JR Hildebrand had a little trouble navigating the twists and turns of Sonoma's Infineon Raceway, but nothing seemed to bug the Redwood High grad more than an uninvited guest to Saturday's IndyCar test session.
During a Q&A period with some of the 1,500 race fans at the track, Hildebrand was stung in the neck by a bee when he tried to shoo it away. He isn't allergic to bee stings and went right back out on the track with no trouble.
"I'm more worried about getting stung again (than anything else)," Hildebrand quipped.
Getting back in the driver's seat was a big relief for Hildebrand, who was only recently cleared by doctors to return to action after surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in an accident at Texas Motor Speedway last year.
"I feel great now. We're way ahead of schedule as far as rehab," said Hildebrand, who's also an avid mountain biker. "One of the first things I did when I got back here was to take my bike out for a ride. ... Being down for as long as I was (6 months) it's made me really appreciate being able to do things for the first time in a long time again."
Hildebrand's No. 4 Panther Racing entry had to be towed out of the gravel once, but he was still pleased with the results after posting a lap of 1 minute, 18.73 seconds over the 12-turn, 2.303-mile road course.
"I'm impressed. Within 10 laps, we were right about where we qualified the last time we were here," Hildebrand said.
Ryan Briscoe led the field on Saturday as five IndyCar Series drivers completed a full day of pre-season testing at Infineon Raceway. Veteran Formula One driver, Rubens Barrichello, also took park in the test session on behalf of KV Racing Technology.
Team Penske’s Briscoe posted a time of 1:17.49 seconds, slightly better than teammate Will Power (1:17.83); Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport, 1:18.43); EJ Viso (KV Racing Technology, 1:18.50) and Barrichello (1:18.91).
“It’s great to see so much interest for the new car and IndyCar and it’s going to be a lot of fun and good racing around here,” said Power, the two-time defending Sonoma champion. “I think people can expect a good race here (in August).”
"I'm feeling good about this season," Hildebrand said. "We're all starting with a clean slate, especially with this new car. There were a few teams that least year had clearly outdeveloped everyone else. ... It was really hard to close that gap. ... Now, we're a little more in control of our own destinies. How quickly can we figure things out?"
The test session was a chance to see the new IndyCar in action. Series technicians engineered the new design last year in hopes of creating a safer ride and more balanced competition. Drivers weren't ready to say whether or not the new design could have prevented the death of Dan Wheldon during the final race weekend of the 2011 season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, however.
"I've been impressed with how fast the car is. It has a lot of downforce," Hildebrand said.
Barrichello, who is close to finalizing a deal with KV Racing Technology, enjoyed his first test on the twists and turns of Infineon Raceway.
“We had a lot of fun today learning a different circuit,” Barrichello said. “Physically this track is very demanding with a lot of medium and high speed corners. Right now I’m just learning the car and the circuit.”
Tony Kanaan visited Winner's Circle on Saturday, but didn't get into his No. 11 KV Racing Technology car until Sunday. Barrichello took the car out for a spin Saturday.
"We changed cars completely... We went from a normally aspirated engine to a turbo," Kanaan said. "I love it. I think it's a great addition to the series."
Infineon Raceway will host the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, Aug. 24-26. The weekend will also feature the SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge and the Formula Car Championship. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 800-870-RACE (7223) or visit www.infineonraceway.com/indycar.