IndyCar rookie Jimmie Johnson believes he is within a second of his Chip Ganassi Racing team-mates, although he says he may never get 100% acclimatised to the series.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson is undertaking the monumental task of switching to single-seaters from 20-plus years of stock car competition, in order to achieve a childhood dream of racing in IndyCar at the age of 45.
Johnson has been working with the team’s driver advisor Dario Franchitti, who won four IndyCar titles (three with Ganassi) and three Indianapolis 500s (two with Ganassi). Franchitti has continued to coach Ganassi’s drivers with his extensive notes stretching back to his driving days.
Braking and adapting to downforce have been the key areas to address, but Johnson has gone from being over two seconds off the best time in his first test to hovering just over a second behind his team-mates after three days in the car since last season finished.
Asked to expand on his pre-season diagnosis of being 60% acclimatised to IndyCar and when he would reach 100%, Johnson said: “I can say that the last 10 or 15% is going to be the hardest.
“I’ve made some great strides, I’m going in the right direction. I’m within a second of my team-mates now, which has really been my goal out of the box, was to try to be within a second of them.
“But that last little bit, that’s what the elite guys are so good at and chase their whole career.
“I don’t know if I’ll get to 100% with the amount of years that I have to give this a try, but there’s still so many things I haven’t even experienced yet.
“I’ve never been on a red [softer compound] tyre. I’ve just recently had a chance to drive a street circuit tire and understand how much more grip it has versus a traditional road course tyre.
“When you look at the street course tracks, I won’t even be able to drive on one until the opening practice session that we have prior to qualifying.
“I feel like my best chance, though, with all that being said, is later in the year when we get to Laguna Seca.
“I’ve been able to test there twice. I will have a large part of a season under my belt, and I think that’s probably, looking forward, a track that I should be in there racing with the guys. Or I hope to be.”
Johnson has been friends with six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon for a long time, and Dixon reckons Johnson has the toughest task of the stacked 2021 IndyCar rookie class.
He said Johnson is going through the “toughest transition”, and that he has “huge respect” for what Johnson is attempting, alongside fellow newcomers Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean in 2021.
Dixon addressed Johnson’s acclimatisation directly during IndyCar’s content day on Friday.
“It’s a long process,” said Dixon. “I think with how competitive our field is, I think probably a second covers most of our races from the start to the finish, and even when you get to that middle pack you’re maybe talking three or four tenths [between cars].
“The easiest way to put it is that he [Johnson] has been doing one sport for 20, 25 years. He has to try and unlearn all that stuff and then learn a totally new process.
“These cars have become very tricky in different conditions. The tyres are quite tricky to know ways around them. Then you do all your practice on the primary tyre and then, okay, here’s qualifying, you get a red tyre.
“There are races now that we do get the red tyre for one run basically, or two if you want to use them a little bit more. There’s a lot to take in.
“Most of the tracks he’s not even going to drive around, especially the street courses, until we get there for the first time.
“There’s a lot of prep that you can try and do, but honestly it doesn’t transfer in the real world when you get to that circuit.
“I’ve done thousands of laps on a sim for Long Beach, but when you get there it’s a totally different situation.
“I don’t know, I think track time is the toughest thing in any category these days.
“In Europe they still have a lot of testing and things like that, but in America in any of these formulas now, you don’t really get to test in too many categories.”
Johnson has been able to test outside of IndyCar during the off-season, driving lower-powered single-seaters to expedite his development.
He’s also returned to prototype racing, finishing second in the 24 Hours of Daytona as part of an Action Express crew with Kamui Kobayashi, Simon Pagenaud and Mike Rockenfeller.
Earlier this week, it was announced Johnson, Kobayashi and Pagenaud would return to race in the concurrent IMSA Endurance rounds, at Sebring, Watkins Glen and the Road Atlanta-based Petit Le Mans.
The reigning IMSA champion and 24 Hours of Daytona winner Helio Castroneves – the treble Indy 500 winner who will contest six IndyCar races this year with new team Meyer Shank Racing – says Johnson’s prototype driving is relevant and will help him in 2021.
“It will help him tremendously in understanding the braking points,” said Castroneves. “With his team-mates and sharing data on the same exactly car at the same time, it will no question prepare him better for adapting to the IndyCar.
“I do believe he’s not only racing that, but he’s also practicing in different open-wheel cars. Again, the rules of IndyCar don’t allow much testing.
“That’s very, very difficult for a guy like him, a guy like me, but especially a rookie person as well. IndyCar, it is a beast. It is not a toy. When you jump in, it can bite you.
“I do feel that it’s great to have him. It’s just more time driving. For understanding what he needs to do in IndyCar, that [racing prototypes in IMSA] would be perfect. I wish I would be doing what he’s doing.”