McLaughlin Tops Practice 2; Palou Leads Title Hopefuls

Indycar photo by Chris Jones

Rookie Scott McLaughlin recorded the fastest time in the final warmup before Indycar qualifying with a time of 1:10.875. For the second day, Colton Herta was second, this time 0.18 seconds behind. Team Penske placed all four cars in the top 10, with Simon Pagenaud fourth, Will Power fifth, and Josef Newgarden 10th.

Points leader Alex Palou was third quickest, the best of the top three title contenders. Newgarden was 10th and Pato O’Ward was 20th. Scott Dixon, still mathematically eligible, finished the session 18th.

Qualifying begins at 5:05

The top 10:

Qualifying Groups:

Group 1 Group 2

Colton Herta Scott McLaughlin

Simon Pagenaud Alex Palou

Felix Rosenqvist Will Power

Ryan Hunter-Reay Alexander Rossi

Josef Newgarden Alexander Rossi

Marcus Ericsson Ed Jones

Graham Rahal Jack Harvey

Romain Grosjean James Hinchcliffe

Scott Dixon Oliver Askew

Pato O’Ward Max Chilton

Sebastien Bourdais Callum Ilott

Jimmie Johnson Helio Castroneves

Takuma Sato Conor Daly

Rinus VeeKay

Dalton Kellett

Qualifying Day

Today’s Schedule (All Times Pacific):

Teams have one more 45 minute practice session to get their cars ready. Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden said they each used just one set of tires yesterday. Both drivers said conditions were similar to when they tested at Weather Tech Raceway earlier in the year.

Today’s qualifying is arguably the most important session of the year for the top three in points. On a track where passing is difficult, starting position is important. Newgarden said, “… it’s important to start up front here. I think
it’s a little bit harder to pass here than at other places.”

He went on to add that it is still possible to move up if you have a good car, and the tire degradation isn’t too bad.

This morning’s practice to set qualifying groups is also important for the title contenders to get in a group where advancing to the second round is the least challenging.

Ed Jones has found some pace on the west coast. At Portland the Dale Coyne driver qualified eighth and finishes 11th. He was fourth in practice yesterday. Jones also finished sixth at Nashville. Despite his late season burst of speed, Jones likely will not return to this seat in 2022.

Indy Lights– Kyle Kirkwood is on the pole for Race 1 today. The race follows Indycar’s second practice. Kirkwood trails David Malukas by just four points with only four races remaining.

Newgarden Fastest on Slippery Dusty Track

Josef Newgarden led the field in the opening practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Defending winner Colton Herta was second, followed by points leader Alex Palou.

Helio Castroneves locked up and went deep into the dirt, narrowly missing the tire barrier with 18 minutes left in the practice round. Scott McLaughlin stalled on course with about 20 seconds left, and the red flag ended the session.

Weather Tech Raceway was quite slippery this afternoon, with several cars going off track and sending large dust clouds obscuring the vision of drivers behind the errant cars.

Newgarden and Palou were the only title contenders in the top 10. Pato O’Ward was 14th and Scott Dixon was 11th. Newgarden was the only Chevrolet in the top 10. His best lap was 0.08 seconds better than Herta’s fastest circuit. Palou was 0.26 seconds behind.

The top 10:

Date Change for St. Pete

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening race of the Indycar Series, will be earlier in 2022 and 2023. In 2022 the race weekend is February 24-27, and in 2023 the season begins March 2-6. I understand the date changes are because of television network availability.

Race Preview-Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

Marti Update: Marti is in rehab and is showing tremendous improvement. She may be able to come home around the end of the month,, which seemed unlikely a week and a half ago. Thanks for your continued thoughts and prayers

Today’s schedule:

Sunday’s race is the last one of the year on NBC. Next week’s season finale will be on NBCSN>

Today the California Cup Rush begins-two races to determine the NTT Indycar Series champion for 2021. I feel sorry for the winners of theses last two events if they happen to be non contenders. No one ever remembers who they are. I think it’s exciting to have this year’s title chase end on two classic tracks- Laguna Seca, now known by the awkward name of Weather Tech Raceway, and Long Beach, the second longest running race in the Indycar Series.

