IndyCar Preview: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach
Written by Daniel Jones, Edited by Ishani Aziz
IndyCar heads west for the third round of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series, to the iconic Long Beach Street Circuit in California, as drivers bid to win the second most significant race of the season at the narrow, bumpy, but quick seaside circuit. After a thrilling opening two rounds of the 2023 season, Long Beach looks set to be another thriller, with drivers tested to their limit against the tricky walls.
Before we look forward to Long Beach, let’s review the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway, which could already be a contender for the race of the season. Felix Rosenqvist took a surprise pole, for the second consecutive year, lining up ahead of Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and Patricio O’Ward, with McLaren looking like the main threat on Sunday.
It was clear from the start that Texas would be a thriller. In previous years the PJ1 adhesive, used for NASCARs, which created a low-grip surface on the high line, had been a nightmare for IndyCars, meaning only one line could be run at Texas, with the high line having absolutely no grip. However, an extra practice session working the high line on Saturday had worked absolute wonders, with the effects of the PJ1 effectively non-existent, drivers could attempt up to three rides.
And with the grip back on the high line, pack racing also came back, with some frantic opening laps. Felix Rosenqvist relinquished the lead to Dixon, who would later exchange it with Newgarden, Álex Palou, and then O’Ward for the first 25 laps. The race started to settle down when Newgarden and O’Ward broke away, until Takuma Sato brought out the first caution of the day on Lap 48, on his return to the grid.
After the restart, Newgarden and O’Ward remained together, separated from the rest of the grid, with the American holding the lead until Lap 129, when the Arrow McLaren surged round the outside of the #2 Cars. O’Ward was absolutely flying from then on, lapping third place Romain Grosjean by Lap 160 of 250, with Newgarden being the only car on the lead lap, nine seconds down from O’Ward, with the Mexican looking destined to win for a second time in Texas.
However, with 72 laps to go, O’Ward’s teammate, Felix Rosenqvist crashed at turn four, bringing out the caution, and allowing Newgarden to edge closer, but crucially, giving everybody their lap back, with Dixon, Grosjean, Palou, Herta, Malukas and McLaughlin all back on the lead lap. With the field now bunched up, the pack racing returned, O’Ward having lost his previous advantage, rejoined by Newgarden at the front.
Palou made an incredibly brave move on both the leaders into turn three, but with 41 laps to go he suffered a violent accident, bringing out the third caution of the day. This gave the option to top up on fuel and tyres, which the leaders O’Ward and Newgarden opted to do, while Palou and Grosjean stayed out on their old rubber to keep track position. This paid off for the former two, O’Ward flew from fifth to first within two laps of the restart, and yet again looked primed for victory until Devlin Defrancesco and Graham Rahal would collide the following lap bringing out the next caution.
The next 28 laps would provide some of the best racing IndyCar has seen in years. With 12 laps left, it would be Newgarden, O’Ward and Palou contending for victory, with the three tightly side-by-side, lap-after-lap, overtake after overtake. With two laps to go, O’Ward was crafting up his move on the then leader Newgarden, until fifth place runner, Romain Grosjean, spun into the barrier, bringing out yet another caution, denying O’Ward his move, and providing Newgarden with a second consecutive victory in Texas. 27 lead changes and 1070 passes happened at Texas, quite the way to kick off oval races in 2023.
Two second places to start the season for O’Ward propelled him into championship contention, ahead of Ericsson, who finished eighth in Texas, and ahead of Dixon, Newgarden and Palou. David Malukas and Callum Ilott’s stellar starts to the season put them in sixth and seventh respectively. A special mention to Agustin Canapino, who finished a very respectable 12th in his oval debut, and 12th in the championship, a very impressive start to the season. However, it is still early days, but drivers will be looking to pick up more points in Long Beach to make their lives easier toward season end.
But let's delve into Long Beach, a two mile course on California’s coast, famous for its tight walls and magical sections of racetrack. Drivers start the lap going down the iconic Shoreline Drive, a very bumpy straight which gently bends to the right as they approach the first braking zone at the Toyota Turn. The track narrows dramatically here, from three lanes into one, and has seen some magical moments, such as Sebastien Bourdais’ 3-in-1 overtake around the outside in 2018.
Following the inviting 90 degree left at Toyota turn comes the most famous section of racetrack on the calendar, a narrow right hand corner around the fountain, with drivers maxing out at 30mph, where single file is the only possibility, in one of most aesthetically-pleasing sections of circuit you will find anywhere in the world. Following that comes two 90 degree right handers, which are fast, but are very easy to get wrong. Then comes the straight away, where another dramatic 90 degree left hander puts the drivers down Pine Avenue, before a narrowing 90 degree right-hander down Seaside Way gives the second best overtaking opportunity of the lap down toward the Firestone Corner, where Colton Herta crashed out from contention last year. Then two off-camber left-handers at Indy Left, before the iconic hairpin, the tightest corner on the calendar, which brings the drivers back down Shoreline Drive.
Driver changes are limited for Long Beach, with the only change being Marcus Armstrong, who comes back for the road and street course events, as Takuma Sato took the #11 car at Texas. In terms of strong candidates, Josef Newgarden won this event last year for the first time, and will no doubt be hoping to replicate that this year. He was helped by Colton Herta, in what is his home race, as he crashed out at the Firestone Corner last year when chasing the victory. However, it’s not all been doom and gloom for Herta at Long Beach, as he dominated the event to take victory in the season finale in 2021. He will be one to watch in qualifying, taking poles at the two previous Long Beach events. Alexander Rossi has also looked like a rejuvenated man since his move to McLaren, and will be hoping to replicate his pre-COVID success at Long Beach, where he took victories in 2018 and 2019. Other winners include Helio Castroneves, who won the event 22 years ago, Will Power, who won in 2008 and 2012 and Scott Dixon who won the event in 2013. Equally, Power and Dixon are veterans and shouldn’t be ruled out. Although Pato O’Ward has previously struggled around the Long Beach streets, his start to the season is encouraging, and he will be looking to build his two seconds on Sunday. Ultimately, Colton Herta may be the main one to watch considering his recent form at the circuit, as well as Andretti's encouraging start to the year pace-wise.
On to the ones that need a strong weekend. Felix Rosenqvist has shown great pace early on in 2023, but two DNFs mean there's nothing to show for it. McLaren looked a lot quicker on the Streets of St. Petersburg and will be hoping to replicate that in Long Beach, a circuit where they haven't fared too well in the last couple of years. Similarly to McLaren, Andretti have shown encouraging pace, but both Kyle Kirkwood and Romain Grosjean haven't finished a race yet this year, with Herta's seventh in Texas being the only occasion that a single Andretti car has chequered. An encouraging but frustrating start they will be looking to bounce back from.
Of the early championship contenders, O’Ward has certainly had an encouraging start, and Long Beach will be a tough test at an IndyCar circuit where he has only reached the Top Five once. Palou and Newgarden have both been formidable here and will both be looking to grab hold of the championship early on.
Long Beach is deemed in tradition and history, and one that drivers really want to win. The narrow walls and fast nature give drivers a tough challenge, but as we know in IndyCar, anything can happen. The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach takes place on April 16th, don't miss it!