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New Laguna Seca pavement challenges and entertains IndyCar drivers: ‘It’s amazing’

MONTEREY, California – As Will Power of Team Penske settled into his chair in the media center at Weather Teach Raceway Laguna Seca, it brought back some great memories to the 2022 IndyCar Series champion.

“Last year, I was sitting in this same chair after winning the championship and it was amazing,” Power said. “Absolutely amazing.”

The memories came from Power’s second NTT IndyCar Series championship when he finished third behind race winner Alex Palou and second-place Josef Newgarden in the 2022 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It allowed him to add a second championship to the one he earned in 2014.

SESSION SPEEDS: Lap times from Thursday’s test

INDYCAR FINALE AT LAGUNA SECA: Details, schedules for watching on NBC, Peacock

Flash forward to Thursday when the full field of IndyCars participated in a five-hour test session at the recently repaved 11-turn, 2.238-mile picturesque road course in California’s famed Laguna Seca region.

Power was the fastest driver in the No. 12 Chevrolet for Team Penske with a fast time at 1 minut, 7.2762 seconds (119.757 mph).

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second at 1:07.3089 (119.699 mph) in the No. 45 Honda followed by Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin’s 1:07.5117 (119.339 mph) in the No. 3 Chevrolet.

Juri Vips, starting his second career IndyCar Series race, was fourth at 1:07.6366 (119.119 mph) in the No. 30 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Marcus Ericsson, in his final race for Chip Ganassi Racing, rounded out the top five at 1:07.6463 (119.102 mph) in the No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda.

There were 1,378 laps turned by 27 drivers in the five-hour session that was interrupted numerous times for spins, including a crash by 2023 NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou.

Palou made perhaps his first wrong move of the season when he spun out in Turn 4 and hit the tire barriers with just under an hour left in the session. Palou was seen and released from the Indiana University Health IndyCar Medical Unit after climbing out of the No. 10 Dallara-Honda, which was towed to the paddock.

After clinching his second championship in three seasons, Palou said he would use Thursday test session to try out some “radical” changes on the car in preparation for the 2024 campaign.

“We don’t really get test days with a lot of cars,” Palou said before the test began. “When we get a test day, it’s normally the team and a few cars, so it is not representative. We’ll try some crazy stuff you wouldn’t try on a practice. We can try that on a test day.”

Among the other “Spinners” were Andretti Global’s Colton Herta, who spun in Turn 11 with 34 minutes left for another red flag that stopped the session as drivers tried to get a handle on the high-grip, fresh asphalt surface at the newly repaved road course.

Vips went off course between Turns 3 and 4 for another red flag. Agustin Canapino went off course in “The Corkscrew” but was able to continue.

Helio Castroneves (Turn 10), Romain Grosjean (Turn 3), A.J. Foyt Racing rookie Benjamin Pedersen (Turn 4) also brought out red flags.

The reason for the spins was the track’s high grip creating a unique challenge for the teams to find the optimal setup.

“As you saw with all the red flags, it was pretty immediate,” Power explained. “Yeah, man, super important, it certainly changed your approach to the car setup philosophy,”

Alexander Rossi was the sixth fastest at 1:07.6616 (119.075 mph) in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet.

“Previously here you were always concerned about tire deg and trying to improve that through a stint,” Rossi said. “For the most part that seems to have gone out the window.”

Last year’s pole was 1:11.6 around the track. This year’s fastest practice lap was 1:07.2762 – an increase of 4 and a half seconds.

“Very nice. Very smooth. A lot of grip,” Power said. “Obviously tough offline. Yeah, it’s incredibly fast.

“A lot more grip, no bumps. You’re almost flat in 9, almost flat in 4. It feels the same sort of rhythm, same gears, but a lot more speed. A lot more grip, ton of grip. So much so I couldn’t actually turn the wheel in 9 and 10. I actually had to change the setup so I could turn the bloody car.

“Kind of like Barber in that respect.”

Rossi believes the new surface makes the race cars feel much more “modern” because the grip level has dramatically increased the speed.

“It was awesome, he said. “It feels like we have fast, modern race cars. It’s amazing. Performance and balance-wise. It’s a lot of fun.

“This track was always, I think, a driver’s favorite. Certainly, in years past it was fun for a couple of laps, then the tires would kind of start to drop off, which would make the race super exciting. It became less enjoyable inside the cockpit. Now, you can go as hard as you want to try, which is pretty cool.”

IndyCar gave the teams a test day to allow teams to try out different setups over five hours. On Friday, it reverts back to a normal practice day schedule consisting of a 75-minute session leading into a morning practice on Saturday and qualifications Saturday afternoon.

“Test days, you are constantly working on where you can improve,” Power said. “We probably will compress everything more because everyone will have good cars by the time they get to qualifying.

“It’s very handy to have the test day.”

Because of the new surface, it was very important for the teams to develop an understanding of the track surface and how it will handle over the course of the racing weekend.

“Yeah man, super important,” Rossi said. “It certainly changed your approach to the car setup philosophy. Previously here you were always concerned about tire deg and trying to improve that through a stint. For the most part that seems to have gone out the window.”

Follow Bruce Martin at @BruceMartin_500