COTA Test Previews Intriguing 2020 Season

Felipe Nasr followed by two Andretti Indy cars in 2020 COTA Open Test

If any of what made the 2019-20 NTT IndyCar Series offseason remarkably turbulent was allowed to fade into the background as the first full-field gathering of the new year approached, the expansive Circuit of The Americas offered nowhere for it to hide during the preseason open test at the purpose-built Grand Prix venue.

With fewer caveats than Formula E’s preseason outings at a venue not on the championship calendar and the pair of Barcelona tests for Formula 1 dominated by introductions of new cars that may or may not be in their Australian Grand Prix form, the COTA Open Test sorted 27 drivers into the first official results sheet of the year, offering glimpses at who stands where entering the season opener but mainly introducing the slew of new-for-2020 items that made headlines throughout the offseason.

Along with the spec nature of IndyCar and COTA being an actual race venue, limited running in fair weather conditions kept the on-track action honest as every driver’s best time of the two-day test came during a flurry of action late on day two.

Despite that, varied testing programs among teams bring difficulty to an outsider’s wish to determine strengths and weaknesses entering the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, further turning attention toward the fresh features of IndyCar’s 2020 season that shared the stage with returning top drivers and teams that picked up where they left off last season.

INDYCAR Aeroscreen on Hunter-Reay's Andretti Honda
No matter how you look at it, the Aeroscreen is a step forward for safety. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Like Marcus Ericsson’s move to Chip Ganassi Racing, Sebastien Bourdais’ full-time leadership at Dale Coyne Racing becoming part-time aid at AJ Foyt Racing and Roger Penske’s purchase of the whole darn show, the Aeroscreen is a new and novel part of IndyCar’s forthcoming season that was showcased at COTA last month.

The cockpit protection device prepared by INDYCAR and Red Bull Advanced Technologies in time for 2020 earned a portion of the spotlight at COTA, with its main success being that it wasn’t a showstopper.

Beginning with the competition element, one the Aeroscreen is expected to alter given the need for new car setups due to the additional weight, the titanium framework and polycarbonate laminated screen made no detectable impact on lap time.

The experienced acquired during last year’s open test plus the INDYCAR Classic race weekend in March likely helped teams get up to speed at the 3.41-mile, 20-turn Austin circuit but remarkably similar lap times atop the timesheet from the 2019 and 2020 tests demonstrates that, even if it does invalidate setup work teams have done at tracks since the universal aero kit was introduced in 2018, the Aeroscreen shouldn’t be expected to shake up the running order or slow the cars down as it enters use in 2020.

By leading this year’s COTA Open Test with a 1:46.7603, Will Power came just 0.1345 seconds short of matching Colton Herta’s 2019 pace during the late-Wednesday sprint for speed.

Perhaps the Aeroscreen will change how speed is made at St. Petersburg or another venue in 2020 and the competition angle will surface with more detail, but just one of the seven drivers from whom INDYCAR gathered comments about the device mentioned drivability.

“So far, so good,” Graham Rahal said. “The Aeroscreen has been no issue. Little bit warmer in the car but not too bad. Visibility is great. I followed someone through a puddle and actually a ton of water came up on the Aeroscreen and it dissipated immediately. Better — better than what we would have experienced, honestly, before this.”

Graham Rahal enters Indy car cockpit with Aeroscreen
The Aeroscreen changes how drivers climb into their machines but has little effect on visibility. | Credit: Taylor Robbins/Spacesuit Media

Zach Veach called the first real test day with the Aeroscreen “a complete success,” adding, “As different as it is for the car look, I was very happy with what I saw from the cockpit.”

“There is a lot less wind noise and I think the radio is clearer so, if we can figure out how to stay cool on a really hot day, we’ll be in good shape,” said AJ Foyt Racing newcomer Charlie Kimball. “Even with the puddles and the dirt and all the other stuff that’s been on the Aeroscreen today, I haven’t felt like I lost any significant vision.”

While most drivers focused on visibility, cooling and a noise reduction, second-year Ganassi pilot Felix Rosenqvist offered the only driver comment shared by INDYCAR that touched on glare and handling.

“In terms of cooling, it was better than expected,” the Swede began. “Also, visibility was really good. The only thing was, when the sun got low, there was a lot of glare going on, which will be something to look at and see what the other drivers’ feedback will be. I think honestly the biggest difference is the way it affects the car handling in terms of weight and aerodynamics.”

For better or worse, most of the learning by teams about the impact of the Aeroscreen on drivability will take place during actual race weekends, since the two-day COTA test became a partial-afternoon affair in terms of dry running. But, as Rahal and multiple others noted, the Aeroscreen performs quite well in the wet, which could turn the impact it brings to the on-track product into a net positive.

Almost all of that is secondary to the point, however. Rahal’s teammate Takuma Sato was the only driver to mention it: “I felt really safe and protected.” Now on the other side of its first full-field outing, the Aeroscreen seems incredibly capable of equipping drivers with increased confidence in their safety, turning factors like cooling, glare, its look and its impact on pit stops into worthy sacrifices at worst.

Will Power laps COTA in 2020 INDYCAR preseason open test
Lapping Circuit of The Americas for the first time since his dominant performance at the inaugural INDYCAR Classic was turned upside down, Will Power was fastest in the 2020 COTA Open Test. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Offering a brief respite from the newness of IndyCar this year on hand at COTA was something old: chart-topping pace from the series’ usual speedy suspects.

