Two testing days down, only nine days to wait until the stars of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES make their official 2022 debut with the first practice of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. The season-opening race is Sunday, Feb. 27 (noon ET, NBC, Telemundo, INDYCAR Radio Network).
This week’s test at Sebring (Florida) International Raceway featured all 26 car-and-driver combinations expected to compete just 100 miles almost due west in St. Petersburg. The list included:
- Five former INDYCAR champions, including 2021 title winner Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing, six-time series champion Scott Dixon, two-time champion Josef Newgarden and single-champions Will Power and Simon Pagenaud;
- Five Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winners (four-time champion Helio Castroneves, two-time champion Takuma Sato, Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Power and Pagenaud);
- A seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion (Jimmie Johnson);
- Four former Formula One drivers (Sato, Rossi, Marcus Ericsson and Romain Grosjean);
- Six drivers designated as INDYCAR rookies (Callum Ilott, Devlin DeFrancesco, Kyle Kirkwood, Tatiana Calderon, Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas).
Here are five takeaways:
Two Days, Two Groups
For a variety of reasons, the days were balanced with action aplenty. Largely, it was two different groups with different conditions.
No official times and speeds were released, but media reports indicated Herta was the quickest on Monday with Pagenaud atop the speed chart Tuesday.
Monday featured the larger group, with all four Andretti Autosport drivers (Herta, Rossi, Grosjean and DeFrancesco), the three Team Penske regulars (Newgarden, Power and Scott McLaughlin), the three representing Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Graham Rahal, Jack Harvey and Lundgaard), both Arrow McLaren SP drivers (Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist), two of the three AJ Foyt Racing entries (Kirkwood and Calderon) and single drivers from Dale Coyne Racing with HMD (Malukas) and Juncos Hollinger Racing (Ilott).
Day 2 brought the Ganassi foursome (Palou, Dixon, Ericsson and Johnson), the two Meyer Shank drivers (Castroneves and Pagenaud), Ed Carpenter Racing’s pair (Conor Daly and Rinus VeeKay), Dale Coyne Racing with RWR’s Takuma Sato, AJ Foyt Racing’s Dalton Kellett and rookies Ilott, Malukas, Kirkwood and Calderon back for more action.
How Sebring Translates
INDYCAR does not stage a race at Sebring, but the 1.7-mile short course resembles St. Petersburg’s temporary street circuit in that it has bumpy braking zones with changes in surfaces, tight corners and a long straight on an airport runway. Are the tracks similar enough to be apples vs. apples? No. But Sebring is the best preparation for St. Petersburg.
Given that, it is wise to consider Herta one of the favorites to win next week’s race. After all, he won St. Pete last year in dominating fashion, leading 97 of the 100 laps. The only time he wasn’t in the lead was when he pitted for fuel and tires.
Herta also had the fastest car during last summer’s midsummer weekend in Nashville, which similarly used a street circuit for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix. And Herta won the season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, another street race, by leading 43 of the 85 laps. Thus, when INDYCAR’s second-generation star is optimistic about his chances in St. Petersburg, it’s on merit.
“It’s perfect to kind of knock the rust off before you get into St. Pete (and) the race,” Herta said of his Sebring laps. “So, it’s kind of what we’re doing, going through the motions and trying to get the cars as good as possible, tweaking on them a little bit before we get to the first race weekend.
“It’s been good so far.”
Grosjean also had a strong day for Andretti Autosport, turning the fastest lap in the morning session and finishing third for the day.
Malukas on the Move
There figures to be an especially interesting Rookie of the Year battle this season, with the two top drivers from last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires (Kirkwood and Malukas) battling two of the top drivers from the 2020 FIA Formula 2 Championship (Ilott and Lundgaard), among others.
Kirkwood enters the season with the most attention, having become the first driver to win the USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights championships, and he did so in consecutive opportunities (Indy Lights wasn’t held in 2020). But don’t sleep on Malukas, who won seven Indy Lights races last year (to Kirkwood’s 10) and only lost the championship by 13 points.
Malukas tested with Dale Coyne’s team last fall at Barber Motorsports Park, but Monday was his first on-track day of 2022, and he delivered the day’s second-fastest lap.
“I was still getting a feel for things, (and) didn’t really make many changes,” he said of his 70 laps. “But we ended the day strong.
“Honestly for me, it’s doing as many laps as I can, learn from everybody, love the moment.”
A Good Start For The Reunited Pair
Pagenaud and Castroneves got their first test day together at Meyer Shank Racing on Tuesday, and they delivered the day’s two fastest laps. It was the first time they had been paired since the 2020 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, when they drove for Team Penske.
Again, no one was reading too much into the overall results of a test day, especially with three fewer cars on the track on the second day (there were 14 in all). Yet, it was a start for two of INDYCAR’s most experienced drivers.
Tuesday’s action included Chip Ganassi’s four drivers, and Marcus Ericsson was the quickest (third overall). Kirkwood also had a solid day in fifth.
Teams now turn their attention to the season-opening St. Petersburg event, the first of 17 races to be contested this season. Also, St. Petersburg will be the first of the 14 races to air live on NBC, with all practice and qualifying sessions this season available on Peacock, NBC Sports’ streaming service.