LONG BEACH, Calif — Colton Herta will pick up where he left off during last year’s Long Beach race weekend. A year ago, Herta had a fast car but didn’t make it out of the opening round of qualifying due to a mistake. It didn’t affect him though.
Despite starting 14th in the 2021 edition, he charged to the front and led 43 laps en route to the victory in the season finale. This time around, he’ll start on the pole and sent a message to the other 25 competitors for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
Herta, was fastest and set the track record in all three rounds in going quicker each time as qualifying went on. The old track record was 1:06.2254-seconds set by Helio Castroneves in 2017. Nearly 5 years to the date, Herta went 1:05.7283-seconds in Round 1, 1:05.4057-seconds in Round 2 and then 1:05.3095-seconds in the Fast Six en route to his 8th career NTT INDYCAR Series pole.
In 4 of his 6 career wins, he won from the pole. Can he do so again on Sunday?
“As a young kid, I always dreamed of becoming an INDYCAR driver, and that was because of this race,” said Herta, 22. “To get the win last year was amazing, and we checked another box with the pole. It feels incredible.”
“Yeah, you know, we had a great car. Yesterday was a struggle for us. We kind of went to the drawing board overnight, brought something completely different out for today. It worked really well. I was really happy with it.
“Obviously our one-lap pace is really strong. Now we’re kind of shifting focus to the race car. Seems like we can get up to tire temp really fast, get a lap in, so I was really happy with that.”
He beat Josef Newgarden last September and topped him again in qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Newgarden, last year’s pole sitter, turned a lap of 1:05.7550-seconds in his No. 2 Chevrolet for his fourth straight Fast Six appearance in Long Beach.
“Yeah, felt pretty happy with second to be honest,” Newgarden said. “I always hope we can work some magic in the Fast 6, make the impossible happen. Today was going to be really difficult.
“Colton had definitely a better life on his tires going into the Fast 6. We had to use three laps apiece in Q1 and Q2 just to find our gaps, get our laps together. Unfortunately we didn’t have quite as good of a tire in the Fast 6.
“Regardless, if I think we were match to match, he probably had a couple 10ths on us. That’s what it looks like. The Andrettis in general look very strong across the board if you look at Grosjean and Rossi.
“I think we’re just missing a little something. So we’ll go searching for that tonight. I think we can find it, for sure, try to be better on full fuel.
“Relatively happy. I think Team Chevy is doing a good job for us. The Hitachi car is quick. Not quick enough to be P1. We’re in the ballgame.”
Can either driver get challenged? They went 1-2 in 2 of the 5 street course races last season with Newgarden, who won last week, having taken the checkered flag first in three street course events since 2019. Herta, has also won 2 times.
They’ll have some competition from their Andretti Autosport and Team Penske teammates with AA taking half of the Fast Six spots. Alexander Rossi (1:06.0674-seconds) will roll off fifth in his No. 27 Honda while Romain Grosjean (no time) starts along side in sixth in his No. 28 Honda.
“Yeah, I think it was a good day for the team obviously,” Rossi said. “With Colton on pole, that’s great for Andretti Autosport. We’ve been strong all weekend. I think it was a little bit of a missed opportunity to be fifth instead of potentially second or third with that red flag. Such is life, such is INDYCAR racing. Took a spot for tomorrow.”
Like I said, I think the car is really good, so looking forward to it.
Grosjean, found the Turn 5 tire barriers with 2 seconds left in the final round which brought out a red flag. By a controversial decision, INDYCAR elected to give everyone one final timed lap despite having two seconds left.
The rule book states 6 minutes of guaranteed green flag action so I get what they’re doing, but with 2 cars already on pit road and another in the tire barriers, it made no sense to not just end it after 5-minutes and 58-seconds of action.
Still, despite only Felix Rosenqvist and Rossi taking a timed lap in the end, neither could improve.
Grosjean, was second at the time of impact as he says he was pushing too hard for the pole. He did so because he knew the worst that he’d start was 6th. Unfortunately, that’s where he’ll roll off from.
He was quickest in practice on Saturday morning and has a car capable of a victory. Rossi, was 2nd and 4th respectively in practice and led 71 of 85 laps in his 2018 win with 80 of 85 more in his 2019 triumph.
Newgarden’s teammates of Will Power (7th) and Scott McLaughlin (9th) will come from just outside the top six. Between the three Penske’s and three Andretti’s each, that’s 6 of the top 9 starters.
Defending series champion, Alex Palou, starts third in his No. 10 Honda (1:05.8667-seconds). Palou, qualified 10th but finished fourth last year here while also coming home runner-up in the season opener on the streets of St. Pete. His Chi Ganassi Racing teammate of Marcus Ericsson will start eighth in his No. 8 Honda. He won twice on street courses last year.
The only other driver up front was Felix Rosenqvist (1:05.9349-seconds) in his No. 7 Chevrolet. Oddly enough, out of the last 12 street courses events, Penske, Ganassi, Andretti and AMSP have won them all. They swept the top nine starting spots and 10 of the top 11 overall.
Simon Pagenaud was fastest on Friday and he and Kyle Kirkwood who was in the top 10 in both practices are the only drivers not of the “Big 4” that made it out of the 1st round.
Dixon/Castroneves fail to advance out of the 1st Round
Coming into the weekend, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves were always found at the front of the timing charts in Long Beach. Dixon, had 4 second place starting positions in his last 5 Long Beach Grand Prix’s while Castroneves had 3 poles in his last 4 efforts himself. However, neither made it out of Round 1 with Dixon now starting 16th and Castroneves 14th.
