LONG BEACH, Calif. — This weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach will indeed be lit. On Friday, temperatures peaked at 94 degrees as 26 INDYCAR racers hit the street course just once.
After a grueling hour session where the track temperatures peaked at over 130 degrees, Simon Pagenaud topped practice with a time of 1:07.1991. Behind Pagenaud was Alexander Rossi, Scott McLaughlin, Josef Newgarden and Marcus Ericsson.
“I just love this trace track. It’s very grippy and unloaded very fast,” said Pagenaud after the session. “The car was perfect for the conditions, so we’ll have to keep up with the track temp. I was able to have a really nice session and really enjoyable.”
With the session over, Pagenaud explained how different parts of the track varied in terms of track grip. From Thursday’s track walk, the former grand prix winner noticed new sealing in Turns 1 through 5. Therefore, these helped the Firestone compounds adapt better.
“Turn 6 is actually not that grippy. Then you go to Turn 8 and the same thing happens. Too grippy and the track is really dark,” Pagenaud commented.
For two-time Long Beach winner Rossi, it’s all about getting a strong result as he sits 27th in points. He was amazed how much grip there is on the circuit already compared to previous years.
“It’ll certainly change for the better. I think everyone, including myself, were blown away with the pace out of the box and the level of grip there was,” said Rossi.
“I’m not sure if there’s more support events here or IMSA has different rubber. But the track was black. Like, a huge amount of grip and not always does other rubber translate to performance with Firestones, but it did. Already very fast despite being over 130 degrees track temp. I think tomorrow morning it’s going to be astonishing how quick we’ll go and see what qualifying brings.”
Despite the heat, Rossi noted how strong of a turnout there was for Friday’s track activities.
“It’s great to be back at Long Beach,” said Rossi. “Great seeing the turnout already with Turns 9-10 being pretty full, so that’s awesome. It was a good day overall, let’s see what tomorrow brings.”
High and Lows Across the Practice Charts
Ninth quickest during the session was Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Callum Ilott, who was the top rookie competitor by a position over Kyle Kirkwood. Ilott showcased his muscle to kick off the race weekend.
Not only is he learning how to understand the Fahrenheit temperatures compared to Celsius, Ilott knows he must be on top of things. This was something he felt the entire No. 77 Chevrolet struggled with at Texas Motor Speedway. However, as he already competed at Long Beach last September, it’s about adapting.
“The problem with Texas was not adapting as quickly as we did. I was held back at the beginning of the race. Not just my experience but also the car. There was a lot to learn from,” said Ilott. “Coming into there, I have the experience but the cooler temperatures tomorrow, we must be on top of it. Texas was a big learning curve, but it was my oval debut.
“There’s something to learn from and it’s a different environment. It’s key seeing a 15 degree Celsius drop. I have to learn my Fahrenheit a bit more, but it’s going to be tricky.”
The session was halted twice due to incidents and warranted five-minute time penalties. The first one took place with over 16 minutes left in the session when Jimmie Johnson (25th fastest) hit the curb, darting him into the Turn 5 tire barriers.
This took place shortly after his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon (11th fastest) hit the curb in Turn 9. While trying to get the car back on the right track, his No. 9 Honda stalled.
“I just got a little greedy with the curb that’s there in Turn 5,” Johnson on the red flag. “I’ve been taking more and more curb each time through there and just got a little too much and had contact with the bottom part of the curb and sent it wide.”
Johnson sustained a splint on his arm, requiring further evaluation that could impact the rest of his Long Beach weekend.
Minutes after the session resumed, Dalton Kellett (18th fastest) also saw the same fate as Johnson in Turn 5 and too got a penalty for causing a red flag. Unlike Johnson, Kellett’s No. 4 Chevrolet lost control and the rear end ended up the barriers.
Implications of Warm Conditions
Those hot temperatures will go down as the weekend marches forward with Sunday’s race temperatures slated to be 67 degrees. With this in mind, several drivers treated Friday’s session differently, more so tomorrow because INDYCAR will have morning practice (11:45 a.m. ET) and then qualifying (3:05 p.m. ET) to set the grid for the 47th renewal of the sport’s most prestigious street course.
Among the thoughts have been how will the heat effect the racers with the Aeroscreen. For defending NTT IndyCar Series champion, Alex Palou, he doesn’t see any genuine concerns, especially with it being the sport’s third year using them and perhaps sees an advantage based on how a driver gets acclimated with the conditions.
“We’ve been running the Aeroscreen for two years. I think everybody is happy with it. Obviously, it’s warm and hot. But that makes it also interesting for drivers,” said Palou before practice. “If you can be okay with the heat for an hour and a half during the race. Maybe you can have an advantage against others. I think it’s alright. The safety we get, but we just pay (the price) with heat and that’s alright with me.”
Cooler temperatures certainly has its perks that drivers like Kellett can attest. On this note, Kellett knows he must be careful how his No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing crew will extrapolate their setup because of the inevitable temperature drop.
That said, Kellett explained in detail how street courses do create more heat for the drivers than on ovals when navigating a hot circuit.
“Compared to superspeedways, road and street courses are definitely hotter,” Kellett commented. “When you’re in an urban environment where you get that urban heat. The temperature is radiating off the concrete and buildings, so it’s going to be warmer air around you. That warmer air is coming in from the concrete and that’s definitely going to be a factor.”
Kellett will be trying the cooler firesuit for practice, hoping he may not need it during the 85-lap contest.
“Quite a few of the teams are running them now. It’s more standard piece of equipment,” said Kellett. “At this point, it’s driver preference as to whether they like it or not. I find it effective, so I like use it.”
Other racers treated the session as a time of getting up to speed, including championship leader, Scott McLaughlin. The St. Petersburg winner is aware the circuit will feel much better and if the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet handles well, it’ll be a sign of greater things to come.
“I’m just going to go out there and feeling it out,” said McLaughlin. Knowing if my car handles good today, it’s going handle really good Saturday and Sunday. Will see what we got and we’ll be okay.”
McLaughlin’s teammate Will Power, who currently sits second in the championship trail, said with the newer softer Firestone tires benefitting the organization, it could play a role on how the weekend will unfold. Like McLaughlin, car setup will be critical for Power.
“Today’s practice will only be more difficult,” said Power. “As it gets cooler, our car gets more grip and the tire works better. I would say that today, if you get a good setup today, you’re only going to get better.”
Rookies will certainly face these challenges as they’re going to tackle the 1.968-mile street course for the first time. Among those being Tatiana Calderon, who’ll make her second career start this Sunday.
It’s not much car setup and Aeroscreen for her when it comes to conditions, but how the track grip will be as the weekend progresses.
INDYCAR isn’t the only event Long Beach will have on the track. Other sanctioning bodies such as IMSA will be racing which she noted.
“That’s going to make the weekend more challenging. Everything you learn today will be different tomorrow, especially Sunday when the temperatures really dropping. The grip level will be higher, especially with IMSA racing as well. I think we have to see how their rubber interferes with ours. This is my first experience with that. For me, it’s about familiarizing with the track and see what we can do for qualifying tomorrow.”
Streaming coverage of Saturday’s practice commence at 11:45 a.m. ET on Peacock. A few hours later, the field will hope to advance into the Firestone Fast Six and earn the NTT P1 Pole Award at 3:05 p.m. ET, also on Peacock. Josef Newgarden is the defending pole sitter.