Here's some news and notes from practice and around the paddock Friday at Sonoma, the 13th round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season.
THE FRENCH 1-2 DENIED – If you're into stereotypes, the coincidence of French drivers 1-2 in “wine country” at Sonoma would have been an all-too-fitting end to Friday's lone hour-plus practice session. And with less than 10 minutes to go, it appeared as though the “tricolor” countrymen Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais had the top two spots to themselves.
It's not necessarily a surprise given the two's pace at Mid-Ohio last race, when they came home third and fourth. Still, on a track where Penske and Ganassi drivers swept the top five positions in qualifying and the race a year ago, seeing the usual single car efforts from Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports and Dragon Racing (back to two this race, see below) was a slight surprise.
Penske's Australian pair of Will Power and Ryan Briscoe ended that possibility with late fliers to move 1-2. Pagenaud held third while Dario Franchitti and Rubens Barrichello also got ahead of Bourdais, who ended sixth.
“The car is fast; it's actually faster than it shows on the time charts,” Bourdais said. “It's just the wind was tricky today. It was very tricky last week at the test, but then it was blowing (from the north) and it's blowing (from the south) today. That obviously changes the car dramatically.”
THE OTHER SEBASTIAN DID WELL, TOO – You had Marco Andretti and Sebastian Saavedra as best of the Andretti Autosport quartet in Friday's first practice going in, right?
Indeed it was the flagship surname driver and the late season one-offer carrying the banner on a difficult day for Andretti's squad, with title contenders Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe mired in 19th and 20th while Andretti and Saavedra were ninth and 10th. Given the competitiveness of the field and the fact this is Saavedra's first road course race in the new DW12, it was a particularly impressive first day.
The 22-year-old Colombian described how it went: “It was great out there today. It was very important that we were able to do that test last week to get used to the new car. It's very different from what I remember from last year.”
Saavedra qualified 23rd and finished a respectable 14th in last year's race. Despite his progress, he'll face a 10-spot grid penalty from wherever he qualifies for an engine change since his last start at Indianapolis.
KIMBALL'S MIXED RETURN – If not exactly a home race, as Sonoma is some eight hours north of his home in Camarillo, this weekend does mark a welcome return to the cockpit for Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing's Charlie Kimball. A year ago, Kimball struggled at this race – qualifying and finishing 26th.
Following surgery to fix his fifth metacarpal in his right hand, Kimball is adjusting to his brace and, unlike many who would have likely been itching to have been racing at some point in the three-week gap between Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, has been thankful to have the recovery time.
“It's been a full 3.5 weeks since the surgery for the race weekend, and 2.5 from that until the tests last week,” he said. “It was so hard to watch Mid-Ohio, but the added time has allowed me to focus completely on recovery and not need to push too hard.”
Kimball also opined on the track changes Sonoma has made, hopefully to provide a greater amount of passing.
“It's a difficult balance these tracks have to make to stay technical, yet also make the investment to provide better racing,” he explained. “A track like Spa, for instance, is a very technical track, but it has enough in terms of straights to provide better passing opportunities. The tracks here are at least trying to do likewise. It's a ‘band-aid' for now, but it's certainly a start.”
Once he was actually on track though, things didn't go quite to plan with an off at Turn 4 in Friday's only practice session. His car got brought back to the pit lane. He was fine, though understandably frustrated with only five laps completed on the day and in 25th place, only ahead of Katherine Legge and Ed Carpenter.
CANNON ON THE MOVE, TOO – Add Dragon Racing to the list of teams who will have enjoyed Michael Cannon's engineering services, as Cannon joins the team this weekend for a one-off role assisting Katherine Legge in the team's second car.
Cannon spent the majority of the season at Ed Carpenter Racing, through July, before a phone call out of the blue came from the Dragon squad to assist when the team confirmed it would run two cars this race.
It's a somewhat similar situation for him as a year ago, when he and KV Racing Technology driver Tony Kanaan parted ways prior to Sonoma, and Cannon would later work with Panther Racing for the final rounds of the year.
Both of Dragon's cars are adorned in the TrueCar blue and white livery this weekend, although Legge's car is sporting pink accents on its rear wings, front wings and on-board camera mount to distinguish it from the similarly liveried car driven by Sebastien Bourdais.
GANASSI'S SPEED RECORD – With teams active across IndyCar, NASCAR Sprint Cup and the Grand-Am Rolex Series, Chip Ganassi is often in transit with multiple platforms racing on the same weekend and in different places. It made sense, then, that Ganassi would announce one of his associate sponsors – Cessna aircraft – had hit a speed record of Mach .935 for its new Citation Ten aircraft in a press conference Friday.
“Like any business owner, time is one of my most valuable assets,” Ganassi said. “This airplane shrinks the map for me. You couldn't put a value on how important it is to my business.”
The series has practice at 1:50 p.m. ET and qualifying at 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.