Extra track time All four drivers back at AGR for first time since 2005 Ganassi, Schmidt partner on Indy 500 effort for Lloyd Mason returns to Firestone Indy Lights Hildebrand samples IndyCar Series car
1. Extra track time: More than half the IndyCar Series field will receive bonus track time on race weekends this season.
Either 30 or 45 minutes of practice has been scheduled for rookies and entrants outside the top 10 in points before all cars take the racetrack on the first day of an event weekend (outside of the 93rd Indianapolis 500). The bonus begins at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (10-10:30 a.m.) April 17, with all cars scheduled to practice on the 1.97-mile, 11-turn circuit for the first time from 10:30-11:30 a.m.
“We’re trying things that help encourage new drivers in the series, in particular drivers advancing from Firestone Indy Lights,” said Brian Barnhart, president of competition and operations for the sanctioning Indy Racing League. “With the economy the way it is and limited testing, one of the byproducts is that teams can’t afford to – or through rules – can’t test very often, which makes an owner less inclined to take a chance on an unproven driver or rookie.
“So you respond with extra track time that doesn’t cost anything; it’s at a race event weekend. If you’re out of the top 10 in points, it’s more of a competition issue. Instead of going testing, we’re trying to give an opportunity to close the gap on the top 10 in points by giving extra track time.”
IndyCar Series drivers will have two sessions of practice for all cars (10:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET and 3:25-4:25 p.m.) April 3 – the first day of preparations for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, first-year participants will go through the Rookie Orientation Program on May 6.
2. All four drivers back at AGR for first time since 2005: For the first time since 2005, when Andretti Green Racing won the second of consecutive IndyCar Series championships, the team’s four-driver lineup returns intact.
Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Hideki Mutoh and Danica Patrick return to the team after combining for two victories, 21 top-five finishes and 40 top-10s in 68 starts in 2008. After its drivers finished third, sixth, seventh and 10th in the championship point standings, the team has high hopes that having everyone back can lead to another title in 2009.
“Continuity is definitely a nice thing,” said team co-owner Michael Andretti, who has overseen three series titles in the last five seasons. “There’s no adjusting going on. That’s always good because you can hit it strong right away. Everybody knows everybody. That’s definitely a positive for us.”
Kanaan has been the only constant on the team that joined the IndyCar Series in 2003. In 98 career starts, the 2004 series champion has had full-time teammates that have included Bryan Herta, 2005 champion Dan Wheldon and 2007 champion Dario Franchitti. Marco Andretti debuted with the team in 2006, Patrick signed on in 2007 and Mutoh joined in 2008.
“Last year was a year we could say, ‘Oh, they’re young, they’re learning,’ but now it’s time to do it,” Kanaan said about the team’s high expectations. “We did not deliver as much as we should have last year. I think we failed on the driver’s side to get it done. We talked, and this year we’re saying no excuses.”
“It’s always nice to have a little bit of continuity, especially among the drivers,” said Patrick, who earned her first career victory in 2008, her second season with the team and fourth overall. “It’s such an important dynamic, especially for Andretti Green. There’s always a certain grace period that exists with new teammates and getting to know each other, and each other’s trends, each other’s habits and each other’s demeanor. It’s nice to have that consistency.”
While there is consistency in the drivers’ seats, behind-the-scenes changes during the offseason include the hiring of Peter Gibbons as engineer for Andretti’s car, Eddie Jones moving to the engineer position for Patrick’s car and Michael Andretti moving from race strategist for his 22-year-old son to Patrick.
“When you’re in a team like this and you make one change it affects another thing and another, so you really have to think out your strategy on how it’s going to affect your overall scheme,” Michael Andretti said. “I ended up being the guy that’s going to take over Danica’s radio. I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think it will be good for her. I’ll try and help her out as much as I can with my experience. Peter Gibbons is going to be Marco’s engineer, and Eddie Jones going over to Danica are all positive moves. I think we’ve strengthened our teams.”
So does Kanaan, a fierce competitor who wasn’t happy finishing third in 2008.
“Everybody put their requests into Santa Claus as far as what they want for their own teams, and everybody got what they want, so basically it’s time to go back to work, and there won’t be any excuses,” he said.
3. Ganassi, Schmidt partner on Indy 500 effort for Lloyd: Chip Ganassi Racing and Sam Schmidt Motorsports will partner to field a car for Alex Lloyd in the 93rd Running of the Indianapolis 500. Lloyd, the 2007 Firestone Indy Lights champion, is a development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing who made his IndyCar Series debut with a 25th-place finish in the 2008 Indianapolis 500.
“The opportunity with Sam and his team is perfect for us,” said CGR team owner Chip Ganassi, who won the last two Indianapolis 500s with drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. “I’ve said many times before that Alex will be one of the future stars of the IndyCar Series, and for the second straight year we are able to provide him what I believe is an excellent opportunity for the month of May.”
Lloyd dominated Firestone Indy Lights in 2007, driving the No. 7 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car to eight race victories and five poles, including the Freedom 100 support event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“There’s just something about Indy that is so very special, and I got my first taste of that last season,” Lloyd said. “You want to go there to watch a race, you want to go there to race, you want to go there to win. I am looking forward to being able to build on what I learned last year. I think this will be a great opportunity and I plan on making the most of it.”
Lloyd will work with engineers Tim Neff (SSM) and Andy Brown (CGR) on the race program. Lloyd and Neff worked together in 2007 while Brown partnered with Lloyd on his Indianapolis 500 program in 2008.
