The Test in the West is already bringing out the best in Team Penske as the category stalwart gears up for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series.
Helio Castroneves led four Team Penske drivers in the top six after the first session of the Phoenix International Raceway promoter test on Friday (26 February), clocking a lap time that unofficially eclipsed the track record on the 1.022-mile short oval.
IndyCar great Arie Luyendyk holds the official one-lap record of 19.608secs, set in 1996 when the track was measured at an even mile, but Castroneves bettered that mark late in the midday session with a lap of 19.5858secs in the #3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. Team-mate Will Power, in the #12 Verizon Team Penske entry, also topped Luyendyk's standard with a lap of 19.5931secs, but neither man's mark will appear in the record books as official track records can only be set during a qualifying or race session.
Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti led the evening practice session with a lap of 19.6038secs under the lights in the #27 Snapple Honda, good enough for third on the combined speed chart. Reigning series champion Scott Dixon was second fast in the night session in the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
"We were able to run in both temperature [conditions], which was okay," Castroneves said, "Obviously, earlier today in the day conditions, we were focusing on speed and the Hitachi car was really dialled in. This evening, we were able to work more on the race pace, and everything seems to be going in the right direction. We're looking strong and looking good, but we're still learning about this updated Chevy aero kit. I'm looking forward to tomorrow and learning even more."
Twenty-one cars are participating in the promoter test that has two more sessions scheduled for 27 February, and carries extra value as the series returns to PIR following an eleven-year absence for the Phoenix Grand Prix on 1-2 April.
In addition to Castroneves and Power, Team Penske put Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud into fourth and sixth places respectively in the afternoon session but, at the completion of second practice, 19 of the 21 drivers were within a half-second of Castroneves' top lap.
Castroneves is one of a select few drivers who raced at PIR when it was on the 2005 IndyCar Series schedule. He won the 2002 race and said the track is still quite challenging, even though it has been reconfigured slightly to open up turn two.
"The track is pretty much the same," the three-time Indy 500 winner said, "When you come into turn one, it's like, are you going to turn? After the corner, you're like 'oh, it's opening up'. It's very interesting on that scenario - but doesn't mean it's easy.
"We're still talking about I don't know how many Gs, but it's a lot. It's a very heavy steering wheel, which is going to be even more heavy at night because we are going to put fuel in and things like that."
Ed Carpenter, owner-driver of the #20 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet, also drove at PIR in 2004 and '05, and went third quickest in the evening session, saying that he liked how his car felt under the lights.
"As the night grew on, you saw more and more people were doing race running, so the time charts really don't mean much," Carpenter pointed out, "We're all working through our individual test plans and we're happy with where we are, we think we have good pace. I'm probably more encouraged by how my car feels in traffic and dirty air, so I'm really pleased with how the Chevy aero kit is handling turbulence whether it's running behind a Chevy or a Honda."