Less than two weeks before the start of the 2014 season, the Verizon IndyCar Series staged an open test at Barber Motorsports Park that showed the battle between Honda and Chevrolet could be closer than ever.
Team Penske's Will Power led both days of the Barber test, working his Dallara-Chevrolet down to a lap of 1 minute, 7.0608 seconds. But Justin Wilson, in a Honda-powered Dallara out of the Dale Coyne Racing stable was within 0.003 second, demonstrating how much progress Honda has made on its new twin-turbo engine.
Honda is running a twin-turbo configuration for the first time since the IndyCar Series introduced a 2.2-liter V-6 engine formula in 2012. Chevrolet has substantially reworked its own twin-turbo V-6 this year to meet INDYCAR's new 2,500-mile life requirement for an engine.
In addition, two of the IndyCar Series' top teams switched engine manufacturers for 2014 -- Andretti Autosport to Honda and Ganassi Racing to Chevrolet.
"Going to twin turbo, I think Honda has to catch up to what Chevy has been used to for the past two years," said AA's Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was seventh fastest at Barber. "The good thing is we do have a benchmark and we have an idea of where we need to be. I drove the single turbo, jumped in the twin, and now we're closing that gap. It's really good and I'm optimistic."
Power, who closed out the 2013 season with a victory at Auto Club Speedway, was at the top throughout the Barber open test.
"We found some good stuff over the winter, worked hard," Power said. "It looks like everyone is, once again, so close, and running the same setups. It's just ridiculously competitive."
Twenty-two drivers participated in the two-day session, which was hampered by cold and misty conditions that reduced track time.
Power led a Team Penske sweep of the first three places on the first day, lapping the 2.38-mile Barber road course in 1:07.6492. The major talking point was the performance of his new teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who returns to Indy cars this season after 13 years away racing Formula One and NASCAR.
Throughout a series of winter tests, Montoya has struggled to get a quick lap time out of new Firestone tires, but he may have unlocked the secret at Barber.
"I'm trying to learn how to get more out of the car and we're getting there," he said. "It was good today. There's a couple of places that I need to do a little better job and be a little cleaner, but we're getting there."
On Tuesday, when conditions were about half a second faster, Wilson came closest to ending the Penske team's reign at the top.
The Englishman was pleased with the balance of his car on a track where he has never finished better than seventh.
"We like the progress that we've made to the car and the work that the team is doing," Wilson said. "It's a complete new set of guys, and working with [engineer] Michael Cannon, that just keeps getting better and better every time we run. The last two days have been all about gelling as a team, coming together more than anything else, so I think that helps us going into St. Pete."
"We've been unlucky in terms of the weather, but nevertheless we did a lot of the test program that we wanted to do and saw how the car reacted," Sato remarked. "It was a very positive performance-wise and the feedback."
The cool, damp conditions prevented many teams from collecting data that will be relevant when they return to Barber for the April 27 Honda Grand Prix of Alabama.
"A lot of the answers we found today, we'll have to retest and come back when it's hotter," said Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport. "We're really questioning a lot of our reads just because of the low temperatures."
Test leader Power said that he was happy about what he and the Penske team learned over the course of around 100 laps.
"Obviously the track conditions are exceptional, a lot of grip because it's so cold, and you gain a little bit of downforce," he said. "But you're always learning -- there's no use in belting around there not learning anything. We found some more good stuff, crossed off things that don't work and I think we're in a good place."