The Valley of the Sun welcomed the Verizon IndyCar Series back to Phoenix International Raceway this weekend. The teams and drivers responded with a very rapid thank you.
Competing en masse for the first time at the historic 1.022-mile oval since 2005, 21 drivers participated in the two-day promoter test that served as a preview for the upcoming Phoenix Grand Prix on April 2 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN). More than 5,300 laps were completed, with 18 drivers clocking times faster than the official track record set two decades ago by Indy car great Arie Luyendyk.
Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud led the way. Castroneves, in the No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet, set the top lap of 19.2735 seconds (190.894 mph) in the climactic Feb. 27 evening session.
“We had a little issue with the Hitachi car in the first session, but were able to take full advantage of the second one,” said Castroneves, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and winner of the 2002 Phoenix Indy car race. “The car seemed to be very solid in qualifying trim and we were able to jump into race mode. It’s going to be fast and non-stop. The Phoenix fans are going to have a heck of a race.”
Pagenaud was fastest in the afternoon session and second overall for the four sessions, with a lap of 19.2884 seconds (190.747 mph). Both Penske drivers were more than three-tenths of a second under Luyendyk’s 1996 record lap of 19.608 seconds (183.599 mph). Official Indy car records can only be set during qualifying and the race.
“We’ve been doing race stuff all day and the times have improved, so I feel very comfortable in every condition now,” said Pagenaud, starting his second season with Team Penske and seventh in Indy car racing. “We managed to get a snapshot of what qualifying would be like this time of the day (afternoon). The car was fast. So far, so good.”
Since only four of the 21 drivers raced Indy cars at PIR before, most spent the weekend becoming acclimated with the track that generates high G-forces in the turns.
“It’s a very, very grippy place,” said Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the No. 11 Team Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Chevrolet. “We’re pulling over five Gs and it’s a big commitment on such a place like this when you start to average speeds over 175 (mph). To give you an example, Milwaukee would be 3.5 Gs, so it’s a big commitment and big consequences if you get it wrong. It’s a fun place but you’ve got to make sure you don’t make a wrong assumption. That could be pretty costly.”
Teams now shift to road/street course mode for a private test March 1-2 at Sebring (Fla). International Raceway. The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 11-13. The race airs live on ABC at 12:30 p.m. ET March 13.