an impressive display of parity. The top five drivers overall each represented a different team, with Andretti Global (Marcus Ericsson), Team Penske (Will Power), Arrow McLaren, (Pato O’Ward), Meyer Shank Racing (Felix Rosenqvist) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Graham Rahal).

Conspicuous by its absence from the top five was the reigning series champion in Chip Ganassi Racing. But CGR shouldn’t fret. Reigning series champion Alex Palou ended up sixth overall, and rookies Kyffin Simpson and Linus Lundqvist were ninth and 10th, respectively. CGR was the only team to place three drivers in the top 10.

Simpson Shines

A few eyebrows were raised when CGR promoted Simpson to an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race seat for the 2024 season last fall. Simpson was a solid competitor in two seasons in INDY NXT by Firestone, but he recorded no wins and two podium finishes in 27 starts in INDYCAR’s development series.

If this test is any indication, team owner Chip Ganassi may have hired a surprising gem in Simpson.

Cayman Islands resident Simpson ended up a very strong ninth overall out of 26 drivers participating in the test, recording a top lap of 52.1677 seconds in the No. 4 Journie Rewards Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

He outpaced more heralded rookie teammate and 2022 INDY NXT by Firestone champion Lundqvist by .0230 of a second and ended up just .2165 of a second behind test leader Ericsson.

Simpson was the quickest of the five series rookies participating in the test.

Blossoming Relationship

Sometimes the relationship between an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver and his race engineer can make the pair seem like an old married couple.

But just like life partners, the bond between the driver and engineer must grow over time if the pair is to be successful on track.

Building a strong bond with race engineer Olivier Boisson is what Ericsson has been working on this offseason and during preseason testing. Both are working together for the first time after both had long-time pairings – Ericsson with Brad Goldberg at Chip Ganassi Racing and Boisson with Romain Grosjean at Dale Coyne Racing and Andretti Global.

“I think the driver-engineer relationship in INDYCAR is the most important (relationship),” Ericsson said. “And I've been very lucky to work with Brad (Goldberg) the last four years. He's an incredible engineer. And we had a lot of success together.

“But I'm also incredibly lucky to get Olivier here with Andretti. He's a really good engineer, a really good guy, and we get along really well. So, that relationship obviously we're working on that and understanding each other each day better and better. But so far, it's been it's been great.”

Rahal Resurgence Resumes

Perhaps no team rallied in the second half of the 2023 season quite like Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

The team progressed from the despair of Graham Rahal failing to qualify for the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May to Christian Lundgaard earning his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory in July at Toronto and Rahal earning NTT P1 Awards on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in August and Portland in September.

That surge continued this week at Sebring. Rahal ended up fifth on the overall speed chart in the team’s No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda, while Lundgaard was seventh in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda.

The team’s success in 2024 could hinge on its progress on ovals. RLL’s best finish last year in five circle-track races was 13th by Lundgaard in the Hy-Vee One Step 250 presented by Gatorade at Iowa Speedway.

If RLL can get its oval program sorted, its renaissance could climb to a new level this season.