Fifth Gear: Five Takeaways from Indy 500 Open Test

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Nearly a full field of NTT INDYCAR SERIES athletes took on the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500 Open Test on April 8-9 in preparation for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 30.

Thirty-two car and driver combinations completed more than 4,000 laps between the two days, including 3,956 on Friday alone. After two days of testing, which featured two drivers completing Rookie Orientation Program (Pietro Fittipaldi and Cody Ware) and a host of others completing veteran refreshers, we can interpret everything we saw on the historic 2.5-mile oval and shift our minds into fifth gear to see what we can expect in May at the Racing Capital of the World.

Pato, AMSP Continue to Impress

Pato O’Ward has put Arrow McLaren SP near the top of the charts at nearly every multi-car, private NTT INDYCAR SERIES test over the offseason in the No. 5 Chevrolet, proving that the team known for its orange-and-black liveries has solid speed heading into the 2021 season.

However, speeds from those tests aren’t released, and we have to gather who did what from social media and media reports. That’s not the case at the Indy 500 Open Test. But AMSP still is the case after two days of testing at IMS.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya led the way for the team in the No. 86 Chevrolet with the third-fastest speed of the day, 226.123 mph, from a mid-afternoon pack run Friday. Montoya joined the team as he vies for this third Indy 500 win in six attempts, and he’s already having an impact on the team as he pushes AMSP’s two younger drivers to be picky and confident in what they want out of their race car setups.

O’Ward posted the fifth-fastest speed of the veterans’ session Thursday at 220.233 mph, and he kept that pace going Friday. He had a top-three speed for most of the day, but as more cars ran in larger packs near the end of the day, O’Ward fell to ninth on the speed chart with a best lap of 225.118 mph.

“As we’re using this day today, it’s the start of our 500 event in 2021,” O’Ward said. “We’re working on the race car behind people, just two or three traffic trains to see what it’s like. Obviously, you can’t really tell if it’s going to be identical when we come back, depending on the weather or the heat, but so far we feel good. We’re working toward a list of changes, and everything is going well. I think what we’re doing today is opening my eyes a little bit more just getting me a little more comfortable.”

It’s not just O’Ward, either. Felix Rosenqvist, O’Ward’s new full-time teammate in the No. 7 Chevrolet, was one step ahead of his teammate Thursday with the fourth-fastest speed at 220.360 mph. He posted the 16th fastest speed Friday.

Last year, AMSP spent the season convincing the INDYCAR paddock that it has entered the mix of championship caliber teams, and the Indy 500 Open Test confirmed what we all expected: There just may be officially a “big four” in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.

RLL Picks Up Where It Left Off

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing ended the 2020 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge first and third in the finishing order with Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal, respectively.

Rinse and repeat.

Defending and two-time “500” winner Sato jumped up the speed charts late in the day Friday to post the second-fastest speed of the day at 226.396 mph in the No. 30 RLL Honda. Rahal, who also finished second in the GMR Grand Prix last July on the IMS road course, posted the fastest no-tow speed of the day at 221.949 mph.

Quick analysis says that Sato’s car races well in traffic, and Rahal’s machine has pure speed.

The third RLL car, the No. 45 driven last year’s fourth-place finisher Santino Ferrucci, was near the top of the charts early Friday, and he ended the day 20th fastest.

“It’s really good,” Rahal said. “Our guys did a great job. I’m super proud of them. The no-tow speeds look great, and even in race running. Very few guys look very strong, and we were one of them. Knock on wood, because you know how it is around here.

“There is no doubt (this is a confidence boost), just in the morale for the guys. They spent a ton of time on this car. It had never seen the track until today, so for them to get rewarded like that, we haven’t always had that. In this case, the car’s got pace. I think it feels really good. It gives everybody a good morale boost going into next week, and then we got St. Pete and Texas, and then when we come back here, we feel good.”

If you were wondering if Sato had a good chance at being the first repeat Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves accomplished the feat in 2001-02, or if Rahal could add to his family’s legacy by joining his dad, Bobby Rahal, as an Indy 500 winner … you have your answer.

ECR, Fast They Are

Ed Carpenter Racing had a strong showing at the Indy 500 Open Test as the team hopes to get back to its speedy ways at the Racing Capital of the World. After Thursday and Friday, it appears it’s back on track.

Conor Daly was fastest in the first veteran practice Thursday in the No. 47 Chevrolet with a best lap speed of 222.714 mph. His boss and teammate, Ed Carpenter, was second fastest in the session driving the No. 20 Chevrolet, with a speed of 221.296 mph.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, VeeKay started his 2021 season Thursday much like he started the 2020 season: in the wall.

