Today’s question: Twenty-seven NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers participated in the first open test of the year Feb. 2-3 at The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California. What was your biggest takeaway from two days of testing in the desert sunshine?
Curt Cavin: The time sheets at Thermal meant little to me because the teams had different objectives, and the series won’t race there in 2023. So, I focused more on what the drivers had to say during their Content Day appearances, and some of it was telling. You’ve heard me say this before, but Alexander Rossi’s move to Arrow McLaren is the storyline I’m most interested in watching, and I thought Felix Rosenqvist had some interesting things to say about his new teammate. “Fits like a glove,” he said of Rossi. (Yes, I know, would he say otherwise?) But I liked this from Felix, as well, as he’s not one to fill media notebooks with fluff: “It will be interesting to see what Alex thinks about the car, how we work, especially here at Thermal because that’s when we have time to look into operational things, bigger-picture things that maybe we can improve as a team. We’re very open to listen to him, hear what he has to say (as) Alex has more experience, (and) he just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.” We won’t be privy to Rossi’s full assessment of the team, but we can watch for kernels he drops along the way. As I said, it will be a fascinating watch, especially in the early part of the season.
Joey Barnes: Being the boots on the ground at The Thermal Club, there were a number of things that opened my eyes during the Open Test. That said, I think the biggest takeaway was Agustín Canapino looking every bit the part, despite no previous open-wheel experience, of someone who belongs in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. The 33-year-old Argentine driver put in a respectable effort, putting the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet 21st out of the 27 drivers. It’ll no doubt be a different battle when heading to St. Petersburg in a few weeks, where his competitors will be at a more familiar circuit than the 3.067-mile, 17-turn road course near Coachella Valley everyone was learning last week. Overall, though, I think it shows that with some time and effort, the three-time Turismo Carretera champion and two-time titlist in TC2000 could carve his place in the North America’s premier open-wheel championship.
Paul Kelly: There were many nooks and crannies between entries on the time sheets to dissect last week, and Curt’s feature on the impressive showing by Kyle Kirkwood and Joey’s mention of Augustin Canapino above definitely caught my eye. But I didn’t need to look any deeper than the top spot on the overall time sheet to find a trend at this test – Marcus Ericsson is one of the truly elite drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, and he should challenge for the championship this season with Chip Ganassi Racing. That probably reads as a “Uh, no kidding, idiot” statement, but Scott Dixon’s imposing shadow and six championships loom large over any discussion of the Ganassi driver lineup. Plus, Alex Palou also staked his claim to being the future team leader at Ganassi after his 2021 championship season. Meanwhile, Ericsson doesn’t draw attention to himself with his low-key, cheery demeanor and consistent speed. But Palou is headed to Arrow McLaren in 2024, and Dixon, while tireless and still at the peak of his powers at 42, is far closer to the checkered flag of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career than the green. Based on winning the Indianapolis 500 by Gainbridge last year, finishing sixth in the standings (and only 15 points behind third-place Dixon) and leading the Thermal test, it appears Ericsson may be the future and the present at Ganassi. He’s only 32 but has the wisdom and experience of four full NTT INDYCAR SERIES seasons, including the last three of learning from Dixon and other CGR veterans. The Speedy Swede’s time may be now – don’t be surprised if he is planting a big kiss on the Astor Challenge Cup this September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.