Colton Herta demolished the track record and survived a late curveball from the NTT IndyCar Series rulebook on his way to claiming pole position for this weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The previous track record of 1m06.22s, set by Helio Castroneves in 2017, had been under assault from the start of the weekend, and after being beaten in every session, Herta formally reset it during the Fast 6 with a 1m05.3095s. His pace in part reflected an Andretti Autosport team that has rolled off the trucks in strong shape: three Andretti-aligned cars were involved in the final battle for pole. But Herta gave himself an additional advantage by staying out a lap longer on a set of the harder compound tires early in the session, leaving him with a set of reds one lap fresher than those of his rivals for the end.
As the lap time showed, he used it to full effect, only to have a minor scare after he’d returned to the pits. Teammate Romain Grosjean had tagged the wall on the outside of Turn 4 on his final lap, breaking his left-rear suspension, and pounded into the tires at Turn 5 with 2.0s left on the clock. That brought out a red flag and demoted Grosjean from second to sixth on the grid, but due to the IndyCar rules guaranteeing a set amount of green flag running in the final minutes, it also prompted the series to invite all of the Fast 6 contenders other than Grosjean to go out and do one more lap.
The decision took the competitors by surprise — several were already out of their cars — and the challenges of getting the car sufficiently warmed up to improve starting position in just one flying lap were so slim that most opted not to take the series up on it. Only Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist went back out; Rossi’s run ended with a lockup that sent him into the runoff, and Rosenqvist failed to improve his time.
“I’m not really sure (about going back out); it wasn’t my decision,” Herta said afterwards. “I guess it didn’t change things in the end. Super-happy with how it went, the car is really good and we’re starting from the best spot tomorrow. Thrilled to finally get a pole here. It feels incredible.”
Grosjean’s demotion elevated Josef Newgarden to the outside of the front row, where he will line up ahead of Alex Palou and Rosenqvist. Rossi and Grosjean will start from row three.
Behind them, the main story of the day was traffic. Several drivers ended the afternoon feeling they’d have been higher up “if only,” particularly Marcus Ericsson and Scott McLaughlin, who tripped each other up late in the Fast 12 and pointed fingers at each other afterwards. “Our car was awesome,” said the New Zealander. “Nothing wrong with the car. It’s just a cluster out there with the traffic.”
It was a similar story for Will Power, who was delayed by Pato O’Ward at the hairpin after O’Ward had to slow for another car ahead of him. “It just sucks when it happens at the hairpin,” said Power, who fell just 0.0001s short of advancing to the Fast 6. “It’s ruins the lap you’re on, and the next one as well.”
Earlier on, an encounter between Graham Rahal and a slow Jimmie Johnson, who didn’t appear to know that Rahal was approaching, resulted in a qualifying interference penalty for the Ganassi driver and an early elimination for his counterpart in the No. 15 RLL Honda.
Meanwhile, a couple of other potentially fast cars fell short through self-inflicted problems. Scott Dixon will start from 16th after overshooting Turn 6 and ending up in the marbles during the first round, and a similar error derailed Castroneves.
“In the last section I pushed and didn’t have to,” he said. “It’s one of those things that, it’s shame if you do, shame if you don’t. I did, and I made a mistake and the car got on the marbles and I lost the front. I’m really frustrated, because we have a phenomenal car. But this is not the race, right? It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. We’re going to focus on the race and I know we can have a good result there.”