What: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey / Race 17 of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series
Where: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif. – 2.238-mile natural-terrain road course
When: Sunday, Sept. 10, 2:30pm ET (green flag @ 3:19pm ET)
The classic, 11-turn WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in scenic Monterey County will not feature a championship showdown this year: honors were clinched last weekend in Portland by Alex Palou with his fifth win of the season, while his Chip Ganassi Racing Honda teammate Scott Dixon also put the runner-up spot beyond reach of his nearest pursuers.
But coming into the 17th and final race of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season, there’s still plenty to play for. Josef Newgarden (Team Penske), Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren) and Scott McLaughlin (Penske) are locked in a close battle for third in points, while Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi) and outgoing champ Will Power (Penske) are fighting for sixth. Plus, there’s much to be settled at the other end of the table, too, as teams scramble to get into the top 22 to earn Leaders Circle money as a financial boost for 2024.
And with big guns such as O’Ward, Power, Alexander Rossi (Arrow McLaren) and Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport) all desperate not to end their 2023 campaigns winless, we’re set for an intense 95 laps on Sunday afternoon.
All arrive at a new-look WeatherTech Raceway: the layout is the same, but the track has been resurfaced, so tire data accumulated from 2019 through ’22 is pretty much junk. Hence, the five-hour test held Thursday should prove invaluable for all 27 entrants, for there is a huge amount to learn.
Eddie Jones, race engineer for Graham Rahal, has played a large part in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s resurgent competitiveness in recent races, “his” No. 15 entry starting from pole at both of IndyCar’s most recent road courses. But Jones (below, with Rahal) is well aware of the major challenge ahead in replicating that form at Laguna Seca, even once he’s collated the test data and feedback from the RLL trio of Rahal, Lundgaard and new arrival Juri Vips.
“We believe that what we arrive with will be pretty good,” Jones tells RACER, “but as a team with three cars and the test session being five hours, there’s time for us to make radical changes if we need to. Frankly, we have more time than tires — only three sets — and because you can carry one of those sets through to the race weekend, I imagine it’s most teams’ intention to do that. So, effectively we could be testing with just two sets, and maybe run one qualifying sim on a third set before taking that set into Friday.
“At the same time, IndyCar has allowed us to run a set of primary tires from Portland in this test, so we’re planning to use that in our first run, but it’s a different construction and compound than the Laguna Seca tire, meaning we can’t read too much into the data. But it should give the drivers a sense of what the new track has to offer.”
Despite the resurfacing work making WeatherTech Raceway smoother, Jones doesn’t anticipate the cars being able to ride any lower and therefore more aerodynamically than before. He points out: “The problem is, there are a couple of major compression areas at fairly quick corners here — Turns 6 and 10 — and so they dictate the ride height. And because the track surface is going to be giving us so much more grip, we’ll be going quicker through those sections, so the cars will compress that much more.”
To onlookers, the most obvious result of the resurfacing work is the much darker hue of the new asphalt — something Jones spied from high above as his flight into Oakland airport passed over the legendary course. The result is that it will warm far more rapidly on a clear day.
“There’s plenty of bright sunshine around here,” notes Jones, “so, yes, we’re going to have to monitor track temps pretty closely to get a feel for the effect on the tire. Theoretically, it should get the tire up to temperatures quicker, but at the same time, the track will offer less grip as the surface gets hotter. This isn’t the tire we used last year here; it’s the tire we used this year at Mid-Ohio (below) — which is quite encouraging for us because Graham put it on the front row! But how that tire works with this surface, we still don’t know.”
Although the best drivers in the series loved the old surface because it was harsh on tires and therefore rewarded those who could go quickly while looking after their rubber, the new surface may well prove more conducive to racing. If the grip level is uniform across the track width, it might embolden drivers into trying a variety of lines to tackle an opponent ahead.
“Yes, I think that will open more opportunities into Turn 2, the big wide hairpin (below), and into and out of Turn 5,” says Jones. “But longitudinal grip on new tires will be up, too, so brake zones may be shorter, which makes things tough… Honestly, at this stage, it’s hard to tell how it will go, but I’m optimistic.”
