Wind the clock back to this time last year, and news from the early tests of the brand-new Dallara DW12 and turbo engines from Chevy and Honda was rather ominous. An epidemic of blown motors, engine fires and parts shortages cast a pall over the proceedings, but with a season of experience to build upon, the first major IndyCar test of 2013 was most notable for its normalcy.
Drivers lapped the Sebring short course as desired, engines performed flawlessly, and barring a few spins, teams completed the Tuesday-Wednesday test without incident.
With Team Penske, Ganassi Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Panther DRR and Rahal Letterman Lanigan packing up Wednesday night, the four-car Andretti Autosport team and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports took to the track on Wednesday after heavy fog lifted around 10 a.m.
SPM's Tristan Vautier, making his second appearance at Sebring – and in an Indy car – upheld Honda's strong preseason form by following the 1-2 set by fellow Honda-powered drivers Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon on Tuesday.
Times were unofficial, but the reigning Firestone Indy Lights champion set a best of 52.04 seconds around the 1.8-mile, 11-turn circuit, edging the 52.1-second lap set by reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
The Frenchman was second fastest on his first Sebring outing with SPM, giving rise to the belief that he has the speed and talent to mingle with the established stars of the series. But don't tell that to the 23-year-old.
“I don't want to get comfortable with this,” he told RACER. “It's a good start, but I have a lot to improve. There are many new factors once you get to the races. It's two good tests at one track, so you have to be careful to think it has a bigger meaning.
“I got on well with the team and my engineers are incredible, but the races are what matter. Of course it's nice to set good times here, but I'm not thinking of it like it means a lot right now.”
It would be foolish to make any kind of prediction on which engine manufacturer will have an advantage once the season kicks off at St. Petersburg, but there was a general buzz among a number of folks affiliated with the Bowtie camp that Honda has done their homework during the offseason.
“I'm sure we'll have a great engine,” offered Vautier. “Throughout the years, Honda has great experience in Indy cars. Takuma [Sato] and Scott [Dixon] went very well so we're looking forward to seeing how all the Honda cars run. I'm confident in what Honda will bring this season.”
In an interesting bit of manufacturer news, Hunter-Reay was only able to test once Will Power's car came off the track Tuesday night. The reason for the need was kept private, but a request was made by Chevrolet to have the engine taken out of Power's car and wheeled over to the Andretti tent to be installed in RHR's car for Wednesday. For two teams – and drivers – that spent the year waging an intense fight for the title, it was an unexpected display of unity.
Behind RHR, whose car is now sporting a bit more yellow than was seen in 2012, teammate James Hinchcliffe set numerous laps in the 52.4 range and was thankful to knock a bit of rust off after a long winter layoff.
“It's nice to get back in an Indy car and work on all we can in the preseason,” he said. “After this it's Spring Training and then everything counts. We had a big list of stuff to get through, and was really happy with what we got through. Every driver had things to work on, spreading the load, and it was a productive day.”
Marco Andretti set times in the 52.7 region, and based on how hard he was pushing the car in the corners, any lack of speed on the stopwatch wasn't for a lack of trying.
EJ Viso completed his first test with Andretti Autosport, posting laps in the vicinity of 53.0 seconds as he sampled a different approach to chassis setup.
“The car was very compliant and gave more feeling that what I've been used to,” said Viso, who joined Andretti after three season with KV Racing. “I liked that a lot. I'm also working with [engineer Michael] Cannon for the first time in many years and getting to know how the team works. I'm satisfied with how we did today and it was honestly about learning and not the speed.”
IndyCar teams test next at Sonoma Raceway on Feb. 27, with a half-dozen Chevy-powered cars in attendance and a lone Honda representative. Will GM get the upper hand in the wine country, or will Simon Pagenaud and the Schmidt Hamilton team keep Honda's fast-lap streak going? Tune in next week...