By Steve Wittich

There is something about the last name Steinbrenner leading Spring Training that just feels right. The biggest story coming out of two days of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire Spring training was that Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing rookie Colton Herta was near the top of the timesheet for both the 1.5 mile oval and 2.21-mile, 14 turn road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Herta’s father, the 1993 Indy Lights champion, was known throughout his career as a fast learner, and it appears that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

The 16 year-old Herta finished the oval test on Monday with the second quickest overall speed, just behind his Andretti Autosport teammate Nico Jamin, but Herta did end the day with quickest speed that was not aided by a tow. Herta, who has spent the past two seasons racing in Europe, ended up three-tenths of a second ahead of Jamin when the checkered flag fell on the road course portion of Indy Lights Spring Training this afternoon at 5pm.

“This is the test that you want to end up on top,” said Herta with a smile on his face. “On the oval we were super quick, leading the no-tow times, so that was really encouraging. Then we came to road course we were quickest at the end of the day. This is the best test to be quickest at because the Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires is next weekend, so we know we are right there. The set-up for St. Pete should correlate to what we’ve been working on. Obviously the heat and humidity is going to be similar. The track is a bit different, it’s a bit bumpier, but we working on the bumpier parts of the Homestead-Miami Speedway circuit. Everything came together when we put on new tires it well and we went quickest.”

Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing rookie Colton Herta said peace out to the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire field in road course testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo Courtesy of IndyCar)

The morning session

Thursday morning’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire road course session ended with Juncos Racing veteran Kyle Kaiser on top of the timesheet with a quick lap at 1 minute 15.560 seconds.

The Santa Clara, California driver was followed closely in the top five by rookie Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport), veteran Santiago Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing), reigning Pro Mazda Champion and rookie Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) and veteran Shelby Blackstock (Belardi Auto Racing). All fifteen drivers ended the three hours session within one second of Kaiser, and the top 10 times were all within a half-second the third year driver.

A number of drivers and team owners made sure to pull us aside and remind us that this is just testing and not to put too much stock into today’s test times. That’s something we certainly understand, as teams are definitely working on different programs, and the series and drivers were also testing differing Push-To-Pass scenarios. (see note below)

In fact, the consensus among the team owners, team managers and engineers that we talked with is that there is not much that transfers from the 2.21 mile 14-turn Homestead-Miami Speedway road course to any of the circuits that the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire visits.

But, that certainly doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be learned by the teams.

  1. This is a great venue for a driver and engineer to work together to implement meaningful changes, something that is particularly important for rookies and drivers with new teams and engineers.
  2. Inevitably a team has some new crew members, and two days of testing with a change over from speedway to road course is a great way to build team cohesiveness.
  3. Due to an abrasive track surface and a high number of slow speed corners, tire wear on the 14-turn circuit is significant. The test today provides a great opportunity to learn how to save your tires and also how keep a consistent pace on worn tires.

But… you know that still won’t stop us from giving you all the lap times.

Matheus Leist (steering) Kaiser (brakes), Aaron Telitz (camera cable) all missed running time early in the session due to niggling mechanical issues. The trio of drivers were able to get back out on track,with Kaiser ending the session in P1 and Telitz (fourth) and Leist (9th) both making their way into the top 10. It is certainly better to get these kinds of small issues ironed out testing then it is to have them occur during the opening weekend of the championship at St. Petersburg.

The top five at the half-way point of the morning session were: Colton Herta, Dalton Kellett, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Santiago Urrutia, and Neil Alberico.

Andretti Autosport rookie Nico Jamin was the second quickest in road course testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway after leading oval testing on Monday (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

The afternoon session:

With fresh Cooper Tire slicks limited, the early part of the afternoon session saw limited running, and with two hours remaining the top five were: Herta, Kellett, Jamin, Piedrahita, and Claman Demelo.

As the clock ticked past 4pm and under an hour to go in the six and a half hour test, the teams and drivers started to click off more laps.

