While walking through the Fan Village earlier today, I saw several guys wearing shirts that said “IndyCar is back” on the back of them. There is certainly a buzz here at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca this weekend, both on and off the track.

Two practice sessions are down Friday, with a third disguised as “pit practice/warmup”. Once more practice remains Saturday morning, followed by one of the most critical qualifying sessions of the season.

The pressure’s on, and it’s showing as several drivers — including championship contenders Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon — have already been off course today. The edge the drivers are looking for this weekend will be even harder to find than usual, and any mistakes will be magnified because runoff consists of dirt and sand, making it very difficult to get back on track.

So what’s going on here?

Champion contenders are a mixed bag. Pagenaud, who comes into the weekend 42 points behind Josef Newgarden, has been the most consistent of the Championship 4 drivers. He was sixth in Practice 1 and moved up to P4 in Practice 2, then was P6 again in the warmup. Newgarden was P9, P6 and P16 in his three sessions, while Dixon, 85 points in arrears and needing a huge miracle, was P14, P7 and P4. Then there is the curious case of Alexander Rossi. Rossi was P24 and P23 in the first two sessions, then rocketed to the top of the speed chart in the warmup.

Rossi didn’t seem worried about the slow start, attributing it to working through a “checklist” that the team put together for the weekend. It’s no surprise to see him go fast in the warmup, as teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay was P1 in Practice 2 and P2 in the warmup. Given how closely they work together, Rossi’s climb up the charts was going to be inevitable as they share data and setup ideas.

“We feed off each other really well and work well together, and it’s great to have a teammate like that,” Rossi said. “With how competitive it is, you need to have guys you can rely upon. The first one I go to at the end of every session is this guy”

Herta impresses. Colton Herta is looking to end his rookie season with a bang, as his car has been quick since it rolled off the truck for the Thursday test. He’s been at or near the top of the speed chart all weekend, and after struggling through May and June has notched five Top 10 finishes in his last seven races. He was also a solid fourth at Portland three weeks ago.

Tires. Tire degradation is going to be a factor this weekend. Both RHR and Rossi agree that the magnitude of the degradation is as high as it’s been all year. The NBC guys were talking that the difference in lap times of a tire cycle could vary by almost five seconds.

“I think it’s just really low grip since the surface is weathered,” Hunter-Reay said. “The tire compound that we have here, it’s all just a tricky package. You’re sliding around, and it’s rewarding the risk that you take out there. If you take a big leap of faith, you might come through the other end, you might not, but if you make it it’s worth a couple tenths of a second. It’s tough. You’re risking a lot every lap it feels like.”

The NTT IndyCar Series has one more practice that goes off at 10 a.m. PDT, then qualifying will begin at 1:35 p.m. PDT.

Pit Lane Parley

It’s the final in-season episode of PLP, and Host Mike, Jess and Matt discuss the upcoming race weekend at Laguna Seca, discuss the championship contenders, and also take some fan questions. You can listen on any of your favorite platforms, or here on iTunes.

 

Photo credit: Chris Owens/IndyCar Media