VeeKay’s car dipped low into the grass inside Turn 1 in the No. 21 Chevrolet and did nearly a full clockwise spin before hitting the SAFER Barrier in Turn 1 with the right front and right side of the car. The car then spun twice and slid through the short chute before stopping at the entrance of Turn 2 with heavy damage. VeeKay suffered a broken finger in the crash but has been cleared to drive.

After a tongue lashing from boss Carpenter, VeeKay learned his lessons after crashing twice in his series debut last June at Texas. There’s no reason to believe he won’t do the same this time.

The ECR duo of Daly and three-time Indy 500 pole winner Carpenter started Friday where they left off, at the top of the charts. Daly remained on top the first half of the day and ended the day sixth fastest with a best lap of 225.639 mph. Carpenter was 14th fastest.

“I think INDYCAR has made some good decisions on helping us out a little bit after seeing the race last year and some downforce options,” Daly said. “These laps are so important. So, so important. That’s why we hated seeing the rain (Thursday). It’s good to have some speed. The car has felt comfortable so far.”

One of the most constant pieces of the Indianapolis 500 over the last decade is the speed of ECR, and the three-car team looks poised to continue its trend of qualifying a car in the first three rows of the Indianapolis 500. Every year since 2013, ECR has placed at least one car in the first nine positions, including last year when VeeKay qualified fourth. Will 2021 make it nine straight?

Simona Starts Strong

Simona De Silvestro and Paretta Autosport got their first taste of on-track action, and it appears they liked what they saw.

De Silvestro and team owner Beth Paretta both expressed optimism about the group’s performance. De Silvestro said the car was fast and comfortable right off the truck, and Paretta was pleased at how her brand-new team was acclimating to the intense pressure that surrounds the Indianapolis 500. This also is the first time popular Swiss driver De Silvestro is back at Indy since 2015.

The speed charts reflected their optimism. De Silvestro put down a best lap speed of 223.458 mph the No. 16 Paretta Autosport Chevrolet, landing her 21st on the speed charts, just three spots behind Team Penske driver McLaughlin, with whom her team shares technical support.

“It’s been really positive,” De Silvestro said. “The car feels really good. I felt comfortable right away, which I think is something super positive. I think it’s quite exciting when you come here and your car feels pretty fast and pretty comfortable. It gives you that confidence, and I think that’s what you need, especially here.”

With the high level of talent from De Silvestro, leadership from Paretta and mentorship and equipment from Team Penske, it’s clear Paretta Autosport will be competitive in May.

This Field Is Close!

Team Penske posted a strong showing at the Indy 500 Open Test, potentially a sign of what’s to come, as Josef Newgarden posted the fastest speed of Friday and the test overall, 226.819 mph, in the No. 2 Chevrolet. His teammates were seventh (Will Power), 11th (Simon Pagenaud) and 18th (Scott McLaughlin).

Team Penske had an off year by its standards in 2020 at Indianapolis, as Newgarden led the team with a fifth-place finish, the only top 10 the team produced last year in the “500.”

“It was a really just a nice preview of the Month of May to kind of validate some of the work we’ve done at the shop,” Newgarden said. “We’ve tried to make our cars quicker, inherently, by themselves and make them better in traffic. Those are the two ingredients here to be fast and win races. I think we’re in a better spot. It feels that way. I’m really happy with my Shell Fuel Rewards car, and I think Chevy has done a great job. We know we needed to be better, and I think we’ve shown up with better weapons. I’m excited to get back here for the Month of May.”

However, Team Penske was just inches ahead of the rest of the field.

The separation between the 31 NTT INDYCAR SERIES cars Friday was just one and a half seconds from leader Newgarden to slowest Cody Ware. Sato was just .0742 of a second slower than Newgarden,

Sato hit that top speed while running in one of the many multi-car packs that hit the track Friday afternoon. Race fans tuning in on Peacock saw an afternoon full drivers of drafting for position down the main straightaway and the backstretch and exciting passes into the corners, making all of us salivate at the thought of the increased on-track competition we can expect to see next month.

Additionally, the 10 fastest speeds were evenly split between the series’ two manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda. While a Chevrolet driver paced the overall field, it was Honda that had the fastest no-tow speed.

If race fans take anything away from the Indy 500 Open Test, it’s that the field that is expected to return for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 30 will be separated by just mere car lengths as 33 of the best drivers in the world battle for racing immortality at the Racing Capital of the World.

From the fans