3 veteran drivers test skills with Indy rookies
Michel Jourdain Jr. got a refresher course in IndyCar racing. Jean Alesi and Rubens Barrichello got a chance to feel young again.
It was an unusual group at this year's Indianapolis' rookie orientation program.
The three drivers with world-wide experience and big-time name recognition took advantage of their extra track time Thursday, with Barrichello and Jourdain passing all three phases of their Indianapolis 500 rookie test. Alesi never got started.
''You know, it's not my very first time here. I was here for Formula One, but I didn't drive the right way,'' Barrichello joked, referring to the F1 cars running clockwise on the track's road course and the IndyCars running counterclockwise on the traditional oval.
Clearly, these are no ordinary rookies.
The 47-year-old Alesi and 39-year-old Barrichello made a combined 523 career starts in Formula One.
Barrichello, the 2002 U.S. Grand Prix winner, holds the F1 career record for starts (322) and is the most popular driver in race-crazy Brazil, a nation that has produced former IndyCar champ Tony Kanaan and three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves, among others.
Jourdain has competed in just about every series other than IndyCars over the past 15 years -- CART, Champ Cars, stock cars, trucks and grand prix races. He finished 13th in 1996, his last appearance on the historic 2.5-mile oval.
Alesi, winner of the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix, has been driving so long he actually helped Simon Pagenaud get his racing career off the ground as a teenager. On Thursday, the two Frenchmen were both turning laps as members of the Brickyard's 2012 rookie class.
''He's 47, that's my answer,'' Pagenaud said with a laugh when asked whether he considered Alesi a true rookie.
But these drivers were working Thursday for one reason -- they all have limited or no experience on ovals.
Jourdain's most recent experience in these cars was in 2004 when he competed on the Champ Car circuit, and Barrichello and Alesi are hoping to make the 500 their oval debuts. Barrichello's first oval experience came earlier this week when he tested on Texas' smaller, higher-banked track. After topping 200 mph, Barrichello called the experience ''bloody fast.''
At Indy, he'll have to go even faster. Last year, the slowest driver in the 500 field was Ana Beatriz whose four-lap average was 223.879.
It's not clear yet what the speeds will be this year.
Marco Andretti turned the fastest lap, 218.625 mph, during last month's test and fans immediately began to grumble about the lack of speed in the new car. On Thursday, IndyCar said it will increase the turbocharger boost levels for three days next week - the day before qualifying, Pole Day and Bump Day. The increase should result in an additional 40-50 horsepower.
Without the added boost, Barrichello hit a top speed of 214.083 mph in 83 laps around the track Thursday.
On a day six of eight rookies passed all three phases of their rookie test, it was James Jakes who landed atop the speed chart. He went 218.268 after failing to qualify for last year's race.
Another rookie, Wade Cunningham, passed the first two phases of his test but ran out of time to complete the final phase. English rookie Katherine Legge never made it onto the track as team owner Jay Penske tried to find a replacement for a Lotus engine.
Regular practice is scheduled to open Saturday. Meanwhile, the high-profile ''rookies'' were busy learning some lessons.
''The walls are very close and I don't want to think about it,'' Barrichello said.
Jourdain, who grew up in Mexico and is now driving for Bobby Rahal's team, was sixth among the eight drivers on the track. His fastest lap was 213.633.
Alesi, in contrast, did the lightest work, finishing only 18 laps, none faster than 186.387. He's driving for Tyce Carlson's startup team, Fan Force United, and is one of two drivers attempting to make the field with a Lotus.
Part of the reason for Thursday's slowdown was that none of the drivers wanted to push the limits on a cool, breezy day that gave them a brief glimpse into what makes this track so tricky.
''I'm thinking it's going to take some time to get comfortable in the car,'' Jourdain said. ''So I want to treat it (the speedway) with the respect it deserves. If it comes quick, great. If not, I don't want to lose my patience.''
Veterans such as Castroneves and Kanaan, Barrichello's friend and teammate with KV Racing Technology, know that one mistimed gust of wind can send anyone into a wall, and all of that experience has taught these veterans not to take unnecessary risks.
How far might they push things next week? That depends on the situation.
''I've not done anything in a long time, so you want to be conservative,'' Jourdain said. ''But you also want to race. So the most important thing is to go out and see how you're feeling. If you're feeling good, then you will start going faster.''
Or at least give you a chance to turn back the clock.
''It makes me feel younger,'' said Barrichello, who turns 40 in two weeks. ''I think Texas helped me in a lot of ways, and it was a good first experience here.''