IndyCar | COTA Contenders

How much did last week's Spring Training test reveal about the current pecking order in IndyCar?

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IndyCar | COTA Contenders
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It took nearly 15 years to get back to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. After an 11-year hiatus, Portland International Raceway made a triumphant return to the race calendar. Now, after a 7-year wait, the NTT IndyCar Series will be racing at the world-renowned Circuit of the Americas in just over a month's time!

That wait seems short by comparison, but it's probably felt much longer for racing fans who first witnessed F1 cars pound around the Austin based circuit back in 2012. Before the end of last year, we could only imagine what it would be like to see IndyCar drivers negotiate the signature sweeping curves, tight hairpins, descending straights, and steep incline at Turn 1.

After a completed official test on the 3.4 mile Grand Prix circuit, there is a great deal of data for the teams to analyze and speculative declarations for pundits to make. While veteran observers know better than to believe the hype of page-topping lap times in preseason testing, the appearance of Colton Herta's name at the top of three out of the four sessions is not as surprising as some might think.

The soon-to-be 19 year-old is a co-winner of the IMSA 24 Hours of Daytona, after a very successful debut with BMW Team RLL in January. Although he didn't win the championship, his performances in Indy Lights were very impressive. Young Herta is an IndyCar rookie now, but has already completed his first race for the now single-car effort of Harding Steinbrenner Racing. This is the same team that made the Fast Six, qualified fifth, and finished ninth with the spectacular rookie Patricio O'Ward, at the final round in Sonoma (with a Chevy instead of the current Honda engine).

Out of the other permanent road courses that the series will race at in 2019, Sonoma most closely resembles the challenges drivers will face over a race distance at COTA. The team appears to have a very consistent setup for the dramatic elevation changes, fast corners, and slow hairpins, which makes O'Ward's unfortunate exit from the team even more disappointing. Colton's consistent speed during the test was very reminiscent of his father's (Bryan Herta) impressive performances at Laguna Seca, during the mid to late 90's. The 1:46.625 (115.132 mph) lap time, that no other driver bested over the two day test, was less likely a low fuel glory run and more likely a remarkable preview of what's yet to come in March.

The only other driver whose fastest overall lap was in the 1 minute 46 second range was Alexander Rossi.

You would not be standing on a shaky limb if you picked the Andretti Autosport Honda driver to win the first "IndyCar Classic" at COTA. After dominant displays at Watkins Glen in 2017 and Mid-Ohio last year, this track definitely suits his aggressively measured driving style. Carrying the momentum of last year's success into this season, along with the stability around him, should put Rossi in contention for a win at just about every circuit on the calendar, but there would be something extra special about winning the first IndyCar race at the same circuit where he achieved his best F1 finish in 2015.

While stablemates Marco Andretti and Zach Veach still have some speed to find, Ryan Hunter-Reay spent most of the test near the top of the timesheets. It's no surprise, considering how dominant he and his team were at the season finale in Sonoma.

Penske Racing are eager to spoil the Andretti celebration with their dynamic trio. 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power and 2017 champion Josef Newgarden are always safe bets for a front-row start and podium finish, but the biggest question mark has been hovering over 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud. After going winless last year, the Frenchman recently declared that he has a better feeling in the car and showed it with the fifth overall fastest time. If he can drastically improve his qualifying form this season, we could very well see a Penske sweep of the podium in Texas.

Graham Rahal put up consistently faster times than his RLL Racing teammate Takuma Sato, and is also hoping to break his winless streak as early as possible in 2019. You can foresee James Hinchcliffe and new teammate Marcus Ericsson working very closely in order to find the best setup for the upcoming race. Ericsson's previous experience racing for Sauber (now Alfa Romeo) in F1 should help greatly, but he's already well aware that an IndyCar is a totally different beast. "Hinchtown" looked strong throughout the test, for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, while finishing with the ninth best lap time.

Another rookie who's looking to use his previous F1 experience to his advantage is Dale Coyne Racing driver Santino Ferrucci. So far withstanding the largely negative view of his inclusion in the series, due to his reckless actions in the F2 Series last year with Trident, Ferrucci managed to post the tenth quickest time despite completing far fewer laps than some of the competitors ahead of him. He certainly appeared to be more comfortable at COTA than his teammate Sebastien Bourdais. If he's truly found a home in IndyCar, let's hope it's with greater humility and circumspection.

The most fascinating driver combination in 2019 was purposefully saved for last.

Defending champion Scott Dixon spent most of the test hovering in the top ten for Chip Ganassi Racing. He finished with the eighth quickest time, but it was his highly praised rookie teammate who finished sixth fastest. With Formula E, Super Formula, and Indy Lights experience, Felix Rosenqvist is no ordinary rookie and is expected to be closely matched with the 5-time IndyCar champion all season long. As Dixon and his team have proven, consistency is key to winning a championship, but putting everything together for one race weekend is what helps you get to that elite level of competitiveness.

Every driver hopes to have that feeling when the car is working exactly the way they want, the conditions are highly favorable, and their team executes the perfect strategy. Who will be a contender at COTA? We don't have much longer to wait before we find out.

The IndyCar Classic takes place on March 24th at 1:30 pm (EDT), and can be watched exclusively on the NBC Sports Network in the U.S.

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