ELKHART LAKE, Wis – The NTT IndyCar Series paddock is buzzing with joy this weekend as the annual stop to Road America typically brings smiles to everyone’s faces.
Forget the fact that the teams received a week off last week, the scenic 4.014-mile Wisconsin road course is always a favorite for teams, drivers and fans alike.
On Friday, the 23 drivers took to the track for two practice sessions, the first coming in late morning.
🏁 on session 1 1) @RyanHunterReay 1:43.7556 2) @TakumaSatoRacer 1:43.8244 3) @scottdixon9 1:43.9842 4) @12WillPower 1:44.0394 5) @josefnewgarden 1:44.0706 — Eric Smith (@Eric_RaceReview) June 21, 2019
In that session, Ryan Hunter-Reay topped the speed charts in his No. 28 Honda with a lap of 1:43.7556-seconds. Hunter-Reay, enters this weekend on the heels of a runner up finish in last year’s REV Group Grand Prix at Road America and has four top eight finishes in-a-row on the season including seven in the last eight races overall.
Takuma Sato was P2 in his No. 30 Honda. The Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing driver won the pole for the last race at Texas and turned in a time of 1:43.8244-seconds on Friday morning.
The 2017 race winner Scott Dixon gave Honda a 1-2-3 sweep of the top spots in the first sessions in circling the track with a time of 1:43.9842-seconds in his No. 9 Honda.
The Penske’s of Will Power (1:44.0394-seconds) and Josef Newgarden (1:44.0706-seconds) rounded out the top five.
The only incident of the session came when Jack Harvey had an off moment to bring out a red flag. The session resumed a few minutes later.
In the final session of the day, Alexander Rossi went up to P1 with a top lap of 1:43.1206-seconds in his No. 27 Honda. Power, improved from fourth to second in his No. 12 Chevrolet in turning a lap of 1:43.4089-seconds. Once again, Newgarden (1:43.4758-seconds) was right behind Power, this time bringing his No. 2 Chevrolet to third on the speed charts.
The rookies of Colton Herta (1:43.7415-seconds) and Felix Rosenqvist (1:43.7464-seconds) rounded out the top five in the final 45 minute session of the day.
Here are my main takeaways.
Championship Contenders Will Be Strong
Barring a fluke caution in the middle of a pit sequence, it appears that we likely won’t have a surprise winner on Sunday. In fact, Sunday’s 55 Lap race could be a big player in this year’s championship.
The title contenders were all out front in practice on Friday.
Entering session 1, Newgarden, Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Dixon, Sato, Power and Hunter-Reay sat 1-7 in the standings. In that first practice, they were 5-6-7-3-2-4-1 respectively. In session No. 2, they were 3-1-15-11-18-2-7 respectively.
If this weekend plays out how it should, qualifying is going to be mega on Saturday as not all of these drivers can make the Fast Six. Plus, all three races run since the series’ return to Road America since 2016 have been won from a top five starting spot.
Parity Up Front, But Same Teams Vying For The Win
In the first session, we saw four drivers from four different teams in the top four spots on the speed chart. It went Andretti-RLL-Ganassi-Penske. In the second session, it was Andretti-Penske-Penske-Harding/Steinbrenner-Ganassi-RLL.
Coincidentally enough, these five organizations have won all nine races run in 2019 too.
Also, Penske and Ganassi have combined to win all three races at Road America since 2016 and put four cars in the top seven of the speed charts in session No. 1 and in session No. 2.
Favorites Standing Out
Right now, it appears that we have four drivers that look the strongest over everyone else. Ryan Hunter-Reay was first and seventh respectively but that’s only because he tried some new setup options in that second session. The speed is there for the driver who finished runner-up in this race last year and fourth in 2016.
“The DHL car was good this morning; we led the first session,” said Hunter-Reay. “Then, in the second session – since it’s only Friday – we took some big gambles on setup and we found out what not to do. We were pretty out to lunch this afternoon in P2, but then we changed some things back for the warmup and were P1 again. Sometimes it’s just as valuable to find out what does not work as it is to find out what does. Overall, we’re feeling good with our first day at Road America.”
Same can be said for his teammate Alexander Rossi. He was sixth and first respectively and looking to earn his fourth top two finish in five races, this time on the top step of the podium.
“I’m pretty happy with the car overall,” Rossi said. “We had speed here last year and I think we were able to build off of that and continue our progress. There’s obviously a couple tweaks we can make to capitalize on what the car has in it, but looking at all four cars, I think we have some good data and heading into tomorrow we’re optimistic that we can put the NAPA machine back on the front row.”
You can’t count out the Penske duo of Josef Newgarden or Will Power either. Newgarden, is the defending race winner and was fifth and third respectively.
“It was a good day overall,” said Newgarden. “I thought we were pretty smooth for the most part with no big drama. It’s great to have REV Group on my car this weekend. It’s really great what they’re doing for first responders. It’s always an exciting weekend here at Road America and I think REV Group has made it more exciting with what they’re doing to give back to our first responders. Our car feels good and fast. We’ve been in the top five all day which is a good sign. The boys look like they were pretty good on the pit stops so we just have to put it together in qualifying tomorrow and go race on Sunday and see what we got.”
Power, was fourth and second respectively and is just as confident.
“The car was really good,” said Power. “Really happy with it in qualifying trim. It’s just a matter of massaging on it overnight, get it right in the window. I think we’re there.” (About racing at Road America) “It’s just a cool old-school track. I mean, it’s pretty low grip. The car moves around a lot. Like through the carousel, you’re sliding all the way through there. Yeah, don’t get these sort of tracks anymore. Just a track with a lot of character, old-school. You make a mistake, you certainly pay for it. Yeah, just an enjoyable place.”
