Two private NTT IndyCar Series tests on the horizon should shape the outcome of the championship.
The August 26 test at Portland International Raceway, scheduled nine days prior to the September 4 race at PIR, will feature nine cars, with two from A.J. Foyt Racing, four from Andretti Autosport, and most importantly, three from Team Penske, as the trio are set to study the 2.0-mile road course prior to IndyCar’s penultimate round.
Once Friday’s test is complete, Andretti will head 12 hours south to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca where its No.29 Honda will be deployed for a rookie test on Monday, August 29 and will be joined by 12 other entries, led by two cars from Arrow McLaren SP, four from Chip Ganassi Racing, two from Dale Coyne Racing, one from Juncos Hollinger Racing and three from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
It’s here, in Penske’s decision to use its last private test day at Portland, and Ganassi’s call to spend its lone remaining test day at the site of the September 11 season finale, where the choice of testing sites could easily sway the championship in one team’s favor.
Look back to this point in time last year, it was the Ganassi team that saved its last test for a trip to Portland. Using the information it gained, Alex Palou went on to secure pole position and win the Portland Grand Prix for Ganassi and completely alter the rest of his season.
Although two races were left on the calendar, the positive effects from the Portland test and Palou’s subsequent performances in Oregon built an imposing gap that could not be overcome at Laguna Seca or Long Beach by main title rivals Team Penske or Arrow McLaren SP.
Penske’s Will Power leads the standings by a small margin and has teammates Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin holding second and sixth, respectively.
Ganassi has Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, and Alex Palou in a championship row in third, fourth, and fifth, and if Penske can find an edge in Portland and carry it into Monterey, we’ll look to its choice of testing venue in the same game-changing manner Portland served for Ganassi in 2021.
“We labored on where to use it for quite a while,” Penske managing director Ron Ruzewski told RACER. “And then we haven’t been able to test at Portland in a while, and we know Ganassi has been strong at Portland, historically. Both Will and Josef would also like to test there. So ultimately, all those things weighed into our decision.”
Asked why his team elected to skip the Portland test in favor of Laguna Seca, CGR managing director Mike Hull pointed to recent history as the reason why Monterey was chosen.
“For us, I think it’s more in understanding how to prepare for a low grip circuit,” he said of the well-worn 2.2-mile Laguna Seca track. “Because one is not low grip at Portland and Laguna is very low grip, and we felt like we were a bit deficient at Laguna when we raced there last year. And we also feel like the race track has probably degraded a bit from the grip level over what it was a year ago.
“So with the limited amount of track time there over the race weekend, we felt like it was best to go use that last test day at Laguna this year. I hope we’re not taken by surprise. But we think we’ll probably be fairly decent at Portland because we have a good baseline to start from last year.”
If Ganassi’s speed from Portland in 2021 carries over into the upcoming race, Dixon, Ericsson, and Palou could negate whatever gains Power, Newgarden, and McLaughlin find at their test. And if that doesn’t happen, the Penske drivers could head to Laguna Seca with a bit of breathing room over the Ganassi drivers when it’s time to settle the championship.
One way or the other, the last two tests of the season will factor into who will wear the IndyCar crown.
“I can basically mimic some of what Mike said,” Ruzewski added. “We’ve been hit or miss at Portland. Last year, we didn’t qualify good for various reasons. Some of it was traffic related, not necessarily car performance. But it was still not great. And we didn’t have a great Barber event this year, either.
“So we’re looking to improve on the high-grip tracks, opposite of what Ganassi’s looking for on low-grip tracks. That’s where we need a little bit of work to be strong.
“And historically, the low-grip tracks is where we’ve done well. If we can get a good grasp on Portland after having the opportunity to test, I think we’ll be in play in the race. We want to go into these final races on offense.”