With one hour left in the afternoon session, and most teams sitting on more set of fresh Cooper Tire slicks, the top 5 were: Telitz, Herta, Juan Piedrahita, Shelby Blackstock, and Pato O’Ward.

Due to brake issues, Urrutia’s No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing Mazda/Dallara did not make it out on track until there were 20 minutes left in the afternoon session. The veteran Uruguayan driver was able to complete 16 laps, and did not take long to get up to speed and ended up wit the fourth quickest lap of the day and fourth quickest lap of the session.

The last 15 minutes of the session saw a number of teams bolt on those fresh sets of Cooper Tire slicks in an effort to “win” testing, but nobody could catch Herta, who had done his new tire run with about an hour left in practice.

The 15 drivers and teams turned a total of 1,271 laps in the six and a half hours of track time.

Changes to push-to-pass in 2017.

The series will see a different utilization of the additional 50hp push-to-pass during the 2017 championship. TSO had a chance to ask Tony Cotman, Indy Lights race director and project manager for the Dallara IL-15, about the changes to push-to-pass.

Cotman told TSO: “In simple terms, last year we would assign a fixed amount of push-to-pass prior to the race, so let’s say, eight pushes and the duration would usually be set by the longest straight.

So during the entire year last year, we were testing a different program based a little bit more on, similar to DRS, where you have to be within a specific distance of the car in front for it to activate. What I like about that is that car in front does not know and they can’t defend. We don’t have telemetry, so everything is done by the timing transponder and timing lines, so at every time line, if you are within a second of the car in front, theoretically you have it available. You have to use it within fifteen seconds of it being available or it just goes away. If you don’t activate it, you don’t lose anything, you just didn’t use it.

There will be places that you can’t use it. Specific corners. Theoretically you could get it multiple times per lap, but it’s going to be quite track dependent because there is going to be a lot of places where it won’t be available. Particularly high speed aero dependent handling corners where you can’t be within a second. As we go we may adjust the distance a little bit depending on how we do.

We’ll put a limit on the the number of activations, but it’s going to be extensive. Each time you use it, you’ll get it for a ten second burst, and it will probably 25 times in a race that you can use it.”

Answering questions

The first question that we asked about the 2017 Indy Lights season in our testing preview was: It’s only testing, can we learn anything about who will be in championship contention for the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship at Watkins Glen International in six months?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a question that will have an answer until we get deeper into the 2017 Indy Lights season.

The three drivers that topped the timesheet during official testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2016, Felix Rosenqvist, Ed Jones, and Santiago Urrutia, won half of the 18 races in 2016.

If that trend holds, don’t be surprised if Herta, Jamin, and Kaiser will be in contention for wins and the coveted $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship.

The second question we asked was: Who asserts themselves among the rookies and veterans?

If early returns are any indication, Kaiser, Urrutia, and Juan Piedrahita will lead the charge for the veterans, while Colton Herta, Nico Jamin, and Matheus Leist will be in contention for the rookies.

Combined Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire timing and scoring:

1 98 Colton Herta Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing 1:15.201 81
2 27 Nico Jamin Andretti Autosport 1:15.500 86
3 18 Kyle Kaiser Juncos Racing 1:15.509 71
4 5 Santi Urrutia Belardi Auto Racing 1:15.517 59
5 2 Juan Piedrahita Team Pelfrey 1:15.544 100
6 26 Matheus Leist Carlin 1:15.655 83
7 3 Pato O’Ward Team Pelfrey 1:15.689 81
8 9 Aaron Telitz Belardi Auto Racing 1:15.720 59
9 51 Shelby Blackstock Belardi Auto Racing 1:15.736 84
10 31 Nicolas Dapero Juncos Racing 1:15.739 72
11 28 Dalton Kellett Andretti Autosport 1:15.903 91
12 22 Neil Alberico Carlin 1:15.908 101
13 13 Zachary Claman De Melo Carlin 1:15.999 102
14 48 Ryan Norman Andretti Autosport 1:16.216 100
15 11 Garth Rickards Carlin 1:16.599 101