PLYMOUTH, Wisc — Each rookie gets an extra set of Firestone tires this weekend in Elkhart Lake. That helped Romain Grosjean use that fresh set at the end of the 45 minute NTT IndyCar Series practice session at Road America on Friday to set the quickest lap of the day in his No. 51 Honda.
Grosjean, turned in a time of 1:47.6781-seconds and looks like a legitimate pole contender on Saturday. The rookie driver qualified on the pole for the GMR Grand Prix in Indianapolis and was third and fifth respectively last weekend in Belle Isle.
In saying that, he says that being quickest in practice remarkably isn’t ideal for him. He explained why.
“Because when you lead a free practice, you don’t want to make many changes for the rest of the weekend,” he said. “We are the fastest. Sometimes it works. Some other times it doesn’t work because the track goes another direction.
“We just need to keep on our toes. I rely a lot on my engineer, Olivier Boisson because he knows INDYCAR much more than I do. It’s low grip today. Last time I came two weeks ago, it was like this (indicating). I don’t know what high grip is in Road America, and therefore I don’t know what we should do on the car.
“When you’re first, you don’t want to make too big changes, but if you were where we were last, Detroit, struggling in practice, you know you need to make some big changes because you kind of feel there’s nothing to lose.
“But maybe it turns out okay.”
The Frenchman tested here not too long ago, so this technically his first time on the 4.014-mile road course. Did that help his speed on Friday?
“No,” smiled Grosjean when asked if the test helped for today. “The track was very different when we came testing here. The car, we had to make few adjustment in the session to get the car where we wanted. Obviously as a rookie, got an extra set of tires, which is always nice, compared to the guys because the degradation was quite high today.
“In the end we did manage to get a couple of laps on the new tires, which was good for P1.”
The track wasn’t different just for himself. It was difficult for everyone. Even the veterans said the track conditions in vastly warmer temps altered the grip levels.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was P2 in his No. 28 Honda. Hunter-Reay set a time of 1:47.8024-seconds in his No. 28 Honda. The Andretti Autosport driver needs a good finish on Sunday as this was a great start to the weekend of making it happen. Hunter-Reay, has three top four finishes in his last five Road America starts.
“The track was tough today,” said the Andretti Autosport driver. “Low grip. Conditions with how windy it was and everything… I’m sure it will change tomorrow with cooler conditions.
“The tire degradation was huge. I haven’t experienced that here before. It was third or fourth lap. It just wasn’t there. Took advantage of that early, tried to make some changes. But every time you went out, it felt worse.”
Josef Newgarden (1:47.8417-seconds) was third in his No. 2 Chevrolet and agreed with Hunter-Reay, while Alex Palou (1:47.8515-seconds) and Graham Rahal (1:48.0938-seconds) rounded out the top five in the initial session.
Newgarden, won this race in 2018 and has four top 10s in five starts on this track with Palou being third and seventh last year.
“It was trickier than last year,” Newgarden said. “I thought the grip level of the track was lower. Definitely put a premium on getting it right the first run because the dropoff seems pretty big, at least close to a second, I would say, first to second run on tires.
“Low track grip. Could be fun to watch. Hopefully I’m on the right side of that.
“I mean, on my second run I was already blowing the rear tires off the car. Probably going backwards, unless everyone else was doing the same as me, which I would hope.
“Yeah, it feels really low grip. I think you need to see tomorrow how we progress, just like Ryan said. Some things can change. Temperature is a big effect. A little bit more rubber maybe will help us.
“I don’t know. Seems like it’s taken a big step from last year just from what I’ve seen. We’ll see tomorrow.”
In saying that, Hunter-Reay said that the lower grip levels were expected.
“I expected it to be low grip just with the track temp, the overall ambient temp being close to 90 degrees,” he said. “Usually here we have cooler conditions. It is an older surface, so I expect it to be light, not that light. But it’s the same for everybody.
“Like I said, I think it’s going to grip up more tomorrow with cooler conditions and more rubber going down despite it raining tonight.”
As for what this could mean for the race Sunday if it stays?
“Yeah, I think it will be super exciting if it’s this grip level all weekend, yeah, just because you’re going to see guys struggle,” Newgarden said. “Some are going to do well, some are not. Yeah, it will definitely make it more exciting. Big tire deg, you see big battles, especially in the mid pack, so it will be fun.”
Rahal, has a top eight in all five tries himself.
Colton Herta ended up being sixth in his No. 26 Honda. Herta, was eighth as a rookie in 2019 and fifth in both races a year ago.
That’s why it’s none too shocking to see the guys that have all fared well lately in Road America near the top of the speed charts.
Rookie Scott McLaughlin used his fresh tires to get up to eighth in the end while Oliver Askew, who’s making just his second start of the season wound up ninth in his No. 21 Chevrolet.
Ed Jones didn’t complete a lap after he had a mechanical issue at the start of practice. Points leader Pato O’Ward was only 11th quick in his No. 5 Chevrolet while third in points Scott Dixon was 12th.
The series has a pair of practice sessions on Saturday. The first beginning at 11:10 a.m. ET and the final one at 5:30 p.m. ET. Sandwiched between them in qualifying to set the field for Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix (12 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) at 2:30 p.m. ET. All three sessions on Saturday will air on Peacock while qualifying will also air in tape delay on NBCSN at Midnight ET.