Hanley gets first taste in Indy car ahead of DragonSpeed debut this week

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There is no mistaking the challenge ahead for Ben Hanley and DragonSpeed Racing.

The newest members of the NTT IndyCar Series, both driver and team are prepared to embark on a five-race campaign for the 2019 season, which begins with week with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The team has also strategically mapped out its destinations for this year as DragonSpeed lays the foundation for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series effort in 2020. In addition to St. Pete, the plan calls for Hanley to compete at a trio of premier natural terrain road courses – Barber Motorsports Park in April, Road America in June and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July – as well as a bid on the iconic 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May.

“We're viewing it as a steppingstone to becoming full time, so this year is five races,” said Hanley, who gained his first seat time in an Indy car on Monday with a test at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.

“We're not underestimating how difficult it's going to be against all the full-timers and the amount of experience all the top teams have here,” Hanley added, “but at the same time we're not here to make up the (car count) numbers. We do think we can achieve something.”

Founded by team principal Elton Julian in 2007, DragonSpeed has built a respective resume in the sports car ranks, including the 2015 Pirelli World Challenge GTA title and 2017 European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship. In January, DragonSpeed captured an LMP2 class victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona in the sister car to the one co-driven by Hanley that placed third in class.

While building its NTT IndyCar Series program, the team will continue competing in the LMP1 class in the 2019 FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the 1000 Miles of Sebring later this month and 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Piloting the No. 81 Chevrolet, Hanley joins the NTT IndyCar Series with a significant age gap to the other rookies in the field. The 34-year-old Brit has a well-traveled resume, including finishing runner-up for the 2007 Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship and spending time with Renault’s young driver program for its Formula 1 team. That and additional open-wheel experience has Hanley confident he can adjust quickly to Indy car racing.

"Even when I wasn’t racing single-seaters, I was doing a lot of development work in GP2, GP3, and a lot of tire work with Pirelli," Hanley said.

"That’s stuff that a lot of people wouldn’t know much about, but to me it’s a made a huge difference in terms of driving and feedback and how to set up a car.

“All those things put together hopefully puts me in a position to do my best for the team. But we’re starting from scratch, and the more precise I can be with my feedback, the more I can draw on the experiences I’ve had recently, the quicker we can become competitive.”

After a long offseason of preparation, Hanley was appreciative of the chance to finally get on track Monday at Sebring, though the team faced a typical mixed bag of Florida weather and gremlins in sorting out the car.

“It was the first time we've been on track with the car, so there were a little niggles that held us up probably a bit longer than expected,” he said. “There were showers throughout the day, so we didn't get a whole day's running. But towards the end of the day, the last hour or so, we managed to get a few laps on the board. So it ended up OK.”

The learning curve as a new single-car outfit may be lessened somewhat by familiarity that some at DragonSpeed have with Indy car racing. Among them is Paul Thomas, who will be on the timing stand as Hanley’s lead engineer.

“The group that we have, we all know each other, know what's the best way to work together,” Hanley said.

“We've got that really good, tight-knit group. We all believe in each other. The confidence from inside is good and you don't have to go off to learn a new relationship with the engineer. We've already got that built up a little over the past couple of years. He knows what I want from the car and I know how he reacts to the things that I'm asking for, so it's a good platform to grow from.

“We just might surprise a few people.”

Practices for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begin Friday (10:45 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. ET). Both stream live on INDYCAR Pass, the direct-to-consumer product from NBC Sports Gold available to subscribers. Sign up for INDYCAR Pass at the discounted yearlong price of $49.00 by March 10.

NTT P1 Award qualifying, consisting of three knockout rounds concluding with the Firestone Fast Six, begins at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass. Coverage of the 110-lap race on Sunday airs on NBCSN (12:30 p.m.) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.).

Live timing and scoring for all NTT IndyCar Series weekend sessions, accompanied by Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network commentary, is available at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

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