Fifth Gear: Five Takeaways from Laguna Test

Updated: 

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES may be on summer break until the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on Sunday, Aug. 8 on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, but teams and drivers haven’t gone on vacation.

Ten drivers from three teams – Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing – conducted a private test Tuesday, July 20 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. The 11-turn, 2.258-mile road course will host the penultimate round of the 2021 season, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 19 (live on NBC).

Times and speeds aren’t released from private tests, but various reports and social media content offered us a look at how these drivers got around the scenic circuit that features the iconic “Corkscrew” turn complex.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Newgarden Leads, Lurks. It should come as little surprise that Josef Newgarden was the quickest of the 10 drivers testing at Laguna Seca in his No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. He’s the hottest driver in the series, entering the summer break after a commanding victory in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio presented by the HPD Ridgeline on July 4 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

That win at Mid-Ohio was the first of the season for two-time series champion Newgarden and for Team Penske, but he easily could have won the last three races before the break, as he led late in the second Detroit race and at Road America before falling short.

So, while Newgarden is fourth in the standings, 69 points out of the lead, it’s not a stretch to say that he is the driver who should loom largest in the rearview mirror of championship leader Alex Palou. Newgarden has led 172 of the 205 combined laps in the last three races, a lead rate of 84 percent.

Yeah, it’s a dated movie reference, but Newgarden’s song during driver introductions should be the theme from the classic film “Jaws.” He’s the giant great white shark circling in the water, waiting to strike at any time.

2. Andretti Finding Answers? One of the biggest mysteries of this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is the form of Andretti Autosport.

The championship and Indy 500-winning team has scored one victory, by Colton Herta in April at St. Petersburg, and has only has two podium finishes, both by Herta.

But the results at Laguna Seca indicate maybe the team is breaking out of its funk. Herta was second quickest in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda, just a tenth of a second behind Newgarden. Andretti drivers Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay spliced themselves amid Penske cars, as Rossi was fourth overall and Hunter-Reay sixth.

Andretti Autosport may not have a strong chance to win the championship this season, as its top-placed driver, Herta, is seventh in the standings and 124 points out of the lead. But this solid test indicates the team could return to its customary position as regular podium finishers in the closing stretch of the season.

3. McLaughlin Quietly Impressive. Scott McLaughlin was the heralded new guy in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES during the preseason, as Team Penske rarely hires series rookies for its seat. Anticipation about when, not if, McLaughlin would earn his first career victory this season only intensified after he finished second to Scott Dixon in the Genesys 300 in early May at Texas in his first oval start.

Since then, Pato O’Ward, Rinus VeeKay and Marcus Ericsson have stolen some of the spotlight by each earning their first career victories this season, but McLaughlin hasn’t gone away.

McLaughlin is a steady 13th in the standings in the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet, and he is just 11 points behind teammate Will Power, an INDYCAR SERIES champion and Indy 500 winner.

Sure, McLaughlin wants to be higher in the standings and wants to end a streak of five straight finishes out of the top 10. But his adaptation to open-wheel machinery is every bit as daunting as that of Jimmie Johnson at Chip Ganassi Racing, who jumped to INDYCAR after racing heavy NASCAR stock cars for 20 years. Australian V8 Supercars touring cars are a bit more nimble than NASCAR stock cars, and the series runs on road courses and not primarily ovals like NASCAR.

Still, it’s a huge jump for New Zealand native McLaughlin. And he showed solid speed during the test Tuesday, ending up third among the Penske cars and fifth overall. He was less than a half-second behind teammate and test leader Newgarden.

4. Ferrucci Stakes His Claim. Santino Ferrucci tested in place of Takuma Sato for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at Laguna Seca, and he continued to impress.

Ferrucci has four top-10 finishes in four starts this season for the team, including sixth in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. He was seventh quickest Tuesday at Laguna but quicker than teammate Graham Rahal and Power.

Connecticut native Ferrucci still is running a partial schedule with Rahal while also racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He is making a strong claim for a full-time ride next season in INDYCAR if that’s the route he chooses to take.

5. More Testing To Come. The Laguna Seca test was the first of three multiteam tests during the summer break.

Up next is a test Tuesday, July 27 featuring 11 cars at World Wide Technology Raceway. That session will attract more attention than usual, as it will feature the oval debut of rookie sensation Romain Grosjean, who is preparing for a possible oval racing debut in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Aug. 21 at the track in his No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing Honda.

Then eight cars are scheduled to test Friday, July 31 at Portland International Raceway, site of the Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday, Sept. 12.

From the fans