The eighth round of the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season rolls into picturesque Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for today’s Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR.
Colton Herta earned the NTT P1 Award with a flying lap of 1 minute, 40.1945 seconds in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda, bringing hopes of beginning a midseason turnaround. The 23-year-old California native has yet to find the podium this season, with only one top-five finish (fourth, Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach) through the opening seven races. He sits ninth in the championship standings. Herta wasn’t the only Andretti Autosport driver to make the Firestone Fast Six, with teammate Kyle Kirkwood – who had a mechanical issue leading into the final round of qualifying – starting sixth.
SEE: Starting Lineup/Tire Choice
Uniquely, this is the second time Herta has shared the front row with Pato O’Ward, with the two former INDY NXT by Firestone rivals and teammates taking the top two spots for the second race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader in 2020 at Road America. That time O’Ward won the pole with Herta alongside, with Alex Palou starting third – just like he lines up in today’s race.
Coverage for the 55-lap contest will begin at 1 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Breakthrough Win for the Taking
Including the front row featuring Herta and O’Ward, there are 13 drivers in the top 17 starting spots searching for their respective first win of 2023. Additionally, seven of them – Christian Lundgaard (seventh), rookie Marcus Armstrong (eighth), rookie Benjamin Pedersen (10th), Santino Ferrucci (11th), Devlin DeFrancesco (12th), David Malukas (13th) and Callum Ilott (17th) – are still searching for their maiden victory in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
For O’Ward, who has propelled the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet to three runner-up finishes this year, a victory would help put his season back on track after finishes of 24th or worse in the last two races.
Trouble at Turn 14
There were, at minimum, seven drivers that found themselves struggling to get through Turn 14 on Saturday. Whether or not that becomes a similar problem Sunday remains to be seen but certainly is possible.
Marcus Ericsson, Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin and Will Power were among those with off-track excursions in the tricky final corner of the 4.014-mile natural terrain road course, while the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud and Palou ended up with heavy damage after contact with the tire barrier.
For his part, O’Ward expects the track, in general, to be treacherous.
“I think the following (a car) will be different to what it's been in the last few years just because offline, the balance, the car just turns upside down if you go offline,” O’Ward said.
“I think that's going to make passing tricky. It will make guys trying to get a bit of cleaner air on at least half of their wing. There is a penalty to pay for that. It doesn't seem to pay off yet.
“Yeah, I see it being there's maybe a lane and a half of, like, very high grip. But you go off of that, and it's like ice. I think that's also why there's just been a lot of excursions. You miss it by just a tad, and it's like, ‘What happened to the car?’
“To extract the lap time, especially now with the new pavement, like there is so much more grip, but it's only in the line. You have to commit so much into the corners where a lot of the times it kind of bites once you're already committed. I think that's why you see a lot of spins, a lot of guys going off, just a lot of random snaps. It makes you feel like there's unlimited amounts of grip, but there's obviously limits to everything.”
Beware of Sleeping Giants
There are some big names starting toward the back of the 27-car field.
It starts with McLaughlin in the No. 3 Sonsio Team Penske Chevrolet rolling off 18th. The New Zealander is joined by Swiss-born Frenchman Grosjean, 19th in the No. 28 Delaware Life/DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport.
Lurking behind those two is two-time and defending INDYCAR SERIES champion Power, who qualified 22nd in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Scott Dixon, a six-time INDYCAR SERIES champion, starts 23rd in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Power was left frustrated with Grosjean after a brief run-in during Saturday's practice session, which ended after Dixon mistakenly collided with Power and sent both into the wall at the exit of Turn 12.
This will be the 34th INDYCAR SERIES event at Road America since its first INDYCAR event in 1982. Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi each has scored three wins, the most by an INDYCAR SERIES driver at the track. Both Dixon and Josef Newgarden have won twice at Road America – most among active drivers. Other previous Road America winners entering this weekend include Power, Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist and Palou.
Rossi Leads Warmup
Rossi maintained his perfect record in practice sessions this weekend at Road America after leading the warmup at 1:41.7917 in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. Rossi led practice Friday and pre-qualifying practice Saturday before earning the No. 5 starting spot in NTT P1 Award qualifying.
Dixon rebounded from a bruising Saturday, including a heavy practice crash with Power, to end up second in practice at 1:41.8080. Power also bounced back by ending up third at 1:42.0323.
The session featured multiple off-track excursions as drivers learned the edges of grip, especially with the Firestone alternate (red) tires. Among those going off track were O'Ward, Grosjean and Ryan Hunter-Reay.