This is Dixon’s worst start here since 2013 where he started 26th and finished 11th. Castroneces hasn’t started this bad since 2012 when he went from 18th to 13th that day.
Castroneves, has now qualified 14th or worse in 2 of his 3 starts this season with Dixon being 7th, 5th and 16th himself.
Arrow McLaren SP had high hopes for the 2022 season. Pato O’Ward had a shot at the championship here a year ago after a breakout season in 2021. Felix Rosenqvist turned his luck around in the second half of the year and now both had high expectations for how this season would play out.
Unfortunately, they’ve had a year to forget thus far.
Texas was shaping up to be a highlight before each had problems on pit road on the same stop while entering in the top three. Rosenqvist, would finish 21st despite earning the pole where O’Ward was 15th.
Entering Sunday’s race, they sit 13th (O’Ward) and 19th (Rosenqvist) in points.
Part of that is due to both being off in the season opener on the streets of St. Pete. Rosenqvist qualified 21st and O’Ward 16th. They’d finish 12th (O’Ward) and 17th (Rosenqvist) respectively.
That had most thinking those hopes would be dashed a bit on another street circuit in Long Beach this weekend. In practice, they were 14th, 21st (O’Ward) and 15th and 14th (Rosenqvist) respectively. It was looking like neither would advance out of the first round again.
Instead, not only did both, but Rosenqvist advanced all the way to the Fast Six.
Now, can they turn that into a solid outing on Sunday?
You know how the song goes, “with so much drama in the LBC…” That’s exactly what we saw during this race weekend last year and again so far this one. We knew with a shorter track, there was potential for more drama in practice and qualifying. In the Saturday session, you get to used the reds for the first time of the weekend. With having them available, you want a clean lap. But with 26 cars and only 1.968-miles of real estate, there’s bound to be backups.
That’s exactly what happened in practice. No one could truly get a clean lap due to everyone looking for a 3+ second gap. The hairpin was a problem spot as everyone slowed there due to that being the spot of the timing line.
It happened again in qualifying too. Drivers could impede cars behind and use the hairpin strategically. That created several drivers mad at one another including both Marcus Ericsson and Scott McLaughlin.
This is also exactly what happened in St. Pete too between Takuma Sato and Romain Grosjean which leads us to wonder if you need to have a split field practice in the future and maybe single car qualifying at some point in the rounds?
“I don’t think it’s like that big of a problem in practice — I mean qualifying. In practice it’s an issue, yeah. Single-car practice would be great (laughter),” said Colton Herta. “In qualifying you have 12 cars, 13 cars this weekend on track. Everyone places and finds a spot.
“I’d be open to the Fast 6 having a round or two of single-car qualifying.”
Josef Newgarden agreed.
“I think practice has become somewhat of a nightmare at places,” he said. “It’s just a lot of cars on tight tracks. I think half the time people aren’t purposely trying to ruin other sessions or make mistakes, but…
“Yeah, it’s become so congested and clogged that it happens really, really often. Qualifying doesn’t seem to be too bad. I think you can spread out enough with 26 cars. It’s not an issue.
“I would echo Colton’s comment. We’ve talked about that a little bit, experimenting with the Fast 6, changing to a single-car run for just that specific segment.
“I don’t know that it’s needed. I think our qualifying format has been really good over the years. I don’t think it needs a rethink. Could be something interesting to try in the future.”
Record Breaking Pace
For the 2nd time in 3 races, we’ve seen the track record shattered. For St. Pete, Will Power went 59.3466-seconds besting Jordan King’s four year old record of 1:00.0476-seconds in 2018. This time in Long Beach, Colton Herta went 1:05.3095-seconds which shattered Helio Castroneves’ record in 2017 of 1:06.2254-seconds.
The speed wasn’t surprising though. The reason for that is that the tires that Firestone brought to street courses this season have made a jump in the speed department too.
“I think Firestone continually develops the tire. That’s part of it,” Rossi said. “There’s some sort of sealer or something down that is probably contributing to some of the grip level as well.
“I don’t know that we have a definitive answer. It’s something that we should probably understand before we leave here so that we know coming back if it’s going to be the same or revert to the old days.
“Ultimately it’s a lot of fun. It’s awesome out there some of the speeds you can carry even through the fountain and stuff is pretty spectacular.
“I’m loving it. I think it’s going to be a great race and a good show for everyone tomorrow.”
RLL Struggles Again
This has been the topic of concern for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing over the last few years. If they could qualify better, then watch out. It seems like they’re always coming from outside the top 10 on race day but by time the checkered flag falls, they’re well within it. Imagine if they could actually start closer to the front.
Well, they still don’t have it fixed yet.
In St. Pete, they qualified 11-15-23. In Texas, it was 24-25-27. They took three of the last four starting spots. For Long Beach, they were 13-20-21.
Last year, Takuma Sato qualified better than 15th just twice all season. He was 0-for-16 for top 10 starts.
Rahal started outside the top 10 in 10 of the 16 races himself last year and has been 11th, 27th and 13th this year.
Jack Harvcey has qualified 23rd and now 21st himself in 2022 with Christian Lundgaard being 15th, 25th and 20th.
What can they do to close this gap?
The disparity of the 2 qualifying groups was astounding. You get the last 3 Long Beach winners in Group 1 but every series champion since 2013 in Group 2. Also, there were a combined 30 wins and 30 poles in the first group but 163 wins and 174 poles in Group 2.
The fast 6 featured 3 from each group though.