2009 will mark the ninth consecutive season that team owner Sam Schmidt has participated in the Indianapolis 500 following three starts as a driver.
"Alex is a great highlight in our team's history and remains the benchmark for drivers we evaluate today,” Schmidt said. “He is a perfect example of what Firestone Indy Lights is trying to create in the stars of tomorrow. To have the opportunity to team up with him again, on such a big stage, is fantastic, and we're all very excited. Teaming with Chip Ganassi Racing, a team boasting the last two Indy 500 winners, gives us our best shot yet at drinking the milk come race day in Indianapolis. This is a tremendous opportunity for our team and our business partners."
4. Mason returns to Firestone Indy Lights: Jesse Mason will return to Firestone Indy Lights with Guthrie Meyer Racing for 2009. The 24-year-old Canadian will drive the team's No. 49 Dallara as a teammate to previously announced drivers Sean Guthrie and Ali Jackson.
"Jesse is going to be a huge addition to our team," team co-owner Jim Guthrie said. "Jesse has the ability to understand and diagnose issues inside the car from his engineering background and that's a valuable asset. We've had some good tests with Jesse this offseason, and we're looking forward to getting this kid out into competition at St. Petersburg."
Mason last competed in Firestone Indy Lights in 2004, recording nine top-10 finishes in 10 starts. Since then, he completed his degree in Motorsports Engineering and Design at Swansea Institute of Higher Education in Wales and started his own company, maseRace, with the goal of developing the Canadian Motor Speedway Project near his hometown of Niagara Falls, Ontario.
"This series has undergone significant changes since I was here last, but with the strength of GMR I am confident we will be contending for race wins this season," Mason said. "Jim (Guthrie) and Butch (Meyer) have incredible histories in racing, and I look forward to learning everything I can from them this season. They have been able to assemble a strong group on the engineering and staff side, as well as two great teammates to work with, so I'm really looking forward to getting the season started in St. Petersburg."
5. Hildebrand samples IndyCar Series car: J.R. Hildebrand knew exactly what to expect when he got behind the wheel of an IndyCar Series car for the first time. He's been training for it for the better part of a year.
"There isn't any one thing in particular that a (Firestone Indy Lights) car does differently than an IndyCar Series car," the 21-year-old Firestone Indy Lights driver from Sausalito, Calif., said. "As a driver, what makes a car difficult to get used to is when there is something way different, and the IndyCar Series car was better and faster all around. Driving a Firestone Indy Lights car is a good preparation for driving the Indy car. I didn't feel uncomfortable. I was able to get up to speed, and that shows that the series is a good proving ground for anyone who wants to move up the ladder."
Hildebrand, who will drive the No. 27 ARPRO car for AFS Racing/Andretti Green Racing in Firestone Indy Lights this season, became the first driver to participate in the new IndyCar Series bonus testing program, turning laps with Andretti Green Racing at Sebring International Raceway earlier this month.
Under the new program, a Firestone Indy Lights driver can test three times or up to 600 miles with an IndyCar Series team. For every 200 miles that Hildebrand drives, an IndyCar Series driver can log an extra 100 miles of testing. At Sebring, Hildebrand worked with the No. 27 Formula Dream team that usually fields reigning IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Hideki Mutoh.
"It was a learning experience for sure. I got used to a bigger car and felt how the changes make a difference," Hildebrand said. "In terms of driving it, I guess the biggest thing to me, performance-wise, is the acceleration but also traction and the amount you can put the power down.
"I think I would have been better off to get a button on the steering wheel to press to accelerate when I was coming out of the final hairpin because the signal from my brain to my foot just wasn't fast enough. That was the most impressive part of the car."
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But more than just gaining valuable experience in an IndyCar Series car, Hildebrand had to get up to speed quickly and provide feedback that would help his teammates when they took to the track.
"It didn't take me too long to get up to reasonable pace," he said. "(Raphael) Matos was running there too, and he gets around there so quick, so we felt he was a good benchmark for me. We were able to keep up with him, so all in all, it was a good useful day for the team. I was happy to be competitive with Rafa and got a lot of data from the guys to use with Hideki and Marco (Andretti) the next day."
Hildebrand's next experience in the car will be another bonus test with Danica Patrick's No. 7 team at Kansas Speedway in April. He expects his first oval experience in an IndyCar Series machine to be an eye-opener.
"Running around a road course, you're not going 30 mph faster the whole lap," he said. "I'm expecting (the Kansas test) to be a different scenario. I'm definitely looking forward to it. As an (Firestone) Indy Lights driver, it will be a benefit as I'm looking to move up down the road. Because the way the testing works, I get a few miles there, so hopefully it will be an advantage for me."
And was also why he was so keen to align himself with one of the powerhouse teams in the IndyCar Series.
"Any seat time is valuable seat time, and seat time in the car that I'm hoping to move to is as valuable as you get. There's no downside to that." Hildebrand said. "Being able to get on board with Andretti Green Racing is paying off in a lot of ways. They are already coming up with more stuff for me to be involved in. It's really a great opportunity to be involved with."
The 2009 IndyCar Series season opens April 5 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The race will be telecast live in High Definition at 2 p.m. (EDT) by VERSUS. The race will air live on the IMS Radio Network. The radio broadcast also will be carried on indycar.com. The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season begins with a doubleheader race weekend April 4-5 at St. Petersburg. The race will be telecast at 6 p.m. (EDT) on April 6 by VERSUS.