Dubai-based Ed Jones has signalled his intent in the build-up to his maiden Verizon IndyCar Series campaign, by outpacing some of the championship’s biggest-hitters during the first official pre-season test at Phoenix Raceway.
As part of his preparation, the 22-year-old travelled to the 1.022-mile Arizona oval for three days of running behind the wheel of his Honda-powered single-seater.
As the series’ only full-time rookie, the first of those days saw Jones enjoy almost exclusive use of the track, before he was joined by 20 high-calibre rivals for four sessions of daytime and evening action.
The latter in particular was significant, given that the Phoenix Grand Prix on 29 April – the fourth of 17 outings on the 2017 IndyCar schedule – will take place under floodlights.
Working closely with his race-winning engineer Michael Cannon, Jones completed just shy of 300 laps in total, steering clear of trouble as a number of his adversaries came into contact with the circuit walls.
More notably, Jones wrapped up the opening session in ninth position on the time-sheets, behind DCR team-mate Sébastien Bourdais – one of the most successful drivers in US open-wheel history – and ahead of defending title-holder Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon and multiple Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
The former European F3 Open Champion continued to lap competitively throughout the test, and with the curtain-raising Grand Prix of St. Petersburg now less than a month away, he is confident of making his mark when the season gets underway in earnest.
“It was a very positive and productive test, and I think we offered a glimpse of our potential,” said Jones. “The Rookie Day was really useful, as it gave me the opportunity to get to grips with the IndyCar on an oval for the first time and get up-to-speed before everybody else joined the track.
“We covered a lot of laps, and that hard work paid off with the ninth-fastest time the next afternoon. I was actually up in P2 for much of the session and whilst it’s impossible to read anything into it at this stage because you don’t know what programmes or strategies different teams are running, it was very cool – and, I must admit, a little surreal – to see my name on the timing screens ahead of people like Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay, Dixon and Castroneves.
“The focus for me was on getting used to the traffic and following other cars in the dirty air, as well as pit-stop practice, which is not something I’ve had to deal with before.
“I clearly still have some catching up to do, but the key will be to make sure we maximise our final test at Sebring at the end of this month and step it up another level.
Malcolm Wilson, chief of M-Sport, had more than one reason to celebrate at Christmas. It wasn’t just the festive period that was keeping him in a good mood; it was the fact that four-time World Rally Championship (WRC) winner Sebastien Ogier was now on M-Sport’s books for the 2017 season.
As the 60-year-old Brit said, it was “the best Christmas present” he could have hoped for and you need not look any further than Ogier’s CV to see why.
The Frenchman has dominated the sport since his compatriot Sebastien Loeb captured the last of his nine titles in 2012, winning the last four championships with Volkswagen. If there was one man any team boss would want, it was him.
So when Volkswagen unexpectedly called it quits in November, Ogier was taken by surprise especially after testing their new car.
He was left to find new employers but given his pedigree there was never any real reason to panic. M-Sport were soon knocking on his door and the challenge of delivering the first world title for the English manufacturer and his fifth crown was simply too good to turn down.
“I had a lot of discussions and offers but Volkswagen’s decision to close down was so late in the season, meaning teams had already lined up their drivers for the new season,” said Ogier. “But here at M-Sport, you have a very committed and motivated team of people who are all working very hard. That’s important for me.
“We are all motivated, including myself, in making this team win again and the target is to keep the high level for the rest of the season and challenge for the titles.”
Donning the new colours of M-Sport, Ogier could not have asked for a better debut in Monte Carlo last month. Behind the wheel of the powerful Ford Fiesta WRC, he surprised even himself as he laid down the marker for the campaign ahead.
Not that his rivals needed any warning of his potential, but his ability to power from ninth to the top of the podium and clinch his fifth consecutive Monte Carlo win shows they have a stern battle on their hands.
M-Sport will be hoping there’s more of the same when he and co-driver Julien Ingrassia line up in Sweden this weekend and the Frenchman is raring to go.
“The Monte Carlo win was fantastic especially when I didn’t really expect it,” he said. “I had very little time with the team and there were a lot of new things that I needed to do.
“I came into Monte Carlo hoping to fight for a place on the podium but to win the rally was awesome.
“For Sweden, I feel more prepared than I was before as I have had more time in the car, having tested it in December and this week. The car has been good and I feel confident for Sweden.
“For sure, this is one race that I enjoy but with snow on the track, it’s never going to be easy.”
It’s not just the roads which Ogier has to worry about but the competitors who sit below him in the standings.
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Kris Meeke has been billed as the man who could wrest away Ogier’s crown now that the French manufacturers have made a full-time return to the sport.
But the Northern Irishman had a race to forget in France, crashing out on the first day. His preparations for Sweden haven’t gone smoothly either after again being involved in an accident in the pre-Sweden Rally test on Monday.
However, Ogier believes the man who beat him in the Portugal and Finland rallies last year will come back strongly.
“I expect Kris to be one of the fastest drivers in the championship,” he said. “He will show his good speed and I’ll expect some good challenges with him.
“You can never say there’s a main rival in WRC. You cannot focus on one guy because it may not be him. For sure, I put him on the list for drivers who can win rallies and fight for the championship.”
With 39 victories to his name, Ogier is the second most successful WRC driver after Loeb. He still has a long way to go to reach his countryman’s nine crowns but that isn’t on his mind.
His concern is having a fifth world title come November, although he wouldn’t know where it would rank among his lengthy list of achievements.
“I’m still far away from winning another championship,” he said. “Every title I’ve won, I value and it’s never easy to become a world champion. I’m very happy and proud in what I have achieved in the last four years with Volkswagen.
“Let’s see what the future brings. It’s clear that if we manage things well this season, if you take the context (of what has happened and the strength of the competition) into consideration, for sure, it would be a very big achievement.”
He added: “For sure, I can go even better with M-Sport but it’s going to be difficult. For us, the target is to try and win every rally that we enter. The team hasn’t had any drivers win for a long time and the title would be great to achieve but we know it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Loeb is just one of the highest profile drivers of WRC to now test himself in the Dakar Rally. The 42-year-old has already enjoyed success in the world’s most notorious cross country endurance race, finishing runner-up to Stephane Peterhansel in this year’s edition.
Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah, who also competed in WRC, has mastered Dakar, winning the trophy in 2011 and 2015.
Still going strong in his 30s, Ogier insists he’s enjoying being behind the wheel in WRC, although he remains open on whether to follow in their footsteps.
“At the moment, I don’t have any plans and I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “You never know what the future will bring. I am focusing on the WRC as it’s something that I like the most. Maybe one day, I may be interested to do the Dakar Rally.”
You can now watch the WRC live and catch up on the highlights on redbull.tv
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