LONG BEACH, Calif — Andretti Autosport flexed their muscles in the opening 45-minute practice session from a sunny Long Beach on Friday afternoon. We’ve seen six different teams win the NTT IndyCar Series race over the last seven tries here and the only team to repeat is that of Andretti.
In fact, since 2010, they’ve won four times on the 1.968-mile street course. That’s double the amount of the next best with no one else having won more than twice during that span.
On Friday, they looked that part again. Prior to going red for the third time of the session, they had the top four speeds on the timing chart.
Scott Dixon made contact with the Turn 1 tire barrier which brought out the stoppage at 3:37 p.m. local time. Colton Herta was quickest at that moment and his lap withstood a furious charge from the 27 other drivers to close out the practice.
Herta, ended P1 in his No. 26 Honda with a time of 1:09.2680-seconds.
The youngster is coming off of a win last weekend and eyeing a second straight win after finishing 23rd as a rookie in 2019.
“It felt really good,” Herta said on Friday. “Seems like all the street courses we kind of rolled off with a really good street course car and really good balance. Credit to all the guys, we found some really good stuff with the damping and the thirds to kind of bring to the street courses this year. We’ve been really good at every single one so far.
“Kind of this whole year I think we’ve had really good street course cars. I think we’ve had probably the best street course cars this year. We’ve been really competitive on them, every single one.
“Yeah, a lot of confidence coming into this weekend. It seems we came with a similar package that we come to most of the street courses with. I feel really good with the car. The grip’s already there for me.
“Yeah, I was happy. Kind of surprised at the grip level and how fast everyone was to kind of get up to speed. So that was really interesting. But, yeah, happy with how the day’s been.
“So, yeah, I guess we’ll just be fine-tuning and trying to make changes in the direction that we think the track is going to change.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay (1:09.5154-seconds) ended up fifth while James Hinchcliffe (1:09.6276-seconds) was eighth and Alexander Rossi (1:10.7940-seconds) was ninth.
Hunter-Reay’s replacement for 2022 was named a few hours prior to this session but the American driver is wanting to end his career how he began it with Andretti Autosport and that’s in victory lane at Long Beach. He did so in 2010 and wanting to do it again in 2021.
Rossi, is eyeing a three-peat here with him leading 71 of 85 laps in victory in 2018 and 80 of 85 a year later.
Hinchcliffe, also won here in 2017 and has four straight top 10 finishes on this track.
Simon Pagenaud (1:09.4334-seconds), Alex Palou (1:09.4554-seconds), Felix Rosenqvist (1:09.4870-seconds), Helio Castroneves (1:09.5703-seconds) and Scott McLaughlin (1:09.6212-seconds) turned their top laps in the closing minutes.
McLaughlin is trying to hold off Romain Grosjean for this year’s Rookie of the Year honors. He’s currently 20 points ahead with Grosjean being 11th on Friday. If McLaughlin can stave off Grosjean, he will be the first Penske driver to ever earn this distinction.
For Pagenaud, he won here in 2016 and has seven top eight finishes in his last eight starts here including five of which in the top five.
Palou, was the best among the championship contenders in seeing this track for the first time. Being P2 is a great start to his weekend.
“Was all about learning the track and stuff like that,” the points leader Palou said. “But, yeah, pretty happy. The car was good. Was a quick session. Yeah, got up to speed quite quick. So happy with the car at the moment.
“It was a bit bumpier than I thought, a bit less grippy than I thought.
“But it’s really fun, to be honest. I really like it. The track really flows. You can connect one corner to the other that you don’t really get those corners in another street courses. So, yeah, I would say it’s one of my favorite street courses that we’ve been to.”
Palou said by the nature of a short practice, he didn’t do anything other than just learn the track. They’ll focus on speed tomorrow.
“Yeah, unfortunately we don’t have enough time to concentrate on race setup because you would need at least 10, 15 laps. That would be, like, the session over.
“We were just focusing on not even qualifying runs, just knowing the track, going with some fuel and doing laps. Maybe tomorrow we’ll try a bit more qualifying runs.
“But, yeah, it’s tough when it’s only 45 minutes. Tomorrow we’re going to have reds. Yeah, hopefully we get some runs on those.”
Josef Newgarden brought out the first red flag of the session in spinning as well as stalling in Turn 9 at 3:17 p.m. locally. He was 10th in the end in his No. 2 Chevrolet. Newgarden, finished runner-up his last time here and has a pair of podiums in his last three tries.
“I got a good feel for the car,” said Newgarden. “Feels like we’ve got something to work with, I think, without a doubt. Feel pretty confident going into tomorrow. Just need some time to digest everything this afternoon and evening, then hopefully hit it tomorrow pretty good with our Hitachi crew.”
Pato O’Ward was the most frustrated in being 16th overall. He said that’s where his No. 5 Chevrolet is right now as they’re struggling for speed.
“Yeah, messy for us,” O’Ward said, who trails Palou by 35 points entering the season finale weekend. “Yeah, I didn’t really get a read. It’s kind of hard to tell where we’re truly at. But, yeah, that’s as much as I have honestly. It was very messy for me.
“It’s hard to say where we’re at. The car didn’t feel the best. I’d be lying if I said it did. So we need to find what is wrong with it I guess and trying to go into a direction that’s going to help us for qualifying. I think qualifying here is going to be everything.
The thing is, O’Ward, has struggled to find speed in qualifying lately too. He’s only qualified in the top five twice in his last eight starts. Newgarden is in the same boat. After having nine top 10’s in the first 10 races of the season, including three straight poles heading into the break, he’s came out of it with qualifying 12th, 14th, 3rd, 18th and 17th respectively.
That’s not going to get it done for either if they can start in the first couple of rows on Sunday because they really need to lead the most laps and take home the win as well. The last five winners at Long Beach have come from the top two rows including 80% of the race winners this season from the top 10 in general.