SALINAS, Calif — It should come as no surprise that the Laguna Seca race track is the way that it is. With talks of a repave soon, it goes to show how aged the 2.238-mile racing surface really is. This track to the NTT INDYCAR Series is to what something like Darlington, Homestead or Richmond is to NASCAR.
Tire fall off is the name of the game so how you can minimize the fall off and keep your lap times as close to the initial pace is going to separate yourself from the field.
Scott Dixon mentioned that his car fell off 4-seconds from the early laps to the end laps on a stint. That gap was just over 15 laps too. With a 95 lap race ahead on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) you can see why the drivers will be screaming for new tires early and often.
“Yeah, not necessarily such a handful, it’s just you’ve got to lower the speed to make the corner,” said points leader Will Power. “It’s not necessarily like terrible, but yeah, just the actual overall grip just drops significantly.”
Could we see a 4 stop strategy race?
“Yeah, that’s definitely possible,” Power quipped. “There’s enough degradation for that. We’ll have to see in warmup when you actually do a full run what it is, but yes.”
The difference between NASCAR and INDYCAR in terms of tire fall off though is the fact that NASCAR’s tracks like that are ovals. INDYCAR is a road course that is difficult to pass on. Here, it’s difficult to pass.
The last 4 race winners on this track came from the front row with 3 of which from the pole. 21 of the 23 races were won via a top 3 starts (15 from the pole, 4 from 2nd) and 22 of the 23 from the Fast 6 in general.
Does this fall off may open up more passing on Sunday?
“I’m hoping it’s going to be a high-deg race, and it seems to be that way,” Marcus Ericsson said. “Usually our team and myself from my experience, we’re usually pretty good at that. Yeah, the tires seemed to degrade quite quickly here. It was the same in the test and the same today in practice.
“I think in the race as a driver, I think you have to think about it and sort of figure out a way to get the stint length that you are planning. It’s going to be quite tricky, I think. Depending a bit on the weather, as well. It seems to be coming in some colder weather, and that might change things, make the tires last a bit better.
“But at least from what I saw today, I think it’s going to be quite a tricky race for all of us, and also people are going off left, right, center, and there’s sand on the track, and it’s quite tricky to run lap to lap, to stay on track, because it’s so challenging out there.”
That works two-fold. If you can pass, it will keep things close among those who get the setup and tire fall off landed right. If you can’t pass though, there’s going to be a huge separation among the front runners because lets say the top 4 are good and 5th and maybe 6th are struggling but 7th isn’t. If 7th place can’t pass 6th place or even 5th, then the top 4 will further add separation which means they can have less fall off by not pushing as hard.
There’s also the strategy game to where this race could tend to have a few more cautions than other natural road courses.
“Actually it hasn’t historically been a very yellow race,” said Power. “It’s hard to say. Nothing has really changed. You would think it would be a normal race, but you never know in this game. It can be a lot of yellows, so we’ll just have to see.”
Power also notes that while we do see a lot of fall off, it’s not necessarily much different than years past though either. The only difference this year is that there wasn’t a sports car race last weekend like there was a year ago.
“I think the track isn’t quite as good because you didn’t have IMSA here the week before, but the deg is very similar,” he said. “I think it’s similar. I think it’s similar to how it’s been. Nothing much has changed. Yeah, it’s similar.”
So did that help suit the Penske’s pace?
Team Penske chose to use their final test day at Portland. They did so on Aug. 26. Chip Ganassi Racing elected to use their final test day at Laguna Seca on Aug. 29. Would this sway who won the championship or not?
We’ve seen the last few years that with limited test days, the ones who end up getting a clean test without all the teams at a particular venue usually come back and win later on.
Penske tested at Iowa and dominated in July. Andretti tested at the Indianapolis road course in June and came back to win in July. Ganassi tested at Portland last year and dominated that weekend in taking 2 of the top 3 starting spots, putting 2 cars on the podium and 3 of their 4 in the top 10.
So why test there again?
Penske struggled at Portland last year so figured why not extend a points lead heading to the season finale so long as the testing trend held.
Penske had 2 of the top 3 laps in Friday’s practice, went 1-2-3 in Saturday practice and took the top 3 times in qualifying. They finished 1-2.
So would Ganassi face a similar fortune here?
A Penske leading charge on Friday could be demoralizing for Ganassi. Especially the fact that Penske went 1-7-11. Ganassi went just 10-14-17-25.
“Well, it would have been an advantage to test here,” Power said. “Clearly if we had the day we would have, but we just didn’t, so we took it at Portland because we struggled there last year.”