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Andretti impressed at first IndyCar runs by Kirkwood, DeFrancesco

14th October 2021

Andretti Autosport race engineer Ray Gosselin says he and the team “couldn’t be happier” with the way potential Indy Lights graduates Kyle Kirkwood and Devlin DeFrancesco adapted to IndyCars in their first test.

The test, carried out on Sebring Raceway’s 1.7-mile short course, saw newly crowned Indy Lights champion Kirkwood piloting Colton Herta’s #26 car run by its regular engineer Nathan O’Rourke, while Gosselin ran Devlin DeFrancesco in the #29 car that he is expected to race next year.

Kirkwood turned a fastest lap of 52.49sec, while DeFrancesco produced a 52.85, and Gosselin declared the day “a success” in terms of what was accomplished.

“Rain meant we were down for a couple of hours – we had to send the cars out on old tires to help dry the track,” Gosselin told Motorsport.com, “but other than that it was a very solid day. We got through a lot of stuff with both cars. Neither of the guys dropped a wheel off or had a spin, nothing broke, so it was just a day of progress.

“Both guys did a really good job in building up to speed, and after maybe being a bit careful at the start, they just got on with it.

“I can’t speak for Kyle and Nathan, but I thought Devlin’s feedback was OK, too. I think we gave them a good solid baseline to work from because Andretti Autosport’s street course is strong, so it’s not as if we were expecting a ton of negative critiquing of the cars! They were pretty well sorted.

“It will be more telling when we get to the Barber test [Oct. 25th]. That track’s a lot more challenging from a setup standpoint and from a driving standpoint, and there’ll be five cars there so there’s more data to gather from. So more critical feedback will be required, especially regarding the compromises – where you’re loose, where you’re understeering. Sebring is probably the easiest track to go to even though we don’t race here, because it’s just not very challenging, especially with a pretty sorted streetcourse package.

“But that was a big part of wanting to make this the first test and a key part of the driver evaluation – to make sure that either driver, or both, are drivers that Michael [Andretti, team owner] would want to sign for 2022. You start off with something that’s a little easier to come to grips with so the drivers can get themselves up to speed with what for them is a new car.

“One of the things we wanted to see was how they coped with old tires, as if they were at the end of a stint, rather than just letting them loose on fresh tires and seeing how fast they could go over one lap. We tried to make it as real as possible in terms of all the things that’s expected of a driver over a race weekend.

“There were a few things we didn’t get to do because of the time lost to rain, so we didn’t get the most out of a couple of the later sets of tires, but we did practice pitstops.

“Physically they were both fine. They each have a few little adjustments they want to make in the cockpit in terms of seating position and how they’re gripping the wheel, but the only way to find all that out was this first test. It’s one thing sitting in the car in the shop, but it’s not until you’re out on track and finding out where the blisters form, that’s when you work on the fine details of your cockpit setup. There’ll be a few changes in that direction before we arrive in Barber, to make them a little bit more comfortable and hope that translates to laptime.

“So far, so good. I’d say considering there was rain, we couldn’t be happier with how things went at Sebring. But obviously, there’s one more big evaluation to go. As I say, this was a good track for getting their feet wet. Barber will be more of a challenge regarding how a driver works with an engineer, the quality of his feedback, and so on.

“The other thing about Barber is that the tire deg[radation] will be huge, something they didn’t need to worry about today. Firestone’s blacks [harder-compound primary tires] for street courses are pretty durable, so even when they start to slide around at the end of a stint, it’s not a diabolical drop-off. On a road course like Barber, when you get to the tail-end of tire life there, it’s pretty hard.”

Kirkwood’s perspective

“I thought it went really well, really smoothly,” Kirkwood told Motorsport.com. “Unfortunately it rained, but we were quick right away. My third lap in the car, I think was only nine-tenths off my quickest time all day, so I didn’t find an IndyCar was overwhelming to drive at all.

“I also thought I’d feel a lot more physically drained after a day in the car, but obviously it’s not a very physical track. It’s busy in the sense that there’s a lot of bumps so that you’re always fighting oversteer, and that gets your heart-rate up, but it’s not physically demanding. The test at Barber could be a different story, but we’ll see.”

Kirkwood, who scored 10 wins on his way to the Lights championship, said he had been untroubled by the presence of the aeroscreen.

“Honestly, I didn’t notice it apart from when I first got in,” he said. “While I was driving it was never an issue. I got used to the central spar of the [halo-style] hoop in Indy Lights this year, anyway.

“I thought maybe when we were in the corners there would be certain angles where things might get distorted by the angle of the aeroscreen but it didn’t do that at all. If anything, it just made the car feel slower than I expected because you don’t have the wind in your face.”

Kirkwood said the braking force, one of the things that can surprise rookies, was not a problem but that the nature of the Firestone tires had encouraged a different technique on corner entry compared with the Cooper rubber on the Lights car.

“The braking efficiency in the IndyCar isn’t a lot better than in the Lights car, to be honest,” he observed. “You’re coming at the corner at a higher rate of speed but the equally the carbon brakes feel a lot better, so the actual stopping power is not a big jump.

“The big difference is that the Firestones allow you to combine more brake pressure with steering angle, which means you can carry a lot more entry speed up to the apex. You can hang onto the brake pedal for a long time without getting a lock-up. Try that in a Lights car and you’re all over the place, with the amount of pressure you’re applying.”

Asked if he felt the Lights car’s behavior was good preparation for the IndyCar, Kirkwood replied: “The Lights car is actually much more of a handful, to be honest, but the Cooper tire likes that sort of thing and doesn’t mind wheelspin.

“If you have a snap of oversteer, you feel pretty comfortable in the IndyCar from the knowledge and experience that you got in a Lights car. But the difference is that you can drive like that in a Lights car and still be fast, whereas in an IndyCar driving like that won’t produce a good lap time.

“But yes, I think the experience you gain handling a Lights car provides you with more comfort once you get in an IndyCar, so I’d say Lights is a good learning tool for the big cars.”

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