This weekend will be the 24th Race at the track near Monterey. CART began racing here in 1983 and continued until 2004. Indycar returned in 2019, and last year the pandemic cancelled the race. Colton Herta won the race from pole in 2019.

Given all the twists and turns of this incredible season, it is apt that the penultimate race include a corner named The Corkscrew.

Just 34 points separate the top three drivers-Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, and Josef Newgarden- making the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey the key race in the championship. In a normal year this would be the season ender. The race will seem like a year end event. The title fight is the main thing to watch this weekend, but other things are at stake as well.

Battle for the Astor Cup

Palou, O’Ward, and Newgarden don’t need to win, but each driver will look to finish ahead of the other two. Scott Dixon has a minimal chance of being the hunt, but 49 points behind at this point seems like too much to overcome.

Palou could clinch the title this weekend, but he would have to earn the maximum number of points-54- and even then it depends on where Newgarden and O’Ward end up. I have no doubt the battle goes down to the last lap at Long Beach.

I think both Newgarden and O’Ward will gain a bit of ground on Palou, who will still lead heading into the finale. I still believe, as I’ve said since early May, that Palou will win the title.

Rookie of the Year

Scott McLaughlin leads Romain Grosjean by 38 points after Portland. Grosjean has driven three fewer races than McLaughlin this year. He sat out Texas and the Indianapolis 500. Another Top 10 finish could wrap up the Rookie title for McLaughlin. He just needs to gain12 points on the Dale Coyne driver.

Grosjean couold still catch McLaughlin, but it will be difficult. Team Penske was strong here in 2019. Will Power finished second and Simon Pagenaud ended the race in fourth. Newgarden was eighth, but he was points racing to win the title.

Overal, I think Grosjean has had a better year than McLaughlin, but the three missed races will cost him the Rookie crown.

Desperately Seeking Victory Circle

Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal are still looking to end their winless streaks which have stretched for more than one full season. Each of them had an opportunity to win last week at Portland.

Rossi contended at Gateway until car trouble put him in the wall late in the race. Rahal has had pit strategy cost him wins this year. Rossi last won at road America in June, 2019. Rahal last won in June 2017.

Other drivers looking to break victory droughts are Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud.

Notes

We may see the Indycar schedule for 2022 this weekend. From what i’ve heard the season will start early and end early. A couple of venues are still working out dates.

Since Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport officially announced their separation this week, will we see the new driver of the 28 presented this weekend? I still believe it to be Romain Grosjean.

I’m hearing that Takuma Sato may be driving for Dale Coyne next year. That makes sense, and lends further credence to the rumor of Jack Harvey going to RLL.

Fast Facts-Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

From Indycar. Look for my preview tomorrow.

Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey Fast Facts

Race weekend: Friday, Sept. 17 – Sunday, Sept. 19

Track: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, a 2.258-mile permanent road course in Monterey, California

Race distance: 95 laps / 214.51 miles

Media Links: Entry List (PDF) | Driver Video Quotes 

Push-to-pass parameters: 150 seconds of total time with a maximum time of 15 seconds per activation.

Firestone tire allotment: Six sets primary, four sets alternate. Teams must use one set of primary and one new set of alternate tires in the race. (Note: A seventh set of primary tires is available to any car fielding a rookie driver.)

Twitter: @WeatherTechRcwy@IndyCar, #IndyCar #FirestoneGP

Event website: www.WeatherTechRaceway.com

INDYCAR website: www.IndyCar.com

2019 race winner (most recent): Colton Herta (No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda)

2019 pole winner (most recent): Colton Herta (No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda), 1 minute, 10.1405 seconds, 114.867 mph

Qualifying record: Helio Castroneves, 1:07.722, 118.969 mph, Sept. 8, 2000

NBC television broadcast: Race, 3 p.m. ET Sunday, Sept. 19, NBC (live). Leigh Diffey is the lead announcer alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy.

Peacock Premium Live Streaming: This weekend’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice sessions and qualifying will stream live on Peacock Premium, NBC’s direct-to-consumer live streaming product.

INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts: Mark Jaynes will be the lead announcer alongside analyst Davey Hamilton. Jake Query, Nick Yeoman and Michael Young are the turn announcers. Dan Rusanowsky and Alex Wolff will report from the pits. The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will air live on network affiliates, SiriusXM 205 and 211, indycar.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA. All NTT INDYCAR SERIES practices and qualifying are available on SiriusXM 205, indycar.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 17

2:30–3:15 p.m. – NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice 1, Peacock Premium (live)

Saturday, Sept. 18

10:45–11:30 a.m. – NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice 2, Peacock Premium (live)

2:05 p.m. – NTT INDYCAR SERIES Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), Peacock Premium (live)

Sunday, Sept. 19

9-9:30 a.m.– NTT INDYCAR SERIES warmup, Peacock Premium (live)

11:50 a.m. – Driver introductions

Noon – NBC on air

12:23 p.m. – Start engines command

12:30 p.m. – Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (95 laps/214.51 miles), NBC (live)

Championship Facts:

  • Alex Palou leads the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship with two races to go for the first time in his career. Palou has led the point standings after nine of the 14 races this season.
  • Palou leads Pato O’Ward by 25 points with Josef Newgarden (-34), Scott Dixon (-49) and Marcus Ericsson (-75) behind. Palou assumed the point lead following his win at Portland. The lead has changed hands six times between Palou, O’Ward and Dixon.
  • There are five drivers still mathematically eligible for the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship: Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson. Any driver who trails the points leader by 54 points or more following the race will be eliminated from contention.
  • Since the first INDYCAR SERIES race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the winning driver has won the INDYCAR SERIES championship six times: Bobby Rahal (1986 and 1987), Danny Sullivan (1988), Michael Andretti (1991), Alex Zanardi (1998) and Cristiano da Matta (2002).

Key championship point statistic: Since 2008, the driver who has led the championship with two races to go has failed to win the championship five times. Scott Dixon in 2008, 2018 and 2020, Dario Franchitti in 2011, Will Power in 2014, Simon Pagenaud in 2016 and Josef Newgarden in 2017 and 2019 are the exceptions who have won the title after leading with two races remaining.

Don’t call it a comeback: No point lead is ever safe in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Five times since 2008, a driver has made up a deficit with two races to go to win the championship – Dario Franchitti, who trailed Ryan Briscoe by four points in 2009 and Will Power by 23 points in 2010; Ryan Hunter-Reay, who trailed Will Power by five points with two races remaining in 2012, Scott Dixon, who was in third place, 48 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015 and Power who overcame a four-point deficit to Helio Castroneves in 2014.

CHAMPIONSHIP WITH TWO TO GO (2008-2021)

YEARLEADERSECOND LEADCHAMPION
2008Scott DixonHelio Castroneves78Scott Dixon
2009Ryan BriscoeDario Franchitti4Dario Franchitti
2010Will PowerDario Franchitti23Dario Franchitti
2011Dario FranchittiWill Power26Dario Franchitti
2012Will PowerRyan Hunter-Reay5Ryan Hunter-Reay
2013Helio CastronevesScott Dixon49Scott Dixon
2014Will PowerHelio Castroneves4Will Power
2015Juan Pablo MontoyaGraham Rahal42Scott Dixon (-48)
2016Simon PagenaudWill Power27Simon Pagenaud
2017Josef NewgardenScott Dixon18Josef Newgarden
2018Scott DixonAlexander Rossi29Scott Dixon
2019Josef NewgardenAlexander Rossi35Josef Newgarden
2020Scott DixonJosef Newgarden72Scott Dixon
2021Alex PalouPato O’Ward25?

