Callum Ilott is fresh off two top-10 performances this year, which matched his entire total in 2022. Even more, at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, the Briton captured a career-best fifth, which also marked the best result for Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR).
Considering that event is also a street circuit, there would be some thought that another strong weekend is in the cards at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach for Ilott and Co. While that might still be the case, there’s a conservative mentality for the driver and team coming to the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit.
“We haven't really got the pace with streets,” Ilott said. “So, that was one thing. Even in St. Pete, we didn't really have the pace; we just executed well. Especially on the race day, I think our race car’s quite consistent and easy to manage, but we definitely still lack a bit of pace. So, we got a couple of things to try, which gives me a bit more confidence to find some more pace out of it.
“But again, you've never know the success that you're going to have out of that. Come Saturday, we'll find out where we are on that side. But if we can execute everything right, we'll be on for another good result.”
Ilott had a solid start to the weekend Friday, ending up eighth in practice with a best lap of 1 minute, 7.2467 seconds. That was .5468 of a second behind leader Pato O’Ward but just .2818 of a second behind second-place Scott Dixon.
Pato Pushing It
It may have looked easy for Pato O’Ward to lead the practice Friday by more than two-tenths of a second, but O’Ward was pushing hard around the tricky Long Beach circuit.
O’Ward locked all four wheels on his No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, with smoke pouring from all four Firestone tires, while trying a late-braking maneuver entering Turn 9 at the end of the back straightaway. O’Ward slid into the runoff area without contact and continued.
“I couldn’t get off of (brakes); I thought I was going to go into the tires,” O’Ward said. “It was the run of the day. When you’re going to try something like that, that’s usually when you should because qualifying is definitely not the place to be getting experimental.
“Now we know what we don’t want to do.”
Getting a Grip
A sealer was applied to the Long Beach circuit last year, which raised the grip level and increased speeds as the track qualifying record fell with Colton Herta’s NTT P1 Award-winning lap. This year, there was a new development as the Turns 8 and 9 area of the circuit were repaved.
That section, along with the aging of the sealer over the past year, was on the minds of several drivers during the media availability.
“I think the big question is the sealer,” said Marcus Ericsson, driver of the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “Because from what I can see, it's not new sealer on. It's the same from last year. I don't know if that's lost some grip since then or not. So, that would be a question mark.
“The new section there with the new asphalt, it looks grippy bit to my eyes. I think it's going to be quite quicker there. … last year was awesome because to be able to drive that fast on the street course like we did last year was really, really fun with all the grip we had.”
Ericsson must have enjoyed the track during practice Friday, as he ended up fourth overall at 1:06.9859.
Ilott also was curious about the varying grip levels of the circuit in his No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet.
“That can kind of go either way,” Ilott said. “Sometimes it can either be really grippy or it could be really slippy. We'll have to experience it with the drift (cars) rubber they lay down. That makes it very different and changing across the sessions because you'd think that you add a lot more grip and for a while, it honestly didn't.
“On the line, it was. If you were slightly off-line, you were struggling. So, it's not easy. But yeah, the new re-pavement should make it a bit smoother, a bit nicer through... it was quite bumpy there before. I expect it to be quick.”
Newgarden’s Crew Wins Pit Stop Contest
In a demonstration pit crew competition Thursday night at Long Beach, the crew of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet for driver Josef Newgarden came out on top.
The teams of Helio Castroneves, Augustín Canapino and Graham Rahal were also part of the action. The first round saw Newgarden’s crew best the Meyer Shank Racing team on Castroneves’ No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. Canapino’s No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet fell short in a matchup against the No. 15 United Rentals Honda of Rahal.
The final round saw a close run into service, but Team Penske got the victory over Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
“It's nice to have a good crew, and I’ve got the best,” Newgarden said. “I certainly feel that way when I go into a race weekend, and it just makes everything easier. When you have good car speed, we have good pit stops, all that stuff just helps make my job easier. It takes pressure off me. We've all got to perform. We've all got to show up and do our job, but because they're so excellent at it, just gives us a better opportunity every weekend.”
Hinchcliffe, RHR Honored
James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay were honored with an induction ceremony into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame on Thursday, April 13. The special occasion also fell uniquely on the birthday of the late Dan Gurney, who would have turned 92 years old.
The free, open-to-the-public ceremony took place in front of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center on South Pine Avenue, with Mayor Rex Richardson and Jim Michaelian, CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, among those to provide opening remarks and welcoming “The Mayor of Hinchtown” and Hunter-Reay as the newest members. Unfortunately, due to the impact of heavy rain that hit parts of Florida, Hunter-Reay’s flight was canceled, and he was unable to attend.
Each received enshrinement with their own 22-inch bronze medallion, which featured a rendition of their iconic cars and descriptions of their major achievements.
Toronto-born Hinchcliffe won in 2017 at Long Beach and finished third in 2012. He was the NTT INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year in 2011 and got his first INDY NXT by Firestone win at Long Beach in 2010. He is now an INDYCAR commentator for NBC.
The affable driver-turned-commentator maintained his trademark wittiness by opening with “being indicted into…” and then was “induced” before finally cracking the broad smile and closing with “inducted.”
Hunter-Reay, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, took the Long Beach checkered flag in 2010 and later won the 2012 INDYCAR SERIES championship and the 2014 Indianapolis 500.
Odds & Ends
- Rookie Marcus Armstrong, contesting the road and street schedule in the No. 11 The American Legion Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, may have grown up in New Zealand, but he has an affinity for the NFL. The 22-year-old shared he is a fan of the San Francisco 49ers, with his favorite player being quarterback Brock Purdy because “he just like ‘Brock-ed up’ and was just good straight off the bat.”
- The cars AJ Foyt Racing fielded at the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway were road course cars, with the respective Indianapolis 500 cars for Santino Ferrucci and Benjamin Pedersen also not expected to be on track at the Open Test next week and not on track until the Month of May.