JR Hildebrand returns to a full-season this year with Ed Carpenter Racing and claimed the honor of the best lap at 193.234 mph (19.0401 seconds) in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. The lap was better than the track record established last year by Helio Castroneves, however, Hildebrand’s lap is not considered an official record because it did not take place during qualifications or the race.
“We’d certainly rather be quick than not and we felt good about the laps we’ve been putting in,” Hildebrand said. “We were running at a really good time of day. The conditions tailed off a little after we ran our time. We went back out later trying to go even quicker and had a little bit of a moment.”
The moment was his crash into the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier with less than 30 minutes remaining in the three-hour test session. It was one of five incidents to occur on Saturday, though no drivers were injured.
“(I) just clipped Will (Power) with the right front wing on his left rear pod and it must have just torn off part of the front wing,” Hildebrand explained.
“I bent it into Turn 3 and was being cautious with it, but I just picked up huge understeer from not having part of the front wing. Couldn’t really avoid getting to the outside wall there, tried to hit the brakes to slow down and it just turned me straight into the inside wall on the front straightaway.”
In addition to Hildebrand, other on-track incidents involved Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden and Sebastien Bourdais.
Less than five minutes into the afternoon session, Rossi – last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner and Sunoco Rookie of the Year – spun in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda and backed into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
“I’m not completely sure what happened because the car felt fine – it just got loose and snapped,” Rossi said. “The car was good going into Turn 1, I went down to the bottom and the back end came out. The test has been productive overall, so this is a pretty big setback. This was my first real contact with the wall – better here than in qualifying or the race – and it won’t stop me from pushing hard.”
Thirty minutes into the evening session, Rahal had a similar spin and impact in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.
“The thing was building understeer up until that point and, once I got close to (Newgarden), the rear just went,” Rahal said. “It’s unfortunate, the guys certainly don’t need any more work and I obviously didn’t want to bring the thing home on the wrecker.”
With just more than an hour remaining in the night practice, Sato spun and backed into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
“We were doing a (run) in qualifying trim, and it looks like we just lost the rear on the second lap,” Sato said. “We need to investigate it, but it looks like we were too light on downforce.”
With 30 minutes left in the night practice, Newgarden’s No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet made light contact with Bourdais as they battled into Turn 1. Both cars continued after touching and returned to pit lane.
Despite these incidents, Chevy cars earned the top five positions during the daytime sessions while the Honda cars dominated the night sessions earning the top six positions. Ryan Hunter-Reay set the pace in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport at 189.716 mph with Bourdais in the second position behind the wheel of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda at 189.495 mph.
“The team did a really good job and we got a lot of really good information,” said Bourdais, the four-time Indy car champion. “Picking a downforce level will be critical when we come back (for the race). It’s going to be a ton hotter than it is now. We’re just going have to think long and hard about it and see what we come up with. It’s definitely not representative now, especially in the night session, of what we’re going to be facing in April.”
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit March 12. The Phoenix Grand Prix is the fourth race of the season on April 29.