Just 72 hours after the 2020 season came to an end, the NTT IndyCar series was back on track testing for the 2021 season. Seven drivers from six different teams were part of the two-day test on the 2.5-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wednesday’s session ran from 11 AM to 6 PM and featured two-time series champion Josef Newgarden and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato. Josef’s new Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin was also there to start his Rookie Orientation Program ahead of the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30.
McLaughlin put in 88 laps on Wednesday and successfully completed his ROP and is now eligible to participate on the first scheduled day of practice for the Indianapolis 500. The three-time Supercars champion was elated with his time on track. “I think IndyCar does a fantastic job with how they do the rookie mileage and get you running up to speed,” the 27-year old said. “It felt really comfortable. It took me 40-odd laps to get my foot to stay flat but eventually, I did. You see a 90-degree corner and you’re like, ‘There’s no way can I go flat out there, no way.’ And then you just hope that it sticks and it does.”
Scott mentioned that he had never been inside the Speedway before today and that it is difficult to fathom 400,000 people inside the cathedral of speed. “I’m feeling on top of the world right now. I’ve ticked all my goals and I can race in the Indy 500 now and that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”
Thursday’s scheduled session was washed out and moved to Friday, where low temperatures delayed the start of the test for just over two hours. Around 12:15 PM ET cars finally took to the track to do some single-car runs. Four more drivers participated on Friday, including reigning six-time series champion Scott Dixon. Former winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, three-time pole sitter Ed Carpenter, and 2020 Indy 500 ROY Pato O’Ward all joined Newgarden and Sato on Friday afternoon.
The overall goal of the test was aimed at trying various aero changes designed to improve the quality of the 500 in terms of on-track passing. The 2020 race proved to be challenging for cars to pass, and the series wants to improve the aerodynamic configurations at IMS that could lead to more overtaking. There were various parts fitted around the floor area of the car, in addition to a rectangular piece that was used on the nose of the cars.
The use of downforce-reducing openings in the outer regions of the underwing were also reportedly tested. The added weight (58 pounds) of the new aeroscreen created some adverse performance traits, and with limited testing and development, IndyCar’s hands have been tied. The goal is to find the perfect combination to deliver an increase in front-end stability without placing more demand on the front wings. Firestone has said that they are not planning on making any changes to their Indy 500 tires for next year.
Tino Belli, IndyCar’s director of aerodynamic development, detailed how they might approach Friday’s session. “During the test, we will send all six cars out together. The guy at the front does five laps and then rotates to the back. So you end up with 30 laps per run, which is pretty much full fuel to empty on every configuration that we do the test on.” Around 2:30 on Friday, that is exactly what they did.
Drivers were very upbeat following Friday’s session, and felt good about some of the changes that IndyCar was looking at. “It was good,” O’Ward said on how the car felt. “Honestly the baseline car from the race earlier felt the same. Which was good to then get the changes to the new stuff, the new addons. These new add-ons suck you to the ground and make you stick there strong, and you feel like you don’t get those very sudden take-offs from under-steer. It makes passing feel so much more normal.”
O’Ward was actually in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP car for this test, as they team stated that his No. 5 car is being prepared for another test, likely on Monday at Barber Motorsports Park. Newgarden was back in the No. 2 car as he is no longer running the No. 1 as the reigning champion of the series. That honor belongs to Dixon, but he is continuing his tradition of sticking with the No. 9 on his Ganassi Honda. Carpenter was in an all-black livery with no sponsors. Hunter-Reay was in his traditional yellow DHL Honda, and his new deal with Andretti is almost finalized and should be announced soon.
There were three different setup options for teams and drivers to choose from. The first was the same as this year’s Indy 500 setup, the second was a small change, and the third was a combination of everything. The latter is the one that the drivers seemed to prefer. “The little addons didn’t do much but the full package did a significant amount of positive to the car,” said O’Ward. “I was able to run behind traffic a lot better, passing was a lot easier. It’s not just as horrendous anymore. During the race, it was so aggressive when the car takes off and the window of opportunity trying to save it was very small. I am all in favor of these changes.”
There were several 30-lap runs done by the drivers, as each car put in about 200 laps on Friday.
“I think it’s just going to make the racing all around for the fans a lot better,” said O’Ward. “A lot better for us too. I mean it really does get kind of annoying whenever you’re not even close to the guy in front of you and you’re holding onto your life like not knowing what the car is going to do. We tried each of the three steps, and each step led to a more positive outcome running in traffic. I felt a significant difference with everything on. It’s definitely needed for next year. Once the track temperature gets up to what it’ll be in May, everything’s going to be harder.”
The 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 is just 212 days away.