On a scorching April afternoon in Southern California, Simon Pagenaud turned up the heat even higher before the big chill arrives.
Frenchman Pagenaud turned a top lap of 1 minute, 7.1991 seconds in the No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda to lead the opening practice Friday for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, the third NTT INDYCAR SERIES race of the season.
2016 series champion Pagenaud’s top lap was more than four-tenths of a second quicker than his closest pursuer, two-time Long Beach winner Alexander Rossi, whose top lap was 1:07.6012 in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda. That’s a big gap in a series in which mere hundredths of a second usually separate the top drivers.
SEE: Practice Results
All 26 drivers in the field coped with unseasonably hot temperatures in the mid-90s under brilliant Southern California sunshine. The weather forecast for the 85-lap race, which starts at 3 p.m. (ET) Sunday, calls for high temperatures only in the high 60s. The high temperature for NTT P1 Award qualifying Saturday is predicted for the mid-70s.
“A lot of it is how the tires will suit the track and how hot the track is,” Pagenaud said. “When it’s colder, the tire doesn’t overheat and produces more grip for you. The downforce also works better. The worst cars tomorrow are going to get better, and it’s going to level up the field, basically. The fastest car is still going to be fast, but the margin will not be as much. You have to expect that.
“With the temperature change, we know what aerodynamical change we need to make on the front wing versus the rear wing. Simulation programs these days really help for these conditions. It’s amazing the technology that goes into it and how much we can trust it.”
Series points leader Scott McLaughlin was third at 1:07.6720 in the No. 3 Snap-on Tools Team Penske Chevrolet, with teammate Josef Newgarden fourth at 1:07.7282 in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.
Marcus Ericsson rounded out the top five at 1:07.8425 in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Callum Ilott was the top rookie in the 45-minute practice, ninth overall at 1:08:0201 in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet.
Despite the heat, drivers were impressed by the amount of grip on the legendary 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit. Pagenaud’s top lap was more than a second quicker than the lap Newgarden produced to win the NTT P1 Award for this race last September and within a second of the qualifying lap record of 1:06.2254 set by Helio Castroneves in 2017.
“We were all surprised by the level of grip we had already,” 2021 series champion Alex Palou said. “On the first timing lap, we were doing 69 (1:09), 68 (1:08). It was really grippy. I don’t know if it’s all the rubber from the tires from the other series or just the heat, but it’s super nice to drive. We’re enjoying every lap.”
There were two red flags during practice.
The first came 27 minutes into the session when the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda driven by Jimmie Johnson bottomed while crossing a curb on the inside of Turn 5, launching his car nose-first into the tire barrier. Johnson's right hand and forearm were placed in a splint after the session, and he was receiving further evaluation Friday evening.
Another red flag was thrown nine minutes later when Dalton Kellett spun in his No. 4 K-LINE/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet in Turn 5 and backed lightly into the tire barrier. Kellett was unhurt.
Saturday’s schedule includes the second practice at 11:45 a.m. (ET) and NTT P1 Award qualifying at 3:05 p.m. (ET) – both broadcast on Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network.