Newgarden sets the pace as IndyCar gets back on track

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske - 2017 IndyCar champion

Team Penske was in charge of proceedings on Monday at Sonoma Raceway, as the Verizon IndyCar Series started preparations for a new season.

IndyCar has been in stasis since mid-September, when the finale of last year's championship was held at the Californian circuit. That's meant an off-season lasting almost five months for the US open wheel series.

But IndyCar will be getting back to work before Formula 1 in 2018, with the first race due to be held at St. Petersburg on March 11. Accordingly, IndyCar teams have hitting the track for their first pre-season test session this week.

Of the teams working on one-lap pace, first blood of the year went to Penske which claimed the top three spots on the timesheets.

Fresh from competing in the Race of Champions in Riyadh, reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden was fastest. His time of 1:18.10s was just under two tenths faster than Will Power, with Simon Pagenaud a further 0.35s back.

Newgarden's time was almost three seconds slower than his pole time last September. However he was on primary tyres and running the new universal aerokit all teams will be using for the first time in 2018.

“Obviously you notice a lot less grip on this car, a significant drop," Newgarden told "It’s moving around a lot more, we were way more stuck. But I’d say the traits, the overall balance and feel, is not that different."

Former F1 star and four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais was best of the non-Penske runners. The second Dale Coyne Racing car was looking just as swift, with an impressive showing from Pietro Fittipaldi.

"Within two sessions there, he was pretty much up to speed," said Fittipaldi's race engineer Michael Cannon. "He’s very, very level-headed, very serious and very focused. A truly professional racecar driver."

The reigning World Series Formula 3.5 V8 champion is likely to share the race seat with Indy Lights graduate Zachary Claman de Melo.

Matheus Leist in the AJ Foyt Racing car was six hundredths of a second back, followed by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Robert Wickens. Also taking part were Britain's Jordan King (Ed Carpenter Racing), IndyCar veteran James Hinchcliffe (SPM), Spencer Pigot (ECR) and Tony Kanaan (AJ Foyt).

King was the busiest driver in the afternoon session, completing 53 laps. Gabby Chaves was the slowest of the 12 runners on Monday, with new team Harding Racing still getting up to speed.

“It feels fantastic to be back, and with a team with a lot of commitment, a lot of drive,” Chaves said. “It felt great to be back into that rhythm."

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