The first big IZOD IndyCar Series test of 2013 delivered a few surprises, and also reaffirmed a few other notions with the start of the season just four weeks away.
The biggest surprise came from A.J. Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato, who unseated Target Ganassi's Scott Dixon as the fastest man in Sebring on Tuesday. Dixon, the 2-time series champion, posted a 52.017-second lap before lunch to lead the 13 cars in attendance, and held onto the top stop until late in the day.
Sato pipped the Kiwi by 0.07sec on the last run of the day – extended to 6 p.m. – in his Honda-powered No. 14 entry, clocking a 51.947-second lap to secure the first two spots for the Japanese manufacturer.
“We tried many things today; a lot of what we learned was positive, and some things also that didn't work, but everything was very productive,” Sato said. “I'm working very well with my engineer (Don Halliday) and that is making things accelerate very quickly for me. I'm very pleased today.”
For Dixon, his placement on the Sebring lap charts is never a concern.
“It's such a tricky place, man,” he said. “You really can't get wrapped up in your lap times or where you are because this place changes so much from day to day. A time you set last week or last month just isn't comparable to what you're doing on that specific day, so I'm happy we're right up there – but I'm happier that we learned a lot of good things and found some good directions to follow.”
Team Penske's Will Power was first of the Chevy brigade in third, setting a lap of 52.153 seconds to shadow Dixon and Sato.
“It was a good day and it was cool because I picked up a few things from AJ (Allmendinger),” he said. “He's an animal, and even though it was his first day in the car, looking at our data was pretty interesting. I think we all learned from each other, which is all you could ask for, really.
Four-time series champion Dario Franchitti followed in fourth, and reckoned he and the Target team had one of their best Sebring tests to date.
“I'm not the biggest fan of this place, which I don't think is any secret, but we went as well as we've ever gone,” said the Scot. “Learned lots and put it away without incident…which hasn't always been the case for me at Sebring…”
Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson led the cars-in-bare-carbon competition, setting the fifth-fastest lap around the 1.8-mile, 11-turn short course at 52.327 seconds.
“It's Sebring, so you never really know where you stand,” he opined. “We made one change, said, 'Yep, that's better'. Made another change, said, 'Yep, that's better,' but we weren't going any faster, so you have to take a step back and make sure you're doing things that improve the car without necessarily worrying about hitting a specific lap time. That's the real challenge of testing here and you can go down the wrong path if you're not careful.”
KV Racing's Tony Kanaan had a similar opinion of what he and the team took away from Tuesday's test – one where the Brazilian set a 52.381-second lap to claim sixth.
“Days like today, you try and learn as much as you can,” he said. “As long as we've learned something, that's what counts. We were able to try a lot of things. And it was good to be in a car after so many months out of an Indy car!”
Team Penske's Helio Castroneves had an uncomplicated day on the way to seventh (52.410), while Rahal Letterman Lanigan's Graham Rahal overcame a slowish morning session to climb to eighth (52.413) by the end of the day. Rahal was followed by former teammate Charlie Kimball in ninth (52.439) and Simona de Silvestro in 10th (52.442).
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden claimed 11th (52.498) ahead of the day's big attraction, AJ Allmendinger. The former Champ Car ace went into the lunch break in P7, but was unable to make significant headway in the afternoon, improving his initial 52.649-second lap to a 52.618 during intermittent running.
“Right after lunch it was a little bit of a struggle,” he said. “I wasn't getting the lap time out of it and I was really working hard and we weren't going very good. So I was just trying to get an understanding about the way the track kind of gets slicked up and how the car reacts to that. So I felt that was pretty good.”
Despite not being able to set a representative time after a 7-year absence from an open-wheel cockpit, Allmendinger wasn't discouraged.
“We made progress after that,” he continued. “[I] couldn't really, for whatever reason, on tires I couldn't really pump out a number to move up on the board, but I at least felt like I was more in control of the racecar. We made some changes and I felt those. And more than anything, I felt that by the end of the day I was at least in control of the car for the most part. I felt like I could run consistent lap times.
"I could just never put that big number up that some of those guys out on tires could go do. I'm a racecar driver and I always like to be a little higher in the speed charts, but I felt like we had a solid day. Car came back in one piece. I know what to work on for myself, physically. Go work with the team and be ready for, hopefully the next time.”
That next time, as Penske Racing president Tim Cindric confirmed to RACER, will be at IndyCar Spring Training next month at Barber Motorsports Park.
The only driver slower than Allmendinger was Panther DRR's Oriol Servia (52.690) who put on a drifting clinic in his unwieldy Dallara DW12 as it bounced and hopped over Sebring's countless surface imperfections.
Pos Driver Team/Car Time Gap
1. Takuma Sato Foyt Dallara-Honda 51.947s
2. Scott Dixon Ganassi Dallara-Honda 52.017s + 0.070s
3. Will Power Penske Dallara-Chevy 52.153s + 0.206s
4. Dario Franchitti Ganassi Dallara-Honda 52.322s + 0.375s
5. Justin Wilson Coyne Dallara-Honda 52.327s + 0.380s
6. Tony Kanaan KV Dallara-Chevy 52.381s + 0.434s
7. Helio Castroneves Penske Dallara-Chevy 52.410s + 0.463s
8. Graham Rahal Rahal Dallara-Honda 52.413s + 0.466s
9. Charlie Kimball Ganassi Dallara-Honda 52.439s + 0.492s
10. Simona de Silvestro KV Dallara-Chevy 52.442s + 0.495s
11. Josef Newgarden Fisher Dallara-Honda 52.498s + 0.551s
12. AJ Allmendinger Penske Dallara-Chevy 52.618s + 0.671s
13. Oriol Servia Panther/DRR Dallara-Chevy 52.690s + 0.743s