INDYCAR drivers, teams ready for rubber to meet the road at COTA

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As the NTT IndyCar Series heads to the Circuit of the Americas this week for two days of Spring Training, the crescendo of excitement continues to build for the 2019 season and the much-anticipated March 24 race at the Texas track.

Universally welcomed by drivers, teams and fans, the 20-turn, 3.4-mile circuit in Austin, Texas, features a steep uphill run to Turn 1, several fast complexes, hairpins and a back straight measuring three-quarters of a mile where the Indy cars will stretch their legs and test the drivers' skills.

“I think it's going to be fun,” said James Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

“It really does have something for everyone. I think it's going to challenge the teams, the engineers and the drivers quite a bit. It checks a lot of the boxes for us and I'm looking forward to putting some rubber down.”

With 25 cars participating on Tuesday and Wednesday, the two-day session will offer fans a good preview of the teams and drivers who will line up on the grid at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10.

For the drivers, Spring Training will offer crucial track time at COTA since most have not turned a wheel there before. It will help them prepare for when they return for the inaugural INDYCAR Classic race weekend two weeks following St. Pete.

Graham Rahal, the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda driver, hopes to come to grips with the circuit quickly and understand the Firestone tire life, while also finding ways to gain an advantage when race weekend rolls around.

“From what I hear, tire degradation is a big issue there, so I definitely think it's something we all have to work on,” Rahal said. “We will have a little bit of time to work on race setup and typically INDYCAR does a good job giving us enough time.

“I'll just be focused on doing the best we can and putting our team in a good position. I'm excited to get there and turn my first laps.”

Tuesday’s test day is open to fans for a $20 entry fee, with free admission offered to those who already hold tickets to INDYCAR Classic race weekend. Click here to order tickets online to Spring Training and/or INDYCAR Classic race weekend.

Those who cannot attend Tuesday’s test day in person can watch a livestream of all NTT IndyCar Series action from COTA on IndyCar.com, complete with live timing and scoring. Cars will be on track from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3:30-6 p.m. ET Tuesday. Wednesday’s activities will not stream live, but live timing and scoring will be available at IndyCar.com.

The fact that the Circuit of the Americas has also hosted seven Formula One grands prix will lead to inevitable comparisons between the cars.

Although top speeds will be about the same, the Indy cars' extra weight and lower downforce levels compared to an F1 car will mean it probably won't match the qualifying times seen for the United States Grand Prix. In addition, F1 also allows the drivers to use its version of push-to-pass (called the Drag Reduction System) in qualifying, which lowers the pole time substantially.

Team Penske engineer Gavin Ward understands better than most how the two types of cars will compare on the Texas track. He spent several years in F1 with Red Bull Racing before joining Penske last year to engineer the No. 1 car driven by 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden.

“The biggest difference is how it's going to look from the outside,” Ward said. “The F1 cars look pretty stuck and smooth on the steering wheel, while the Indy car drivers will really wrestle them around and we'll see more sliding, sawing at the wheel and catching some snaps here and there.

“Between the Firestone tires and the 2018 aero kit, the car is really driveable. You can really push it hard for a long time and be rewarded for bravery. I genuinely think INDYCAR racing is the best road course racing in the world. The cars can follow a lot better than F1 cars and you see real passing under braking and in the corners.”

While there may be a difference in lap times, Hinchcliffe thinks fans won't care because they'll be too busy watching the wheel-to-wheel action to notice.

“The lap time comparison doesn't bother me at all. All that matters is putting on a good show, and I think it will go really well,” Hinchcliffe said.

“We have the ability of overtake anywhere on the track, so I think there are a couple of different sections where there are some opportunities to use a quick couple of seconds and get yourself into a position to pass. The first corner is very wide and inviting and you are going see a lot of action there — and not just on the start.”

Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires is also testing at COTA, with sessions scheduled from 9-10;45 a.m. and 2-3:15 p.m. Tuesday.

The schedule for Wednesday has Indy Lights on track from 9-10:45 a.m., with NTT IndyCar Series sessions set from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-6 p.m.

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