Panther Racing rookies Martin Plowman and Pippa Mann were among a handful of Firestone Indy Lights runners to enjoy a maiden outing on an oval in the past week as the series continues to gear up for its 2009 campaign.

Although racing is a long way off for the teams and drivers hoping to contest what could be the biggest and best Lights season of the modern era, testing and evaluation is forming a key part of their winter programmes, with Plowman and Mann in action at Homestead, and others - including Formula Master's Fabio Leimer, F3 graduates Charlie Kimball and Sebastian Saavedra, Atlantic Series convert James Hinchcliffe and World Series by Renault/GP2 veteran Marco Bonanomi - in action at Kentucky.

Plowman and Mann successfully completed the mandatory rookie test at Homestead on Wednesday [29 October], clearing the way for them to compete for the Firehawk Cup next season. Both drivers completed in the region of 300 miles under the supervision of Firestone Indy Lights executive director Roger Bailey and driver coach Rick Mears, who appeared impressed by the rookies' progress.

"The test went very well," Bailey confirmed, "Both drivers were very impressive and running times comparable to [Raphael] Matos in the last race here. Both Pippa and Martin did a very good job of understanding the car and the changes being made to the car, and I think they will be assets to the series."

F3 convert Plowman effortlessly mastered his first run on an oval circuit, the 20-year old setting a lap time of 28.6secs that would have been quick enough to secure a front row start at the Homestead Indy Lights round earlier this year.

A highly technical driver, the Briton had prepared for the run by poring over in-car footage, meticulously studying car positioning and lines, and, after a sensible installation period, began to run flat-out and get a feel for how the Panther Dallara performed at 190mph. Astonishingly, it was during his second ten-lap run that Plowman posted a string of impressive lap times in the mid-to-high 28 seconds range.

"I thoroughly enjoyed the test at Homestead and it was a thrill to turn my first laps on an oval," he reported, "Once again, the Panther Racing team has done a fantastic job to make me feel at ease very quickly. I had quite specific goals in mind approaching this test, to run flat-out as quickly as possible, and I managed to do that within seven laps, so I am pretty pleased. As I started to run flat out, it really was an attack on my senses. Everything was happening so fast and my vision started to blur, but I soon got the hang of adjusting my point of focus while never dropping below 185mph.

"Overall, I think that it was a very positive and successful introduction to oval racing and I've proved to the team that I can adapt quickly to that style of driving. I've already learned that it's essential to be super-smooth out there. Once you are comfortable running flat-out, it's crucial to work with the engineers and clearly communicate how the car is running. The only way you can run faster is with the team's set-up expertise and the driver's feedback, so we'll be working hard on that. With my first oval run complete, I'm now looking forward to testing at Houston in November."

Like Plowman, team-mate Mann had previously only turned laps in the Lights car on Sebring's road course, but ended the day inside the 2008 Homestead pole time and a couple of tenths ahead her fellow Briton.

"The car felt very unsettled in the corners and it took me a while to find the confidence to go flat," the 24-year said, admitting that it had been hard to adjust to her first few oval laps, "but, once we mastered this, I really enjoyed it. It knocks the breath out of you - I had to remind myself to breathe, which sounds stupid, but it's true!"

"It is also one thing being able to turn laps on your own, but running in traffic will be a totally different experience. However, it was a really positive day for us in Miami, and I'm looking forward to my next run."

Leimer, meanwhile, followed in the recent successful footsteps of fellow FMaster graduates Chris van der Drift and Earl Bamber by going fastest at Kentucky in his first outing in an Indy Lights car. The 19-year old joined Sam Schmidt Motorsports and quickly proved his potential by reaching top speeds of 305km/h before ending the day ahead of the assorted experience of Kimball, Hinchcliffe, Saavedra and Bonanomi. Continuing the theme established at Homestead, Leimer's fastest times were a tenth quicker that this year's Lights' pole at Kentucky, and two tenths faster than any other drivers taking part in the test.



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