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IndyCar Detroit Friday Stories: Palou quickest as drivers test limits

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou topped opening practice for the 2024 Detroit Grand Prix ahead of Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward. The Spaniard has started the weekend in the same manner that he exited the Motor City last year having taken pole and race victory.

It was busy,” Palou said. “I visited the run-off areas a couple of times here and there, just trying to find the limit and the grip of the track. The track is grippier, a lot grippier, than last year. Pretty happy. The car feels good so far.”

Andretti Global’s Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood were third and fourth ahead of the Team Penske duo of Scott McLaughlin and now-double Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden. Santino Ferrucci was an impressive seventh for AJ Foyt Racing as they target street course improvement courtesy of their alliance with Penske.

Ganassi’s Marcus Armstrong, Penske’s Will Power and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard rounded out the top 10. Agustin Canapino was a standout performer for Juncos Hollinger Racing in 11th, with Helio Castroneves 22nd on his street course return for Meyer Shank Racing. Dale Coyne Racing’s Tristan Vautier was 27th after seven years away.

It was a session full of drivers testing the limits as they readjusted to street course racing less than five days on from the Indy 500. And even with the split format used in the latter part of the session, there were plenty of fraught exchanges in traffic, including minor contact between Newgarden and Kirkwood, for which Newgarden took responsibility.

Drivers testing the limits

Compared to the opening practice session in 2023, which was riddled with red flags, this year’s first practice in Detroit was clean. But there were still a number of drivers finding themselves deep in some of the runoff at the end of some of the heavier braking zones, meaning local yellow flags were a common feature.

“I learned how to flick spin,” McLaughlin joked after ending in the runoff on multiple occasions. “I did heaps of them. That’s all part of it here. You risk in the points where you’ve got least risk.”

The driver that was fifth-quickest in the session said drivers were trying hard to find their braking points, hence a number of lockups and overshooting of corners with runoff. He added that this is “always my strategy on street circuits” and that drivers “might as well bring a yellow out now” as opposed to in qualifying or the race.

The opening 45 minutes, which saw all 27 cars on track, was free of red flags. The first red flag of the day came out in the opening of the two 10-minute half-field group sessions at the end of the day’s running as Ed Carpenter Racing rookie Christian Rasmussen stalled in a runoff zone. 

That session concluded with Ganassi rookie Kyffin Simpson facing the wrong way on the exit of Turn 7 after mercifully avoiding any major wall contact. Marcus Ericsson was not so fortunate for Andretti as he caused right-rear damage and had to limp back to the pits after contact with the Turn 7 exit wall.

The heaviest contact with the wall also came after Turn 7 in the second half-field group as Jack Harvey, who was unharmed, caused yet more damage for the No.18 Coyne team after two significant Indy 500 crashes for Nolan Siegel. Harvey clipped the inside wall and was sent into the outside, severely damaging the front right corner of his car.

Drivers were generally more comfortable on their second visit to the new Detroit track, which saw faster opening practice times than in 2023. McLaughlin said that this was more of a factor than the lighter cars for 2024.

“Really good” track improvements

One criticism of the Detroit track in its opening year was the bumpiness in some unwanted areas beyond it just being the “character” of the track. Some changes have been made, including a smoother run to Turn 3 and the eradication of a bump in Turn 9.

“It was definitely better,” Kirkwood said. “Turn 9… I never had an issue with it last year - there was a bump in the middle but there’s bumps everywhere on street courses. I guess we sacrifice some grip from it because that new concrete doesn’t have a tonne of grip until you really bed it in. 

“The braking into Turn 3, which is one of our only passing zones, where you're going to see 95 percent of the passes, is miles better. Hopefully that will entice some better racing.”

McLaughlin hailed the “really good improvements” made to make the track smoother, whether the “really, really good” corner coming off the pit straight or “smoother” back straight. But the Kiwi also believes that bumps will always be a part of street courses’ nature.

“I think it’s character,” he said. “You can do a couple little things, softening or whatnot. Ultimately there’s a point where it hurts the balance trying to set up for the bumps. You’ve just got to deal with them. It’s not a billiard table, absolutely not. It’s Detroit streets. We just enjoy it.”

Eyes on Castroneves and Vautier

There is some pressure on Castroneves to deliver this weekend after he replaced rookie Tom Blomqvist at Meyer Shank for an initial two-race period, coming out of road-and-street retirement. The decision for Castroneves to step back in came amid Leaders’ Circle pressure and 22nd-place opening practice finish is creditable.

Castroneves’ time away after only stepping away from full-time IndyCar at the end of 2023 is minimal compared to that of Vautier, who only found out on Tuesday that he would be in Coyne’s ever-changing No.51 vacancy for his first IndyCar race since a one-off with the team 2017. He has not raced on a street course in IndyCar since 2015.

Vautier finished last in the order but was just over three-tenths of a second adrift of crashed teammate Harvey. He was 2.9 seconds off the session-topping time from Palou but crucially kept his nose clean on his return to open-wheel racing after a career predominantly in sports cars.

“At the end of the session when I started feeling a bit more comfortable, I got going, it was really cool,” he said. “It’s one of those things the slower it is, the scarier it is because the tyres don’t get up to temperature and all that. We know what to work on to keep improving tomorrow and close the gap. It was a good first session. I feel relatively good.”

Kirkwood “knocking on the top five”

Kirkwood currently sits 10th in the championship with a best finish of seventh in both Long Beach and the Indy 500. But for the driver who only twice finished inside the top five across his two seasons in IndyCar - both victories in his first season with Andretti last year - there is a sense that he is on the verge of the top five.

“Our average finishing position has been better than P10,” he said post-practice. “We’re just a few shy points away from knocking on the top five range. Every weekend we’ve just got to maximise,  maximise, maximise. These are two really good weekends for us coming up. It’s no secret that Andretti is really good on street courses. 

“If you look at last year… potentially one of our best cars was at this place [in Detroit]. I think that showed now in practice too. We’re in a good spot. We’re in a good spot for Road America as well - Colton qualified on pole there. Yeah, 68 points out seems like a longshot. The way that the points structure is written in IndyCar, that can disappear very, very quickly.

“If you have a couple wins under your belt, you all of a sudden jump within 10 points of that. Just keep punching at it. Hopefully get a good result here, Road America. Hopefully we can sort our short ovals because we got a lot of those at the end of the season. That will be super important for us.”

For now, after some early issues in practice, there is confidence that Kirkwood can back up his recovery drive in an issue-ridden Indy 500 with a strong result in Detroit with “a little left in the pocket” to try and advance from his fourth-place practice finish.


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