Also still open to question is what effect — if any — the extra grip will have on fuel consumption. Will going three seconds a lap quicker raise consumption? Or will a driver carry so much more momentum into the turns that it reduces the amount of fuel-burning acceleration? And if consumption has increased and tires are easier to warm, then in qualifying we may see participants in the Firestone Fast Six putting just one flying lap’s worth of fuel in, running a flyer, pitting for another squirt of fuel and another flyer on another tire set. Because on that long climb from Turn 5 to the Corkscrew, even a lap’s worth of fuel is extra weight being dragged uphill that can cost time.
And speaking of fuel consumption, there’s another matter to ponder come race day. Running in someone’s wake is a good way to save fuel, but of course it means running in dirty air and sliding through the faster, long-duration corners so prevalent at WeatherTech Raceway, thereby hurting the tires. Will the track’s fresh pavement offer up enough grip to make the loss of downforce in dirty air less of an issue?
“Whatever the track surface, you are going to be sliding more, the closer you get to the car in front,” says Jones, “but there’s still an overall benefit to running close-ish to the car ahead. A fair amount of the track is high speed, so it will help your fuel consumption. And, yeah, the increased grip may make it easier for the driver to manage in the dirty air and not use up the tires so quickly.”
One downside for Jones and Rahal is that by qualifying on pole at the last race, the No. 155 RLL Honda will this weekend be pitting at the last pit box before pit exit. That’s traditionally beneficial, but at Laguna Seca it puts them on the surprisingly steep uphill section of pitlane, which can make smooth departure from standstill quite difficult.
“Yeah…but we’ll take it!” says Jones. “It’s a shame, but it’s part of the success. And at the same time, just being at the front of pit lane helps on race day because under a caution when everyone pits together, you can time your departure to slot back in front. And it’s most helpful in qualifying, because it means Graham can get out and get the cleaner laps without someone in front backing up to him.
“In the meantime, we’ve got the test to run and as we’ve discussed, there’s a lot to investigate. But with three cars and a lot of potential track time, I think we can get a lot done.”
You can follow all the practice and qualifying action from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Peacock on Friday, Sept. 8 and Saturday, Sept. 9, with NBC your go-to location for 95 laps and 212.61miles of race action on Sunday, Sept. 10. And to get even closer to it all, grab the best seat in the house with the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA and its 14 race day live onboard cameras.
Friday, Sept. 8 / 5.30pm – 6.45pm ET – Practice 1 – Peacock
Saturday, Sept. 9 / 1.00pm – 2:00pm ET – Practice 2 – Peacock
Saturday, Sept. 9 / 5:00pm – 6:30pm ET – Qualifying – Peacock
Sunday, Sept. 10 / 12:00pm – 12.30pm ET – Warm-up – Peacock
Sunday, Sept. 10 / 2:30pm ET – RACE – NBC, Peacock
• All sessions and the race are also available as audio commentary on SiriusXM and INDYCAR Radio.
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Bringing you the onboard action from the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey are…
Alexander Rossi / No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Rossi (below) rise above the level of his car, but if Arrow McLaren is on point as a team this weekend, expect him to shine. His last three qualifying attempts here with his former team, Andretti Autosport, produced third, second and third on the grid, and if there’s a driver brave enough to fully exploit the extra grip here this year, it’s Rossi.
Scott McLaughlin / No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet
McLaughlin wants to finish as top Penske driver this year, and having stretched out a big enough gap over Will Power to ensure he’s at least second best, he now lies only 22 points behind Josef Newgarden. With 50 points on offer for a win, it’s feasible he can overhaul the two-time champ, but a more realistic ambition is matching the fourth place in the championship that he achieved last year. To do that he must overcome a 13-point deficit to the next guy on our list.
Pato O’Ward / No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet
Yes, O’Ward sits between Newgarden and McLaughlin on the strength of seven podium finishes in 2023. But he’s still looking for his first win of the season, and that is a big surprise — as is his failure to capture a pole. Yet it’s hard to recall a race where he was anonymous: it seems that the No. 5 Chevy is always at the forefront, its occupant banging at the door to victory lane. Expect something similar this weekend.
Colton Herta / No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda
This is not a season that Herta will remember with much fondness — aside, that is, from (below) sampling father Bryan’s Laguna Seca-winning Reynard on Wednesday! He’s only 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of teammate Kyle Kirkwood and one point behind the guy who Kirkwood replaced at Andretti Autosport, Alexander Rossi. But if any track can offer him solace with a victory, it’s this one, where he conquered with pole and the win in both 2019 and ’21.