RACE NOTES:

  • There have been nine different winners in 14 NTT INDYCAR SERIES races this season. Alex Palou (Barber Motorsports Park, Road America, Portland International Raceway), Colton Herta (Streets of St. Petersburg), Scott Dixon (Texas Motor Speedway-1), Pato O’Ward (Texas Motor Speedway-2, Raceway at Belle Isle Park-2), Rinus VeeKay (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course-1), Helio Castroneves (Indianapolis 500), Marcus Ericsson (Raceway at Belle Isle Park-1, Streets of Nashville), Josef Newgarden (Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, World Wide Technology Raceway) and Will Power (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course-2) have all won in 2021. The modern record (1946-present) for most different winners in a season is 11 in 2000, 2001 and 2014.
  • There have been seven different winners in the last 10 NTT INDYCAR SERIES races (Rinus VeeKay, Helio Castroneves, Alex PalouMarcus Ericsson, Pato O’WardJosef Newgarden and Will Power) The only repeat winners in that stretch are, Ericsson (Raceway at Belle Isle Park-1 and Streets of Nashville), Newgarden (Mid-Ohio and WWT Raceway) and Palou (Road America and Portland).
  • The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will be the 24th INDYCAR SERIES race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, but just the second since 2004. Teo Fabi won the first INDYCAR SERIES race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in 1983. Colton Herta – who won the most recent race at the track in 2019 – and Helio Castroneves -who won at the track in 2000 – are the only former winners entered in this year’s race.
  • Thirteen drivers have won at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca from the pole – Teo Fabi (1983), Bobby Rahal (1985), Danny Sullivan (1988), Rick Mears (1989), Danny Sullivan (1990), Michael Andretti (1991 and 1992), Paul Tracy (1994), Alex Zanardi (1996), Bryan Herta (1998 and 1999), Helio Castroneves (2000), Cristiano da Matta (2002), Patrick Carpentier (2003) and Colton Herta (2019).
  • Team Penske has won six times at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Penske’s winning drivers are Danny Sullivan (1988 and 1990), Rick Mears (1989), Paul Tracy (1993 and 1994) and Helio Castroneves (2000). Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has three wins with Bryan Herta (1998-99) and Max Papis (2001). Chip Ganassi Racing has two wins with Alex Zanardi in 1996 and Jimmy Vasser in 1997.
  • Eighteen drivers entered in the event have competed in past INDYCAR SERIES races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Helio Castroneves has four starts, most among the entered drivers, but hasn’t raced at the track since 2001. Five entered drivers have led laps at the track (Colton Herta 83, Will Power 6, Scott Dixon 2, Sebastien Bourdais 1 and Simon Pagenaud 1).
  • Four rookies – Romain GrosjeanCallum IlottJimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin – are expected to compete. The four rookies, along with veteran drivers Oliver AskewDalton KellettPato O’WardAlex Palou and Rinus VeeKay, will all be making their first INDYCAR SERIES at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

Portland Finish Makes Monterey Grand Prix Key for Palou

The keys to the kingdom lie just beyond Alex Palou’s grasp. Another good result at Weather Tech Raceway this coming weekend could make Long Beach a little easier for the second year Spanish driver. There are some clinching scenarios for next Sunday, but they all involve Palou getting maximum points. I don’t think that is likely to happen. His main goal is just to finish ahead of his two main competitors.

Scott McLaughlin led the first laps of his Indycar career yesterday. Photo: Joe Skibinski, Indycar

The Rookie of the Year is still up for grabs. Scott McLaughlin finished ninth and lead five laps yesterday to increase his lead over Romain Grosjean to 38 points. Grosjean had closed to within seven points in August. Grosjean sat out the first three ovals of 2021. This race is much closer than it should be, since one of the races Grosjean missed was the double points Indianapolis 500. The French driver has looked forward to Laguna Seca all year, and I suspect he will do well there. The Rookie award will not be settled until after Long Beach.

Entrant Points- The Race for 22nd

Two full time entrants will miss receiving Leaders’ Circle money for 2022. Car 7, Felix Rosenqvist currently sits 23rd with 189 points, Followed by the 59 of Max Chilton at 144 points and the number 4 of Dalton Kellett.

A strong final three races by Felix Rosenqvist will secure the Leaders’ Circle for the 7 car

Car 45. driven by Santino Ferrucci, Christian Lundgaard, and Oliver Askew. in 2021, lost the 22nd spot yesterday with a 24th place finish. The car has 171 points, but my understanding is that it is not eligible for the Leaders’ Circle because it did not run the full season.

Final Thoughts on Portland

For a track with no elevation changes, yesterday’s race had quite a few ups and downs for several drivers. Credit to the top three starters, who fought back to finish where they started.

