Colton Herta was fast, Alex Palou was fast, Pato O’Ward was frustrated, and about half the field spun: Long Beach rose to the occasion of the NTT IndyCar Series season finale weekend with a wild opening practice session on Friday afternoon.
In stopwatch terms, most the session was a battle between Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Chip Ganassi Racing set the early benchmark, and with half an hour still to run, held a lock on the top three places. That later swung in Andretti’s favor thanks to Herta and Alexander Rossi, and Herta’s best of 1m09.2680s ultimately proved beyond the reach of the rest of the field.
“It felt really good,” Herta said. “Like all the street courses, we rolled off with a really good car. There was a lot of confidence coming into this weekend. I feel really good with the car; the grip’s already there, so we’ll just be fine-tuning and trying to change for how we think the track is going to change.”
Runaway championship leader Palou was less than 0.2s off and appeared destined for second-fastest, only for Simon Pagenaud to pop up ahead of him in the No.22 Team Penske Chevy in the final seconds.
“It was good,” Palou said. “I like the track. It was all about getting to know the track and how the car was handling. With the yellow flags we don’t really know where we are, but I’m happy.”
He was certainly happier than his main title rival. O’Ward came into the weekend looking to rebound from a disappointing visit to Laguna Seca. Instead, he found himself battling the same handling problems that derailed him a week ago, and was left 16th-fastest, almost 1.0s off the pace and contemplating a long engineering debrief.
“It was messy for us,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to tell where we’re really at. That was messy for me. The car didn’t feel the best. I’d be lying if I said it did. We need to find what’s wrong with it and get it fixed for qualifying, because qualifying is going to be everything here.”
No risk. No reward.
@ColtonHerta is pushing the limits in practice 1.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) September 24, 2021
His Arrow McLaren SP teammate Felix Rosenqvist was fourth-fastest, but with the Swede’s setup preference leaning almost 180 degrees from O’Ward’s, the extent to which the Mexican can benefit from whatever Rosenqvist found is an open question.
Ryan Hunter-Reay began his final race weekend in Andretti Autosport colors by going fifth-fastest.
“Seems like everybody had a hard time out there today; it was hard to get a rhythm going,” he said. “But I was pretty happy with how it all went.”
Josef Newgarden, who also comes into the weekend with his championship hopes mathematically alive, spun and stalled 15 minutes into the session, bringing out the first red flag. Despite the knock-on effect that had on his track time, he still managed to finish 10th-fastest.
While Newgarden’s incident was the first of any real significance, the fact that it came immediately after Romain Grosjean locked up and skidded down an escape road set a tone for the remaining half an hour. Jimmie Johnson locked up and spun. He kept it off the wall, continued on, and then barely five minutes later, spun again. Oliver Askew hit the wall twice, the second hard enough to break his left-rear wishbone and trigger another red. Later, it was Scott Dixon’s turn: a huge lock-up, a spin, and a red flag.
And there could have been more. Pagenaud locked up and went off, as did Dalton Kellett, while Herta came within fractions of an inch of pancaking the left-side of the No.26 after surviving a huge slide. From the outside it looked like one of the best saves of the year, but according to Herta, it was blind luck.
“It was one of those things where the car kind of saves itself,” he said. “ I was just along for the ride. I took a little too much curb, the car bottomed, and after that, I don’t know what happened.”
UP NEXT: Practice 2, Saturday 9:00-9:45 a.m. PT