All eyes were on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday when Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean participated in their Rookie Orientation Program in preparation for the 106th Indianapolis 500 next May.
The two veteran racers were rookies in the series last season but did not experience the iconic event from the cockpit as they were not driving on a full-time basis for their teams. With a year under their belt, both drivers seem to feel much more comfortable in the car. Johnson returns with Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 48 Honda next year while Grosjean has moved to Andretti Autosport, taking over the No. 28 Honda on a full-time basis.
IndyCar’s Rookie Orientation Program requires a driver to turn ten laps of 205-210mph, 15 laps of 210-215 mph, then 15 laps over 215mph.
Wednesday’s ROP was interrupted and finally cut short by rain in the area. Less than ten minutes into the session, raindrops began to fall and halted the action for nearly four hours. Once the action resumed, both Johnson and Grosjean were able to get up to speed quickly. Both drivers had passed the second phase and were inching closer to the end of the final segment when the rain returned.
IndyCar officials deemed that both drivers passed their rookie tests even though both were a few laps short of completing the final phase. Both will finish their remaining laps the next time they are on the IMS oval, which for Grosjean will be the IMS Open Test on April 20-21, 2022. Johnson still has not committed to running the race next year but could join Grosjean at the Open Test if he opts to race in the event.
Johnson said the car felt significantly lighter than a NASCAR Cup car, and certainly is more nimble. Not having power steering was different, too. “The only thing that’s similar is the fear,” said the driver of the No. 48 Carvana Honda. “I don’t think it matters what car you’re in, Turn 1 at IMS looks like a tighter radius. It looks more challenging than anything else. Romain and I were talking about how they’re all supposed to be equal turns, but Turn 1 visually is different, and I think it is different the way the banking is.”
Johnson elaborated on the difference of the open-wheel car. “Turn 1 was really the challenging turn, the last one that I ran flat. It’s kind of a little different with the banking, the curb on the inside, a bit bumpy, kind of has you on edge. Once I settled into it, had that conversation with my right foot and convinced it to stay down, the car just was a dream to drive.”
“The emotions of ovals, for me, is very new even though I made an oval race,” Grosjean said. “I just feel like it’s not something that is particularly comfortable. It’s not like road courses or a street course, where I know what to do and I know how to progress. Here, I have to learn everything.”
While Johnson had Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti on-site to help him, Grosjean had James Hinchcliffe and team owner Michael Andretti, who has made 16 Indianapolis 500 starts. Andretti’s advice was similar to what he told Kurt Busch in 2014 and Fernando Alonso in 2017: “Take your time, trust your butt and respect the place,” Andretti said.
Asked what advice they provided, Grosjean had a few observations. “Look at the windsock, that was a good one. You don’t think about it if you don’t know about it. Don’t go too low down the line and hit the inside curbs. Pump your brake before you get to the pit stop. A few things that are a little bit different from normal because obviously at Gateway we were using the brakes.”
The only oval race that Grosjean drove in last season came at Gateway, where the former Formula One driver had an impressive oval debut. Johnson did not participate in any oval races but did test at Texas Motor Speedway in late August. Johnson does have a ton of experience around this particular track though.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion made 18 starts in the Brickyard 400 and won the event four times. Though he has raced on many ovals over the course of his career, he knows that nothing can actually prepare him to drive an IndyCar around IMS at more than 230 mph. This is why today’s session was crucial for his 2022 plans, which have not officially been announced yet.
Grosjean has warmed up to IMS quite well, as his first career pole and his two best finishes came on the IMS road course. His pair of runner-up finishes are a clear indication that he can quickly adapt to certain circuits. This one is different though and will require some more time spent as he gets up to speed with his new team.
While Johnson has more than 600 starts on ovals, Grosjean is at the other end of the spectrum. He described driving on ovals as being a whole new world. “It’s like comparing mountain biking and road cycling,” Grosjean said. “They might both be bikes, but they’re very different. It’s something I’ll need to learn over the years ahead. I think I’m a quick learner, but I realize there’s many things to find out about those tracks, the set-up of the car and the racing. It’s just so different.”
Johnson reached speeds of over 214 mph during his test at Texas after Scott Dixon shook down the car. He said he was “definitely a step closer” to racing at the Indy 500 next year, but still has some decisions to make. The most likely scenario for Johnson next year is to run all of the road and street course races again, and possibly add the Indy 500 to his schedule. The team still has a contract for Kanaan to drive the oval races and Johnson won’t be a championship contender so the other oval races might be out of the question.
There is a Firestone Tire Test scheduled for Friday at the speedway, weather permitting. The two drivers participating in that test will be Pato O’Ward from Arrow McLaren SP and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves with Meyer Shank Racing.