Pato O’Ward laid down a marker ahead of qualifying for this weekend’s NTT IndyCar Series race in Long Beach by topping a bizarre Saturday morning practice session.
Teams and drivers were forced to adjust on the fly as it became apparent that an additional curb had sprouted overnight near the exit of Turn 5. The addition of the curb was not communicated to IndyCar or the teams beforehand, and the first indication that it was there came when Callum Ilott hit it and launched into the outside wall. The second indication came just a couple of minutes after Ilott’s car had been retrieved when Rinus VeeKay did exactly the same thing.
“Bottomed pretty hard,” VeeKay said over the radio immediately after the No. 21 ECR Chevrolet’s impact. “I feel like they almost moved the curbing — did they change anything?”
VeeKay escaped with minimal damage and was able to rejoin the session, but Ilott’s morning ended as soon as the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet pounded the wall.
.@callum_ilott started his day with a wild ride in turn 5. #INDYCAR // #AGPLB pic.twitter.com/uqm9Bsffhh
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 15, 2023
“I was doing the same line yesterday and it was fine,” he said. “I don’t know. If they changed something and didn’t tell us, but that was strange. I didn’t understand what happened other than I took off when I hit the curb.
“If they did (change anything) and they didn’t tell us then they can pay for the damage, because that’s a joke.”
It later transpired that the curb in question had been in place for the track walk on Thursday, but then sustained damage during an IMSA session on Friday and was removed before IndyCar’s practice session later in the afternoon. It was then restored overnight, but it was not deemed necessary to inform the series because the curbing was considered to be a repair rather than a modification.
As news of the change filtered through the field, drivers initially took a far more cautious approach into Turn 5 before gradually working the curb into their new lines.
With the two curb-induced reds out of the way, the rest of the session passed with nothing more serious than a few harmless lock-ups and spins, and driver concerns instead moved onto trying to find some clear track for a qualifying simulation on the alternate tires.
This caused a few near-misses at the hairpin — one almost took out two Andretti drivers when Kyle Kirkwood checked up hard to avoid rear-ending Romain Grosjean, and then triggered an accordion effect behind him as cars swerved to avoid a pile-up. Later, Kirkwood found himself on a receiving end of a hurry-up message at the same spot in the form of a tap in the rear from Will Power.
O’Ward’s best came during the final scramble on the green tires, and beat closest rival Kirkwood by just 0.0167s — a far cry from the 0.2s advantage that the Mexican had over the field on Friday.
Grosjean was third fastest, another 0.04s down on Kirkwood, while Herta continued a solid morning for Andretti by finishing fourth fastest.
“The session went pretty well for all of us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve got a strong package. I think the track temperature is going to change for qualifying so we have to keep an eye on that, but I think we have a strong car.”
Scott McLaughlin rounded out the top five, bringing Team Penske into the picture for the first time this weekend after all three of the team’s cars struggled to post a representative time on Friday due to traffic.
UP NEXT: Qualifying at 3:05pm