Fifth Gear: Five Takeaways from Sebring, Texas Tests

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Two tests this week brought the start of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season even closer, as teams took to the Sebring International Raceway road course Monday, March 29 and the high-banked Texas Motor Speedway oval Tuesday, March 30 and Wednesday, March 31.

The 2021 season starts in top gear with four races in three weekends, on a road course, street circuit and oval, showing the versatility of these athletes and teams.

Racing begins Sunday, April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at the Barber Motorsports Park road course, followed by the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, April 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. Then the first two oval races of the year are set for a Texas Motor Speedway doubleheader with the Genesys 300 on Saturday, May 1 and the XPEL 375 on Sunday, May 2.

Three drivers tested Monday at Sebring, with Ed Jones from Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, Romain Grosjean from Dale Coyne Racing with RWR and Max Chilton with Carlin. Traffic picked up considerably Tuesday and Wednesday at Texas, with seven drivers on track mainly for INDYCAR aerodynamic testing Tuesday and 17 drivers turning laps Wednesday.

Here are five takeaways:

1. It May Be Pato’s Time. Various reports indicated Pato O’Ward led the busiest test of the offseason Wednesday at Texas with Arrow McLaren SP, and this isn’t the first time he has topped the time sheets in a test leading into this season. He also led a 14-car test Feb. 1 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

O’Ward was more than a tenth of a second quicker than his closest pursuer, Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport. While O’Ward said most of the top laps were turned with the help of an aerodynamic tow, he also said his car was among the top five when running solo.

It almost seemed odd that O’Ward finished last season without a win despite the speed that carried him to a fourth-place finish in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings. But it also seems impossible to believe that he won’t stand alone in Victory Lane or on the tallest step of the podium at least once in the 17 races this season.

The Mexican is clearly ready for prime time.

2. Close, Close, Close. Just .375 of a second – less than the time it takes for you to say, “Holy cow!” – separated the top 10 drivers Wednesday at Texas.

The tight, competitive nature of the field was further reflected by less than six-tenths of a second separating the 17-car field Wednesday at Texas.

Combine those margins with the aero tweaks that INDYCAR continues to hone for even better racing at Texas, and you’re welcome to start drooling over thoughts of an insane doubleheader of oval racing May 1-2 at TMS.

3. Max-imum Speed. Max Chilton and Carlin appear to be in solid shape for the season opener at Barber, if testing Monday at Sebring is any indication.

Chilton ended up less than a tenth behind leader Ed Jones of Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan on the bumpy circuit in Florida and was ahead of fellow F1 veteran Romain Grosjean. That’s a feather in the cap for Chilton and Carlin, as Jones was second quickest behind O’Ward in testing in early March at Laguna.

Englishman Chilton finished 22nd in the standings last season in which he competed in just the road and street events and the Indianapolis 500. He’s on the same program this year, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him climb in the standings.

4. Getting After It. There was one stat from testing that proved it’s almost “go time” for the season, and it wasn’t time or speed.

The tests at Sebring and Texas could have been sponsored by the Energizer Bunny because drivers and teams just kept going and going and going. There were big lap totals recorded in Florida and Texas.

At Sebring, all three drivers turned at least 110 laps in one day. Sure, INDYCAR teams use the shorter circuit for testing and not the full, 3-plus-mile international circuit. But that’s still a lot of work in the heat and humidity of south-central Florida.

The lap totals were even more staggering at Texas. Every driver was in triple digits, with reports indicated seven drivers turned more than 200 laps each. Team Penske’s Will Power led with 247 trips around the 1.5-mile oval. That’s 370 miles of testing in one day, for those keeping score at home.

That’s a lot of tiring, sweaty work for one day, at both tracks. And yet some people still don’t call race drivers athletes? Okayyyyy …

5. More To Come. The offseason is almost over, with the 2021 opener just 17 days away at Barber Motorsports Park.

But there’s still more preseason track action coming. Seriously, no April Fool’s here -- stay tuned to INDYCAR.com for information soon.

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