Testing notebook: Valuable laps turned at Watkins Glen

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With the Verizon IndyCar Series championship still hanging in the balance, every opportunity to secure an advantage is crucial. That’s why nearly the entire field tested today at Watkins Glen International, site of the penultimate race on the 2016 schedule.

Twenty cars took to the iconic 3.4-mile permanent road course in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In addition to Verizon IndyCar Series regulars, four drivers from Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – Carlin’s Ed Jones and Andretti Autosport’s Shelby Blackstock, Dalton Kellett and Dean Stoneman – participated as part of INDYCAR’s testing incentive for teams to give up-and-coming talent seat time in Indy cars.

Championship leader Simon Pagenaud was among five drivers who tested at WGI on June 20, but the Team Penske driver realized the importance of coming back today ahead of the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen weekend Sept. 2-4.

“It’s important to come here and get the car ready for the race, for sure,” said Pagenaud, flying the bright yellow No. 22 Menards Chevrolet colors he’ll drive in the Watkins Glen race. “It’s definitely going to be a very important part of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship. It’s the race right before the last, so obviously it’s important to get everything right.”

Pagenaud leads teammate Will Power by 58 points after 12 of 16 completed races. Another Team Penske driver, Helio Castroneves, is in third place, 111 points out of the lead. Following the Penske trio are Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden (120 behind) and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan (each 127 behind).

Kanaan was among the testers today, his first trip to The Glen since the Verizon IndyCar Series last raced there in 2010. The circuit was repaved earlier this year, but even the 19-year Indy car veteran was surprised with the added grip.

“It’s nice to be back here,” said Kanaan, the driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet. “Scott had tested here a few weeks ago and told me it was fast, and I think I didn’t believe him as much as it was. Really impressive. The last time I was here was with the old car, so now it’s much faster and the track is very smooth, so it’s nice. It feels good.”

Unofficial reports from the June test had drivers turning laps several seconds faster than the track record of 1 minute, 28.1322 seconds set in 2009. That trend was expected to continue today, though midday showers did interrupt testing.

James Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, was among the five who tested in June and the 20 today. The 29-year-old Canadian said the smooth, high-grip surface tests a driver’s bravado through high-speed corners.

“It’s nice to be on a smooth racetrack; we’ve been on a lot of bumpy racetracks lately,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s billiard-table smooth, tons of grip. It’s a massive commitment racetrack at the moment.

“Hopefully we can compete. Honda has been pushing pretty hard and the No. 5 car is coming off a couple of strong results in a row, so hopefully we can keep that momentum going.”

Jones, currently second in the Indy Lights championship, spent the morning in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda before Graham Rahal took over in the afternoon. Stoneman, third in Indy Lights points, drove Ryan Hunter Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda, while Blackstock was in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda (pictured above) and Kellett turned laps in the No. 26 Honda of Carlos Munoz.

Cooper Tires test helps confirm 2017 Freedom 100 specification

Zach VeachIndy Lights veterans Gabby Chaves (the 2014 series champion before moving up to the Verizon IndyCar Series) and Zach Veach (a four-time Indy Lights race winner) participated in a Cooper Tires oval test Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to help confirm the tire specification for the 2017 Freedom 100.

Chaves and Veach each drove Belardi Auto Racing Dallara IL-15 cars for half a day before rain washed out the completion of the test.

“We were one (dry track) window shy of running a full race simulation,” said Chris Pantani, director of motorsports for Cooper Tires. “We still feel comfortable that we found something that we will certify (as the race tire spec) for next year.”

Pantani said drivers were pleased with this year’s tire, exemplified by how so many were able to race high and low on the 2.5-mile oval in another wildly exciting edition of the Freedom 100. He also pointed to Veach turning a lap in excess of 200 mph – the first to do so at IMS in Indy Lights, though the lap remains unofficial since it occurred in practice – adding “we want to replicate that for the racing.”

Cooper Tires will return Aug. 24 for IMS testing on the road course that will help determine its tire specification for all 2017 road circuits.

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