Fifth Gear: Five Takeaways from Laguna Test

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Private testing continues at a rapid pace as NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams prepare for the 2021 season, which starts Sunday, April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Eight drivers spread among four teams tested Monday, March 2 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, which will host the penultimate race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season Sept. 19. Times and speeds aren’t released from private tests, but various reports and social media content offered us a look at how these drivers got around the 11-turn, 2.258-mile road course in Monterey, California, that features the iconic “Corkscrew” turn complex.

Here are five takeaways:

Pencil In Pato

Pato O’Ward finished fourth in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings last season in his first full year behind the wheel in the series with Arrow McLaren SP, so calling him a title contender in 2021 isn’t exactly a brave prediction. But it’s looking more likely with every test that the Mexican is ready to stand tall this year among the elite champions in the series in every race.

Various reports indicated O’Ward led the test Monday at Laguna by more than two-tenths of a second. This continues a trend. O’Ward also led 14 drivers in a private test Feb. 1 at Sebring, a session that also included Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing.

O’Ward’s new teammate for 2021, the experienced Felix Rosenqvist, called O’Ward, 21, one of the quickest young drivers in the world in the team’s media availability before its livery unveil last week. Based on testing, we agree.

Grosjean Steps on Gas

After nine seasons in Formula One, it’s obvious Romain Grosjean isn’t the typical NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie with Dale Coyne Racing with RWR.

But Grosjean’s progress in just his second day in an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car was remarkable Monday at Laguna Seca. He was third overall, behind O’Ward and Dale Coyne Racing teammate Ed Jones. More importantly, he was less than three-tenths of a second behind leader O’Ward.

Consider that last week in his first INDYCAR test, at Barber Motorsports Park, Grosjean ended up nine-tenths of a second behind leader Rinus VeeKay. Just one week later, and that gap to the front almost has been erased as Grosjean adapts to the emphasis on mechanical grip and the lack of power steering of his new ride.

It appears the Frenchman might be ahead of the schedule many envisioned as he made the transition to a new series and a new machine.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

The arrival of Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean is the big news this offseason at Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, but Ed Jones is reminding the team – and the rest of the INDYCAR paddock – that he will be a threat for victory this season, too.

Jones is returning to the series this season with Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, and he rallied from a lower spot on the time charts in the Barber test last week to climb to second overall yesterday at Laguna, just two-tenths of a second behind leader O’Ward.

Jones didn’t finish third in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 for Dale Coyne Racing or earn two third-place finishes in 2018 with Chip Ganassi Racing by accident. The guy knows how to drive.

Gaps Stay Tight

Six of the eight drivers at the test Monday either are running a full-time schedule in the series in 2021 or all of the road-and-street courses (Romain Grosjean), and there was almost nothing among those drivers on the time sheet.

Rinus VeeKay, who led last week at Barber, was sixth Monday at Laguna. But he was just five-tenths of a second behind leader O’Ward.

Bottom line: Drivers will pay dearly for mistakes during qualifying or an “off day” in a race this season with these slim gaps. Plus pit stops will be even more important as a way to gain time on track.

Eye on the Future

There are less than 50 days until the start of the season April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park, and teams will continue to test in the weeks leading up to the opener.

Chip Ganassi Racing, Arrow McLaren SP and Dale Coyne Racing have single-team private tests scheduled for later this month on road courses. The first private oval test of the season will feature six teams and 15 drivers March 31 at Texas Motor Speedway, site of the first oval races of the season in a doubleheader May 1-2.

The season is getting closer and closer. Can’t you feel it?

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