F1’s two weeks of testing in Barcelona may be quite different from IndyCar’s February trip to Texas, but both open-wheel championships took to the track entering new seasons with similar questions awaiting answers: Can anyone beat (insert top team here)?

Team Penske drivers sped to the top step of the podium at nine of last year’s 17 races, earning one more race win than every other team combined. That success is perhaps less stunning than Mercedes’ 71% win rate during the 2019 F1 season, but the same hope for a more competitive 2020 is felt stateside.

Unsurprisingly, if the COTA test is any indication, IndyCar’s top teams don’t appear to be letting up.

Penske with Power and Andretti Autosport with Alexander Rossi would’ve been safe bets for who might land in the top two spots, and they did. Equally predictable was a top 10 filled with seven cars from the “Big 3” teams of Penske, Andretti and Ganassi.

That all but four of the 27 drivers lapped within two seconds of Power’s time means IndyCar didn’t shed its highly competitive status during the offseason, but marginally superior speed from the routine frontrunners shows that stable competition at the head of the field, mixed in with challenges from second-tier teams, is bound to continue unabated.

The lead cars from Andretti and Ganassi were 0.2396 and 0.9318 seconds in arrears of the top Penske Chevrolet, perhaps foreshadowing a second consecutive championship battle primarily between Penske and Andretti but no doubt proving that at least a few of the 10 full-time cars from these three teams will again be the ones to beat in 2020.

Alex Palou tests with Dale Coyne Racing at COTA
The Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh entry was ninth fastest at COTA. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Also unmissable in conversation about what’s ahead for IndyCar is, for yet another season, an impressive collection of rookies.

Spread out across Team Penske, Arrow McLaren SP, Dale Coyne Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Carlin and AJ Foyt Racing, the seven rookie drivers that participated in the COTA Open Test are expected to factor into the series’ contests rather quickly.

Joining Pato O’Ward in making up half of Arrow McLaren’s young roster, Oliver Askew placed seventh in his No. 7 Chevrolet as the top full-season rookie in his first full-field IndyCar outing, going quicker than three of the five entries prepared by the Andretti team that engineered him to last year’s Indy Lights title.

Furthering the theme of impressive rookie performances, the three cars in the top 10 not from elite teams were both Chevrolet-powered cars from the former Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports outfit and the No. 55 Honda of Coyne’s rookie Alex Palou.

O’Ward finished 14th, 14th and sixth in the three Japanese Super Formula Championship races he contested last year as he shared the track with TCS Nakajima Racing driver Palou. The 22-year-old Spaniard, who will race under the Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh moniker during his foray into IndyCar, won a race on his way to finishing third out of 23 drivers in the premier Japanese open-wheel series, also collecting two fastest race laps and three pole positions in the season preceding his IndyCar move.

Only Naoki Yamamoto and Nick Cassidy scored more points than Palou during their respective 2019 Super Formula campaigns. Yamamoto won the championship in 2013 and 2018, plus the Super GT title in 2018. Cassidy was four-tenths of a second quicker than second-fastest driver Sergio Sette Camara — who tested at COTA with Carlin — in this past weekend’s rookie Formula E test at Marrakesh and also has a Super GT title to his name.

Put more succinctly: Alex Palou is the real deal, as any total-rookie who pedals a Coyne car to the top 10 in his debut full-field IndyCar event could reasonably be labeled. He was 0.1459 seconds off Askew and 0.0081 seconds clear of O’Ward, who might be looking at another year chasing his former Super Formula competitor despite the inclusion of Arrow and McLaren — and SP, for that matter — in his team name.

Oliver Askew laps COTA in 2020 preseason test
Oliver Askew’s rookie campaign adds excitement to the 2020 IndyCar season — just like Conor Daly’s stable program with Ed Carpenter Racing. | Credit: Taylor Robbins/Spacesuit Media

After Palou in ninth, full-season Carpenter driver Rinus VeeKay wound up 18th ahead of fellow rookies Sette Camara, Felipe Nasr and Dalton Kellett in 21st, 26th and 27th, with each of those drivers having their progress restricted not only by the weather but also by sharing their cars with another driver.

Sette Camara and Nasr’s involvement in IndyCar’s 2020 season remains undetermined while VeeKay will get a shot with a strong Chevrolet team and Kellett splits the calendar with open-wheel legends Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan. These drivers didn’t particularly make waves when the series descended upon COTA but, given the fight VeeKay took to Askew in a Juncos Racing Indy Lights entry as opposed to Andretti and Nasr’s raw speed in a Cadillac DPi-V.R, the potential of impressive outings this season exists.

Without question, the most waves were made by Scott McLaughlin as he sampled a Penske Indy car in the follow-up to a recent test at Sebring International Raceway. Talk about potential — the two-time and defending Virgin Australia Supercars Championship titlist would’ve shocked if one of his 62 laps was quick enough to crack the top 15. Instead, McLaughlin lapped within a half-second of Power to land third on the timesheet, turning the story from a one-off gift for Supercars domination into the start of the relocation of a young career from down under to America.

In both Arrow McLaren SP drivers, Palou, McLaughlin and others, IndyCar has a robust collection of prospects worthy of attention from not only team owners but fans as well. Add to that an extraordinary step forward in safety with the Aeroscreen and the sturdy prowess of its finest competitors and a few of the angles that have the upcoming season packed with intrigue are assembled.

On display at COTA and primed to support a thrilling weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, these takeaways from the first IndyCar gathering of 2020 are sure to remain prominent until the last — and beyond.

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