Is it time for IndyCar to implement a Young Driver Test?

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on July 29, 2013 9:36 am

One of the best times of the year for hardcore Formula 1 fans is the annual Young Driver Test, where we get to see up and coming faces test the machines we have seen their contemporaries race in throughout the year. While it’s not an exact apples-to-apples comparison due to the evolutionary nature of Formula 1, the test does give us a rare chance to analyze the potential pace of new talent.

It’s an opportunity that is relished by fans and teams alike. Just this year, for example, Red Bull Racing is using the test to evaluate the merits of Australian Daniel Ricciardo in his quest to replace fellow countryman Mark Webber in one of the most coveted rides in the F1 paddock.

So, what does this have to do with IndyCar, you ask?

Well, given the recent announcement from IndyCar Director of Competition Derrick Walker that the series will become even more spec in 2014 with mandated twin turbo setups in every car, the time seems to have come to implement a young driver test in IndyCar as well.

The spec nature of the series right now gives us a unique (although perhaps unfortunate) ability to compare drivers across a fairly even platform. Eventually a driver’s true pace is discovered, and barring changes to the team and its chemistry, you have what you have, so to speak.

New drivers, though, are able to bring in new data for teams to compare against their own. A classic example of this was the addition of AJ Allmendinger to the Team Penske fold for several races earlier this year. Although Allmendinger did not exactly live up to expectations outside of Indy, both Will Power and Helio Castroneves commented on how great it was to get another data set to compare against. Power specifically mentioned that he was able to pick up some speed off of AJ’s data from testing. With the ease of data collection in today’s cars, a driver swap is an easy way to quickly analyze your program.

Teams seem to be recognizing and embracing this, as the end of the season is seeing the introduction of several new drivers into the IndyCar paddock. It has recently been announced that Lucas Luhr, reigning champion and current points leader in ALMS’s P1 class, will pilot a second Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing entry at Sonoma, one-time Firestone Indy Lights driver James Davison will make his debut with Dale Coyne Racing at Mid-Ohio, and Luca Filippi will replace Alex Tagliani in the #98 Barracuda Racing entry for the open test this week (with the expectation being that he will pilot the car in the Honda Indy 200 on August 4). JR Hildebrand is also rumored to be in consideration to test or race the latter car at some point.

Filippi is a proven winner in the GP2 category in Europe and a former test driver for the Honda Racing F1 effort. With his vast testing experience, the data should at least help Barracuda Racing identify where they are deficient when it comes to the DW12. If Hildebrand eventually gets a turn then the data becomes even more valuable as you have three data sets to compare. While the situation is clearly not ideal for Tagliani, the Barracuda Racing engineers have to be excited by the possibility of fresh data.

Luhr, on the other hand, is not displacing Josef Newgarden but is instead piloting a second entry for the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team at Sonoma. He is an absolute beast in sports cars — his resume boasts 42 ALMS wins, the 2011 FIA GT1 World Championship, three class wins at Le Mans, and five class wins at Sebring. It will be very interesting to see Luhr’s pace in an open-wheel car.

These two drivers will bring new data to these teams to be sure, but they aren’t truly “young drivers,” especially Luhr. But given that teams are clearly being given little choice but to offer seat time in a valuable open test or race weekend environment, the value to teams is clear to have IndyCar mandate a test to provide a proving ground for alternate drivers.

With the testing limits currently in place, the extra track time would be too good for teams to pass up, even if they were required to run a different driver in the car and especially if it were at a venue the series currently races at. The test could be run, for example, on the day after an IndyCar race so that teams would already be invested in the weekend and costs could be contained, or as a second day of an open test (such as this week’s at Mid-Ohio) to allow for some really close comparison.  The current drivers would certainly be pushing like crazy knowing the young guys were auditioning the following day!

Think of the anticipation and excitement of waiting to see who Ganassi or Penske would tab to run in their cars at the test. Could such an initiative possibly be the impetus to finally encourage those teams to run feeder series programs of their own in an effort to lock up the young talent they identified at the test?

And who wouldn’t want to see how some of the current stars of the Mazda Road to Indy would fare?  Sage Karam, Matthew Brabham, Diego Ferreira, Jack Hawksworth, and Shelby Blackstock all immediately jump to mind as intriguing shoes to potentially bring in for such a test. A rising tide lifts all boats, and when these drivers returned to their respective series you can bet that some extra eyeballs would follow them — a side effect that the Pro Mazda and Indy Lights series could most certainly benefit from right now.

The potential would exist for young drivers to make their mark in the sport and demonstrate their true capabilities in an IndyCar. It would also allow some of the drivers not currently connected to IndyCar teams (Spencer Pigot, Kyle Kaiser, Lloyd Read, etc.) to make inroads into the paddock, which could greatly benefit them in the future. If their pace was good enough, you have to believe that teams would try to find a way to run them at some point, no matter the sponsorship limitations.

IndyCar is largely a spec series, and that fact doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. With a young driver test, some fresh blood and ideas could be injected into the series in the form of new drivers getting great opportunities. The series would also get some positive press — there is really no downside to up and coming drivers getting a shot in IndyCar machinery.

Let’s hope that Derrick Walker and IndyCar are giving the idea some thought.