While it took some last-lap heroics to win Josef Newgarden the pole for Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto, that decisive lap was set up by a tactical call the reigning series champion made when the final shootout began. And at first, he thought he’d blown it.
“I actually made the call in the Fast Six, which I don’t like doing. Normally I leave it to Tim [Cindric] and the team,” Newgarden said. “I say, ‘Hey, you guys make the high-level decision on what you want to do as far as when you go out, what tires you run,’ and I think there was some concern of not going out early immediately because it was spitting rain and we didn’t know if that was going to intensify or if it was going to get better.
“To me I thought we already got the Fast Six. We’re already up front, so I thought we might as well take a risk, and I think for us to get the pole — especially with Scott [Dixon] having new tires still — the only way we were going to do that is if we had the minimum amount of laps on our tires, and essentially we just needed to go out two laps later and just run at the end. I thought the track was going to get quicker.
“Halfway through the Fast Six, I regretted that decision because it was raining. It was actually starting to come down then, and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, we made a bad call, we should have been out here early,’ and in those final two laps it just started cleaning up and you could just see the braking was getting better, the concrete was getting better. In that final lap it was really coming alive, and I thought, ‘OK, this is the lap we have to push on,’ and I pushed as hard as I could in that final lap. I braked as deep as I could in Turn 3 and we kept it clean, and it was enough for pole. It was very thrilling from my side. It was a fun session to try and do something like that.
“I was sweating in the car, like, ‘This is amazing! I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but it’s very, very fun to drive.’
While he agreed that the repaving work done for this year’s race has improved the surface significantly, Newgarden said that hasn’t changed the physical nature of the Exhibition Place circuit.
“It’s a fairly violent track itself. It’s much smoother now. There’s sections that are so much easier. I think Turn 1 is the biggest area you can point to. We all have seen the repavement there, and it used to be really violent under the braking just because it was all pretty much just — it was rooted up from the winters here. Everything was uneven, and you had all these dips and peaks. So it was very difficult to get your braking. You’re just like bouncing across the brake zone into Turn 1. Now it’s smooth, you can brake as deep as possible.
“But the rest of the track, you’re always going over some big curbs. I think T5, T8 you’ve got some big curbs you hit, and it’s generally quite violent through 9, 10 and 11 onto the front stretch. It’s a violent track, but the thing about Toronto is this place grips up more than any other street course we go to. That’s why our lap times have been so quick. Some of that’s the repaved sections, but also just the grip of the track has been immense. I can’t believe how much grip has been around this place.
“If it was dry, I think we would have probably gotten into the 57s, which is really quick. I mean, we did a — what did we do, a 58.5, 58.6 Scott did, and that’s just kind of cleaning the track up. If it was like clean and green, yeah, you’d have done a high 57, no problem, so that just speaks to the grip level of the racetrack. It’s fun to drive, but it beats you up because it’s so gripped up and you’re over these curbs — it’s a very violent track to drive.