ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – After an unclear and occasionally dusty qualifying session Saturday afternoon, one thing became clear: This race will be unpredictable.
Whether it’s because of the aging surface, tires or sheer effort, drivers have been sliding around – and sometimes off – the iconic 14-turn, 4.014-mile Road America course more often than usual while preparing for Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR.
REV GROUP GRAND PRIX PRESENTED BY AMR: Race start tire selection
Colton Herta, 19, became the youngest pole winner in Indy car history with a fast lap of 1 minute, 42.9920 seconds (140.306 mph) in the No. 88 GESS Capstone Honda, but it came amid the dust and skid marks of his closest competitors.
The four practices and NTT P1 Award qualifying sessions were interrupted frequently by drivers sliding off course, but Herta said he felt confident throughout.
“When you have a hard tire and a green track, it feels worse than a softer tire and a green track,” Herta said. “It was tough for the first (practice) session, (but) there hasn’t been a racetrack that we’ve gone to that I haven’t felt comfortable with the race car or the qualifying car, so I knew we could get there if we put our heads down and got to it.”
One of the drivers who had his share of off-road adventures Friday and Saturday also had pace. Alexander Rossi landed the other front-row starting position with a lap of 1:43.1693 (140.065 mph) in his No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda.
“I was kind of surprised that the grip was as good as it was this morning,” Rossi said Saturday. “To see how quickly we went in the heat of the day this afternoon definitely showed that the track grip increased. Hopefully it’s on a trend that remains the same (for the race), because I think tires are going to be a big factor throughout the race.”
Following Herta and Rossi on the grid are Team Penske teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden on the second row, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammates Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato on the third row.
Some drivers noted difficult curbing, especially on exit, as the most troublesome areas, while others felt several of the corners are in need of fresh pavement.
“I think it’s time for a couple of corners to be repaved, to be honest,” said Sebastien Bourdais, who will start seventh in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda in his seventh race at Road America. Bourdais won at the track in 2007, the last Champ Car race on the circuit.
“I’ve never felt so out of shape in so many corners in so many different ways, not really feeling it coming. It’s just a big guessing game behind the wheel. I’m not quite sure what to do different. It doesn’t feel right.”
Others, like Power, enjoy the demands of Road America.
“It's just a cool old-school track,” the driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske driver and 2016 Road America winner said. “I mean, it's pretty low grip. The car moves around a lot. Like through the carousel (Turns 9 and 10), you're sliding all the way through there. (We) don't get these sort of tracks anymore. Just a track with a lot of character, old-school. You make a mistake, you certainly pay for it.”
For Marco Andretti, the curb at the exit of Turn 6, a sharp left-hander, proved to be the culprit that kept him from the Firestone Fast Six. Instead, he’ll start 10th in the No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda when the green flag flies at 12:50 p.m. ET Sunday.
“I got loose in Turn 6 … and it put me on the exit curb,” Andretti said. “That was enough to put me out of the Firestone Fast Six. That was over two-tenths (of a second lost), and it would have put me around fourth. It is a double edge as we had the pace for fourth or fifth without the mistake. (Starting 10th) will make our race a bit easier than the past few, but the guys up front are fast."
It’s long, it’s challenging, and – perhaps most critically – it’s imperfect. While some drivers were recording fast laps during practice sessions leading up to qualifying, others were sliding off track and knocking down temporary advertising banners.
That’s Road America – good, bad and intriguing, often simultaneously.
“It's always interesting,” Rossi said. “We come to these tracks where not a lot theoretically has changed, but the car that you had pretty good performance with and balance with the previous year doesn't necessarily translate the same the next year. It's something we all have to stay on top of and continue chasing.”
Therein lies the challenge. As the circuit weathers, it changes. And, with constantly changing weather conditions, those changes are presented in the moment. Toss in the chance of rain for the race and it becomes even more unpredictable.
“It’s really become pretty tough, but it’s the same for everyone,” Bourdais said. “For whatever reason, I just don’t feel like I’m reading it very well.”
When it’s good, it’s great. And when it isn’t, well, you’ll probably kick up some dust or knock down a sign.
“If things are going well, it's fun,” Rossi said. “If the car is not quite where you want it, it's a long time out there struggling. So it can go either way.”
REV GROUP GRAND PRIX PRESENTED BY AMR
Race 10 of 17 on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden is the championship leader after nine races, holding a 25-point lead on Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport.
Track: Road America, a 14-turn, 4.014-mile permanent road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Sunday’s race will be the 29th for Indy cars at the track, dating to 1982.
Race distance: 55 laps/220.77 miles
Fuel: 80 gallons of Speedway E85 ethanol
Push-to-pass: Each car receives 200 seconds of push-to-pass overtake assist for the race, with a maximum single activation of 20 seconds. Use of push-to-pass increases engine output by approximately 60 horsepower during the activation.
Tire use rule: For a dry-condition race, each car that finishes the event must complete at least two race laps on a set of Firestone primary (black-sidewall) tires and two laps on a new set of Firestone alternate (red-sidewall) tires.