Honda’s Look Stout
The field was split between Honda and Chevy up front in session No. 1 with there being four Honda’s and four Chevy’s in the top eight of the speed charts. But, it wasn’t the same in the second practice.
Yes, two of the top three speeds belonged to Penske (Chevy) but Honda’s took six of the top eight times overall. In the first practice, Honda’s also went 1-2-3 too.
Right now, it appears that it will be an Andretti/Ganassi/Rahal fight for Honda vs. Penske and Chevy.
Rahal To Get Fresh Engine Overnight, Drivers Going In Opposite Directions
It was a pretty stout day for Graham Rahal. The second generation driver was sixth on the overall speed chart on Friday afternoon. It was a huge improvement after being only P21 in the initial session.
But, Rahal is pleased with the direction that they went in between sessions and feels like with a fresh engine that will go into the chassis of his No. 15 Honda overnight, that he can get his fourth straight top 10 finish at Road America.
“At the end of the day we showed that the Gehl / Manitou Honda has got pace,” said Rahal. “We need to put it together a little bit better to close the gap on a couple of the Penske guys and a couple of the Andretti Autosport cars, b”It seems that we lost pace significantly in the afternoon session and I don’t know why at the moment. I didn’t feel good in the car, it was sliding a bit too much. We tried various setup changes but it just seems like we need to work a little harder for tomorrow. It was a tough session and I don’t know whether it was the conditions or something we did. We will look at the data from the day and come back strong tomorrow.”ut it’s close. You look at us at a 1:43.9 and then you look on backwards, and it’s going to be close. We should be OK. We’re changing engines tonight. Thanks to Honda and their reliability, we made it to the end of the mileage. We’ll move on to a new bullet for tomorrow.”
His teammate Takuma Sato went the opposite direction. Sato, was second in the first session but P18 in the second one. It has the Japanese driver puzzled with how they lost grip.
“It seems that we lost pace significantly in the afternoon session and I don’t know why at the moment,” said Sato. “I didn’t feel good in the car, it was sliding a bit too much. We tried various setup changes but it just seems like we need to work a little harder for tomorrow. It was a tough session and I don’t know whether it was the conditions or something we did. We will look at the data from the day and come back strong tomorrow.”
AJ Foyt Racing Showing Pace To Contend For Q2
It’s no secret, this has been a dismal season yet again for AJ Foyt Racing. In terms of the bottom drivers in the series standings, both of their drivers sit in the bottom three of them.
It’s been another year of bad results as both Tony Kanaan and second year driver Matheus Leist have struggled. So much so, bossman AJ Foyt hinted at Texas that changes could be made very soon.
But, after practice on Friday, it appears that the team may have found some speed in the offweek.
Leist was 18th and 16th respectively on the timing charts while Kanaan was 12th and 17th respectively himself. It has them thinking Q2 for Saturday.
“We had a positive day here at the track,” said Leist. “This place is very cool and I like driving around this track. I think we made some progress with the cars today, we made some changes from Practice 1 to Practice 2 and I’m feeling comfortable in the car for qualifying. Our goal for tomorrow is to qualify in the top 12 and race from there. I feel like we still have to improve the car a little bit for the race but we have one more practice tomorrow to figure it out. Hopefully we’re going to give the ABC Supply No. 4 Chevy a good race here.”
“It was a good day for us,” said the Brazilian driver. “I think we’re in the ballpark, it looks like we’re one change away to put it in the top 12 so I’m pretty pleased. I had a little bit of a mistake on my fastest lap so it looked a little worse than it is. It was a pretty good start and we haven’t had a good start like this in a while so we have to try to keep the guys (working) together and hopefully we’ll improve tomorrow.”
While most teams wouldn’t consider being midpack a success, it’s good for Foyt.
Leist, has qualified 20th or worse in six straight races including seven of nine starts in 2019. He enters with three straight finishes of 20th or worse too, including all being DNF’s. He’s finished 15th or worse in all but one race all year.
In terms of Kanaan, he’s qualified 20th or worse six times and Row 9 or worse eight of nine tries. He has two finishes inside of the top 15 all year, so for the pace that they showed on Friday, it’s a good start to the weekend. Now, can they sustain it and keep gaining on the field on Saturday?
“Average” Days For A Couple Of Veterans
Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon have combined to win nine Indy Car championships. They’ve also been very good at this weekend’s track in Elkhart Lake as well. So, for both to say that they had “average” days on Friday, it means something.
Bourdais, was only 11th and 14th respectively in his No. 18 Honda. He says that his Dale Coyne Racing team needs to find some pace overnight in order to contend for a win on Sunday.
“It was a very average day for the No. 18 SealMaster Honda team,” said Bourdais. “We just seem to be low on grip, hurting tires and the balance isn’t perfect. Mostly, we are missing grip. We tried a few things and haven’t really improved the car. So, we look at it tonight and see what can come up with tomorrow.”
Dixon, was third in the first session but fell to 11th in session No. 2. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver won this race in 2017 and was third last year. On natural road courses in 2019, he has two runner-ups in three tries.
But, he called Friday just average too.
“I think we had just an average day today in the PNC Bank car,” said Dixon. “For whatever reason, the car was just really difficult to drive. It was hard to find any speed so it was a challenge to piece a lap together. We’ll be looking at that and working on it tonight and tomorrow morning so we can improve and be where we need to be for qualifying tomorrow.”