Alexander Rossi’s first podium of the season may give him the momentum to score well in the final two races. In 2018 and 2019 he dominated at Long Beach, winning the last race there by 20 seconds. I think he breaks his winless drought in the season finale.

Good results at last- Jack Harvey and Felix Rosenqvist ended a season of with top 10 finishes Sunday. Harvey finished fourth, finally having a trouble free race. Rosenqvist crossed the line sixth. He has struggled at times this season, and has been unable to give much help to teammate O’Ward in his battle for the championship.

Callum Ilott had a respectable debut. The 2020 F2 runner up qualified 19th but finished 25th due to a mechanical issue.

Chip Ganassi Racing has won six of the 14 races this year. Scott Dixon is third on the team in number of victories. I can’t believe I had to write that.

Engine count– Palou, O’Ward, and Newgarden have all reached or exceeded their engine allowance for 2021. Scott Dixon has one engine remaining.

Laguna Seca Postscript-An Improved Finale

Photo; Turn 2 of lap 1.

I went to Weather Tech Raceway Laguna Seca with low expectations. When the race was announced as the season finale replacement for Sonoma, I thought it was just a lateral move. We would see the same processional race on another narrow track. The only similarity between the two is they are both in northern California. I was wrong on all counts. I was very impressed with the track. The racing was great. I was not anticipating any kind of decent crowd, but again I was pleasantly surprised.

The Track

Not since my first time at Road America have I been so impressed with a track at first glance. The top of the mountain was daunting as I entered the track grounds. My jaw dropped at my first glimpse of the Corkscrew. As massive as the track seems, it is really rather easy to navigate. The layout is actually quite simple.  Walking to the top of the corkscrew is quite a hike. There is a path to walk down from there to turn 10. It’s an easier walk down than up.

lagunawhales 159
Turn 9, 170 feet down from the Corkscrew

There are several vantage points from which at least 80% of the track can be seen. From the top you can see all of the track except for turn 6 and part of the front stretch. I watched the race from the outside of turn 2. I could see up to turn 5, the run to turn 10, and a bit of turn 11.

Another difference from Sonoma is the greenery.  Sonoma is green in the spring, but when Indycar came in September the scenery was brown. Laguna Seca has lots of evergreen trees and green grass.

The Crowd

I questioned the wisdom of the Indycar scheduling the  finale at this track  a week after the IMSA race. I thought for sure it would hurt attendance.  It was a pleasant surprise to see a good crowd there. I talked to several local fans. One fan told me he had attended every Indycar race at the track and was very happy the series had returned. Several fans were wearing vintage shirts.

A younger couple in the RV camping area told me when they called to reserve a spot the first day tickets went on sale, they each called on their own phones and were on the phone for three hours before one of them got through.

I have seen estimates of 25,000 on race day. I believe that is a credible number. So many fans are hidden from view at the Corkscrew, that it is difficult to gauge the size of the crowd. Sunday’s attendance is a good baseline to grow this event from.

The Race

I was expecting Sonoma 2.0, a race where position changes came about because of pit strategy. Fortunately, it was a good race with challenges for the lead all day, passing through the field, and fights for position in the top ten. Felix Rosenqvist and Sebastien Bourdais carved their way into the top ten from mid-pack. Colton Herta had his hands full holding off Scott Dixon after pit stops.

lagunawhales 224
Colton Herta leads Will power in the closing stages of the race

The brief yellow in the middle of a stint didn’t allow for pitting, which kept the caution shorter.  I hope this yellow period can serve as a model for the future, where the caution time isn’t extended to allow drivers to pit. I’ve always thought cars should pit under caution at the risk of the green coming back out at any time. IMSA has short yellows. It is something I’d like to see Indycar adopt as well.

It’s Still Not the Finale I’d Like to See

While the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey was a major improvement over the recent finales at Sonoma, I would still prefer the NTT Indycar series end its season on an oval and without double points. An oval provides more chances for drivers behind in the standings to overtake the points leader. If a driver is far enough behind that their only chance to win the title is to dominate a double points race, he or she likely doesn’t deserve the championship.

I’ll be back next week with a full season review and coverage of the aeroscreen test at IMS.