Sunday’s NTT IndyCar series finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will be a race of high tire degradation, low grip, busy hands and a delicate touch with the right foot if Friday’s opening practice session was any guide.
The championship contenders kept their power dry for the first half an hour of the 75-minute session, prioritizing tires over track time, and when they did emerge from pitlane Will Power set the tone for what was to come by immediately locking up at the entry to the Corkscrew and running wide. By the time Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden rattled off what would be the fastest time of the day with 1m11.4103s in the closing minutes, all of the five drivers in the title hunt had ventured into the dirt, joined by a pretty long list of others from along the grid.
“It didn’t seem good,” said Newgarden of the tire drop-off. “The red tire compound is different to last year. Firestone told us it would probably be more fragile, and it seems to be that way. It’s hard to tell from practice, but the drop-off does seem to be high.”
Scott Dixon, whose pace had fallen by around 4.0s at the end of his red tire run, was more forthright.
“I think it’s Detroit-bad,” he said of the degradation. “We started the lap quite good, but then someone came out in front of the [No. 27] and he backed into us, and when you tried to go again the rears were just gone. It’s going to be a pretty high-deg race.”
The only incidence of any real consequence came with just under half an hour to go when Jimmie Johnson went wide at speed at Turn 6. He threw the car into a flick and blipped the throttle in an attempt to keep it off the wall, but tagged the barrier with the rear, spun around and clattered it with the front wing as well. The damage was just serious enough to sideline him from the remainder of the session.
It was an encouraging start to the weekend for Andretti Autosport, with Colton Herta finishing the session second-fastest – albeit 0.4s down on Newgarden – with Romain Grosjean and Alexander Rossi completing an Andretti 3-4 right behind him. Callum Ilott started Juncos Hollinger Racing’s final weekend as a single-car team by going fifth-fastest in the No. 77 Chevy, putting him ahead early session leader Simon Pagenaud and Power.
Of the other contenders, Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson was 10th-fastest, leaving him just ahead of Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, while Ganassi’s set-up experiment with Dixon’s car left the Kiwi 17th-fastest and convinced that the direction taken on Ericsson’s No. 8 is the way forward.
UP NEXT: Practice 2, Saturday, 1:15pm ET