In what felt like a sprint of a session, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden backed up his love affair with Road America by leading the first Friday practice by over four tenths of a second.
On the long, 4.014-mile course there are only so many laps drivers can squeeze in during 45-minute practices. Lap times ranged from 1:43.0477s (Newgarden, P1) all the way down to Harding Racing’s Gabby Chaves (1:46.4485s).
With such a long lap, there are many opportunities for drivers and teams to separate themselves. If Chaves’ lap was removed, positions 1 through 22 were separated by just 1.86 seconds which is an astoundingly-close gap on such a long track.
That speaks to the talent level of these drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series and how stout this field is.
Following Newgarden on the time sheets was Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato. The Japanese driver turned in a best time of 1:43.4729 that was 0.4252 seconds behind Newgarden, but comparable to the rest of the field in his No. 30 Honda machine.
Rounding out the top five was Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi in P3 (1:43.5603), Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens (P4, 1:43.5774) and another Andretti Autosport driver, Marco Andretti in P5 (1:43.8825).
When asked about the importance of qualifying, Andretti made note that while starting from the back isn’t a doomsday scenario (with opportunities to pass on track), combating the talent level in IndyCar with a solid starting spot is preferred.
“There are good passing zones, but you want to start on the pointy end if not on the pole,” said the Honda veteran. “I think because of the competition top to bottom, its so tight, you want to start up front.”
His teammate, Alexander Rossi, was P3 in the session and seemed to enjoy the cooler-than-expected temperatures for a late-June road course race.
“(Just) trying to figure out this new car around this place, it is always a pleasure to be here at Road America,” Rossi stated. “It is one of my favorite tracks; the fans are great, the weather is great, it’s great to be here.
“Colder conditions are great for us, we love running these cars in cold weather… we have a lot of time on track this weekend before qualifying so we will have to continue to chip away at it. We will run the red (alternate) tires next session and see what those bring and compare with my three teammates to hopefully build a great race car to be up front and competing in qualifying.”
The top ten featured some surprising guests as Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot (7th), Andretti Autosport rookie Zach Veach (8th) and A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist (10th) all continue to show improvement during the 2018 championship.
Additionally, Tony Kanaan was 6th in FP1 to place both Foyt cars in the top-10 while championship leader Scott Dixon was 9th in his No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Some notables down in the order included Graham Rahal, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver who placed 19th – a stark contrast to his teammate Sato who was 2nd-quick in this session. The No. 15 team continues to have issues with outright pace during the first half of race weekends this season.
Series champions Simon Pagenaud (11th), Ryan Hunter-Reay (13th), Will Power (14th) and Sebastein Bourdais (16th) were all outside of the top-10 in this first practice session, so expect them to climb the ladder during this afternoon’s second practice.
Veterans James Hinchcliffe (17th) and Charlie Kimball (20th) were far down the time sheet while Alfonso Celis Jr. was 22nd for Juncos Racing. Celis Jr. is making his Verizon IndyCar Series debut this weekend.
A pair of rookies completed the most laps in the session as Leist and Dale Coyne Racing’s Zachary Claman De Melo both made 15 circuits around Road America to lead the field. Session leader Josef Newgarden completed 13 laps.
The afternoon practice will be important in gauging driver pace this weekend as it will be the first opportunity for teams to test out the alternate Firestone red tires during the same time of day that teams will be qualifying on Saturday.
Stay tuned to Open-Wheels for continued coverage of Road America weekend in the buildup to Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix, the 10th race in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
Image courtesy of Christopher Owens/INDYCAR.