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EMBURY: When Is Too Fast, Too Fast?

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The 2017 “Test in the West” for the Verizon IndyCar Series is now in the books, and after two days of action at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway’s D-shaped oval, a few takes and red flags have surfaced, enough to devote a full edition of Embury’s Outlook to consider the outcomes.

For one thing, it appears less than likely that in regards to qualifying for April’s Desert Diamond West Valley Resort Phoenix Grand Prix, that the Chevrolet-powered half of the field will dominate the proceedings as they did a year ago. In 2016, every Chevrolet entry out qualified the fastest Honda-backed car on the starting grid, and while the Japanese-based manufacturer did make some headway in the 250-lap journey that followed, it was not enough to keep General Motors from sweeping the podium.

Looking ahead to the 2017 edition of the final oval prep race before the 101st Indianapolis 500, Chevrolet will likely place a car on the point, as Ed Carpenter Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand posted the fastest lap during the test on Saturday afternoon. However, the advantage should again swing back in Honda’s direction once the green flag falls.

The interesting thing, however, is who could lead the chase for Honda. Returning clients, Chip Ganassi Racing, were not among the fast timers for much of the weekend, while Andretti Autosport was close yet not the most consistent of the Honda runners. Based on the numbers, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais was the best over the four sessions of action for Honda.

The results show that either Bourdais has figured out how to get the most from the oval setups, a spot where he has been noticeably limited since re-joining the North American open-wheel circus, minus one victory at The Milwaukee Mile in 2015. The outputs also show that Coyne’s commitment to bolstering the behind the scenes half of the squad is also raising the potential that this team may drop upon the opposition in 2017, again something that outside of when the late Justin Wilson was a driver was mostly non-existent concerning what DCR could offer.

The second story from the “Test in the West” however, is not one of excitement, more instead on the concern half of the coin. While J.R. Hildebrand’s fast lap was impressive, his 193 MPH plus output has to be taken with a grain of salt. For a one-mile oval, the timing chart says that fast of a pace per lap is around a 19 seconds flat effort, a speed never seen before in the history of INDYCAR for this type of layout. While breaking track records is always exciting (if matched in qualifying, it would top Helio Castroneves’ pole speed by over a mile per hour), keep in mind the reaction times at a tight track such as PIR are reduced significantly.

Although a 200 MPH front stretch speed was seen here as recently as 1995, a 193 MPH average also likely means a 200 MPH plus trap speed entering turn three, an area of the circuit where absolute perfection regarding the line taken is a must. The quicker speeds also makes mistakes tougher to overcome, as evidenced by the four incidents seen over the two-day test. While all drivers did not suffer injuries, a definite warning shot was dispatched last weekend.

Also at a short oval, speeds in this range also equate to more bad air coming off the car in front as supposed to a Texas Motor Speedway or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the same air is more of a help concerning drafting and passing. In this case, passing with the shorter straightaways increases in difficulty, not necessarily great news as passing was also at a premium at PIR in last year’s race.

While the results of the “Test In The West” may not equate to every short oval on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, it does say that both qualifying well and making good on the pit lane could be the two biggest keys to victory when the 21-car fleet returns to the Arizona desert in April.

Stay tuned for more analysis and driver snapshots on the road to the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida on the next edition of
Embury’s Outlook.

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Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad. A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory. Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.