Alexander Rossi emerged triumphant from an eventful IndyCar qualifying session at Long Beach to claim pole for Sunday’s race.
“A bit lost for words,” said Rossi, who won Long Beach from pole last year. “We had a tough Friday, and the work we did overnight was awesome. This one is big — I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest. We knew coming here that we had to execute, so this is step one, and we know how to win from pole here so hopefully we’ll get step two tomorrow.”
Rossi’s mission was made somewhat easier by a couple of errors on the part of Chip Ganassi Racing, which had been looming as one of his biggest threats. Scott Dixon had been on provisional pole prior to Rossi’s lap and found another 0.2s on his next time around, but abandoned the lap when he saw that he was catching Rossi’s car ahead.
“It was an interesting one,” Dixon admitted. “I started catching Rossi and thought it was going to ruin [our lap], and then we had a miscommunication about whether I could do another lap or not. I thought we were done, but apparently we could have done one more lap. So we left a bit on the table there, but I’m not sure we could have gotten that pole time.”
Teammate Felix Rosenqvist’s problems were rather more dramatic. The Swede has been right on the edge all weekend, as evidenced by a series of trips into the escape roads during the practice sessions. This time, it bit him. Having just shot up to second behind Dixon during the second around and with only a minute left on the clock, he locked his front-right under braking for Turn 9, and this time, didn’t have time to steer the car to safety.
“Braked, caught a bump into 9, and locked the right-front,” he said. “I tried to get it in and just got a little bit outside the line, and it was enough. I’d struggled a little bit on the blacks, put on the reds and it felt much better, so it’s a shame.”
The resultant red flag cost him his two fastest laps, and dumped him out of the top six.
The beneficiary of that was Josef Newgarden, who’d ended the second round just outside the cutoff spot in P7, and was promoted up a place after Rosenqvist’s penalty. He made the most of it, qualifying fourth just behind Penske teammate Will Power.
“I’m happy,” said Newgarden. “The car was really good. We’re missing a little bit — not 100% sure where it all is or where we’re going to find it, but I think our race car is good. We’re in a good position. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the pole, that’s what you come here for, but at a minimum we’re starting in a good spot. Top six — that’s where you want to be.”
Rounding out a solid afternoon for Penske was Simon Pagenaud, earning his first top six starting spot for the year, with Graham Rahal completing the third row.
But for an ill-fated roll of the strategy dice, the makeup of the top six might have looked a little different. Both Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay attempted to secure passage out of the second round on a pair of scuffed reds with the aim of saving a fresh set for the Fast 6, but both fell just short.
“Didn’t work,” said Hunter-Reay. “Seventh, hopefully we can make it work from there. It’s a bummer; we definitely had a lot of pace in the car. But if we have a good race car tomorrow, there’s no reason why we can’t get it done.”
There was plenty of drama further back, too. The second group in the opening qualifying round spent their session tip-toeing around a tool that appeared to have fallen from Matheus Leist’s car at Turn 10 — fortunately landing far from the racing line. The closing moments of that session boiled down to a scrap between Colton Herta and Sebastien Bourdais for the final ticket to the second round; a fight that was narrowly settled in Herta’s favor.
“I have a good feel [for the car] now, I know where we’re at,” said Bourdais. “I didn’t get a read on the red tires yesterday and paid the price today. Too much understeer for that last gasp there, and couldn’t quite make it.”
Elsewhere, A.J. Foyt Racing was wishing that its misfortunes were limited to a lost hand tool. Instead, it was getting to work repairing Tony Kanaan’s car after he belted the tires and brought out the reds right at the end of the first session. He was sitting sixth at the time, and the consequent loss of his two best laps allowed Rosenqvist passage to the second round.