Josef Newgarden / No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet
His mistake in qualifying here last year was incomprehensible, but his charge from the back to the front on race day was unforgettable. Yup, Newgarden has been through every emotion at Laguna Seca, including the elation of clinching his second NTT IndyCar Series championship back in 2019. Without a title to consider this year, it will be interesting to see how much tougher an opponent he might be. We can be reasonably sure that his team will give him a potentially race-winning car.
Christian Lundgaard / No. 45 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Last year, this was the venue where Lundgaard put in one of his finest drives to date, climbing from 16th to fifth, and thereby clinching IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year title. He’s been one of the bright lights of 2023, and if he remains eighth in the championship, it will mean he’s beaten two of the Arrow McLaren drivers — unthinkable a couple of months into the season.
Felix Rosenqvist / No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet
In his final race for the Arrow McLaren Chevrolet team, Rosenqvist has the chance to tackle his ferocious friend O’Ward in equal equipment one last time, and he stands a good chance of going out on a high, for this is one of the Swede’s best tracks. He’ll doubtless also feel a boost of self-confidence after climbing from 12th to second in last week’s race at Portland (below) without anything going wrong. A good bet for a podium.
Romain Grosjean / No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda
The Grosjean-Andretti Autosport partnership that sporadically promised much appears set to end on a muted note: since April, he’s achieved just one top-10 finish. However, with his IndyCar future by no means certain, Grosjean has plenty to prove this weekend at one of his favorite tracks, and he absolutely has the latent speed to end the AA portion of his career on a high. His poles at St. Petersburg and Barber this year were no flukes, and he’s started from the second row here before.
Kyle Kirkwood / No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda
He won once here in Indy Pro 2000 and twice in Indy Lights (now Indy NXT), and in his rookie season last year, Kirkwood wrestled a recalcitrant AJ Foyt Racing car to 17th on the grid, just a quarter-second slower than Scott Dixon in a Ganassi machine. He should have a much easier time in an Andretti car, and he’ll have the perfect guy with whom to share data in the form of Herta. Expect a strong showing.
Graham Rahal / No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Two pole positions in the last two road course races suggest that Rahal found his mojo not long after the team revitalized itself. As Portland’s race proved, all parties still have things to learn, but Rahal’s race engineer Eddie Jones has admitted to RACER that, unlike last weekend, if they land pole again at Laguna Seca, but collectively feel that starting on primaries is the way to go, they will defy convention and go for it.
Rinus VeeKay / No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
One of the happiest surprises at Portland was seeing VeeKay dancing his Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy toward the front once more (below), failing to be intimidated by some crass blocking moves from a couple of his rivals, and eventually finishing sixth. This has been a trying year for the whole ECR organization, but if he works industriously with the team over this extended race weekend and makes progress, VeeKay can absolutely be a star for a second straight race.
Helio Castroneves / No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda
Handkerchiefs at the ready: We are about to witness what will probably be the last-ever IndyCar race (outside of the Indy 500, of course) for one of the sport’s legends, a 31-time race winner. Chances of Castroneves making that 32 this weekend? Slim. Yet the Meyer Shank Racing team does have a technical partnership with Andretti Autosport, a team we expect to shine here, so there may be a kick in the old horse’s final dash.
Agustin Canapino / No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet
Again and again we’ve praised Canapino for his amazing adaptation to IndyCar at the age of 33, after a career in touring cars. We were all surprised to see him loop into the boonies at Portland, so rare have his errors been. But still he finds himself part of the desperate struggle to get into the top 22 at season’s end and help earn Juncos Hollinger Racing some much-needed Leaders Circle dollars. The No. 78 entry currently sits 25th, but just 15 points out if 21st. It’s a nail-biter for all concerned.
Juri Vips / No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
Vips played himself in well as an NTT IndyCar Series debutant in Portland (below), outpacing five cars in Q1, and actually falling only 0.15s short of transferring to Q2. He started the race 18th and finished 18th. Now, with a test session at Laguna Seca turning this into a four-day weekend, expect him to shine despite a dearth of track knowledge, since even the veterans have to recalibrate due to the new track surface. Vips is a very good driver who just needs time and laps.
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