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IndyCar Preview: Grand Prix of Long Beach

Written by Dan Jones

Credit: Karl Zemlin

It's been some six weeks since some of the finest drivers in he world battled it out for hard-earned championship points, but this weekend, that racing is finally back, as the NTT IndyCar Series heads to the California sunshine on the iconic Streets of Long Beach, for round two of the 2024 season.

IndyCar drivers last raced for points on the season opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg on March 10th, however, there has been on-track action since, most notably the non-championship $1 Million Challenge at the Thermal Club, also located in California.

Just like he seemed to do so often in 2023, Alex Palou was the star of the show, taking pole in his heat, dominating his heat race, and running away in the 'sprint for the purse' to claim the $500,000 winning prize. Scott McLaughlin would continue to impress as he finished second, ahead of the early surprise of the season, Felix Rosenqvist, who would win the other heat race. You can read Katie's full race report here.

Palou was rampant on his way to the $500,000. Credit: James Black

The weekend was an experimentation weekend, with IndyCar hosting it's first non-championship round since 2008, as well as holding heat races for the first time since 2013. However, the race has left a sour taste for many fans, after a combination of the format and tyre degredation caused a farcical first ten laps of the 'sprint for the purse,' with drivers ironically trying to go as slowly as possible. It's an experimentation that may not have worked, but you can read my thoughts more in-depth here.

But IndyCar returns to more familiar grounds on the Streets of Long Beach, a 1.968 mile (3.167km) street circuit nestled downtown, featuring iconic sections of race track, both narrow and wide, heavy bumps, and a particular physical challenge to the drivers.

Long Beach has been hosting racing since 1975, with Formula One heading to the city from 1976 to 1983, before IndyCar made it their home thereafter. The circuit has also previously hosted Formula E, on a shortened course in 2015, and still hosts the IMSA SportsCar Championship, which will share the track with IndyCar this weekend.

The fountain provides one of the most scenic views in motorsport. Credit: Travis Hinkle

The lap starts off at Shoreline Drive, a bumpy main 'straight,' which in reality, is a flat out gradual right-hand kink. Drivers are then braking on the limit for the best overtaking opportunity on the track, the left-hander at Toyota Corner, which narrows hugely before the single-file section around the iconic fountain, as drivers kink left, right and left again. Just ask Sebastien Bourdais, who incredibly overtook two cars on the outside and one car on the inside at this corner - all at the same time!

Two right-handers follow, both with close proximity to the barriers, before continuing down a different section of Shoreline Drive, before the track opens up as drivers turn left, and then quickly right under the bridge. Drivers will then run down East Seaside Way before a braking heavily into the right-hander at the Firestone Corner, before a mickey-mouse double left-hander, and then a very narrow right hander - the slowest corner on the entire schedule brings drivers back to Shoreline Drive.

The circuit has been an Andretti stomping ground in recent years, the team taking four of the last five victories at the track. That includes last season, where Kyle Kirkwood dominated from pole, claiming his first IndyCar victory in just his third race for the team. Andretti notably finished 1-2-4 last season, the driver who finished third was Marcus Ericsson, who now finds himself in the Andretti stable.

Kirkwood claimed his maiden win here last season. Credit: Travis Hinkle

St. Petersburg winner, Josef Newgarden is the anomaly in the Andretti dominance, as he won the race in 2022. Colton Herta dominated in 2021, when the race was the season finale, as Alexander Rossi won the two races pre-COVID at the venue, meaning there hasn't been a non-American winner since 2017.

Similarly to St. Petersburg, Long Beach isn't Scott Dixon's best venue, the Kiwi only picking up a solitary win here in 2015, and was involved in a controversial clash with Pato O'Ward at the race here last season. Will Power is the other driver in the field to experience victory lane in Long Beach, claiming his wins in 2008 and 2012.

This weekend will see a few driver changes. Dale Coyne Racing's initial 2024 plans were to split the #18 entry between Jack Harvey and Nolan Siegel, with Siegel to be racing this weekend. However, Harvey will now pilot the car this weekend, with Siegel moving over to the #51. That car had been occupied by Colin Braun in St. Petersburg and the $1 Million Challenge, and had Katherine Legge confirmed as that car's entry for the Indianapolis 500 last week.

Siegel will make his full IndyCar debut this weekend. Credit: Chris Jones

David Malukas' recovery from a pre-season mountain bike injury has taken longer than initially hoped, and will be forced to sit out once again. Malukas has been deputised by Callum Ilott, in the opening two rounds of the season, as well as the recent Indy 500 Open Test. However, Ilott has his own commitments in the World Endurance Championship with Jota Sport this weekend, so is unavailable.

Although not confirmed, Arrow McLaren are expected to call up reigning FIA Formula 2 Champion, Théo Pourchaire for this weekend, and potentially next week's round at Barber Motorsports Park. Pourchaire has a gap in racing in the Japanese Super Formula, and would join the likes of Ilott, Marcus Armstrong and Christian Lundgaard in making the jump over from F2.

Long Beach would be a difficult challenge for Pourchaire to make his debut, but the Frenchman has previously been linked with a full-time ride in the series, and could be the impetus he needs to grab the attention of team owners, much like Linus Lundqvist did in Nashville last season, or Christian Lundgaard in the 2021 Indianapolis GP.

With both Malukas and Ilott unavailable, McLaren have turned to alternate options. Credit: Joe Skibinski

This weekend will also see the implementation of an updated aeroscreen which features vents for increase cooling and 3D printed in rubber to prevent hand injuries. More importantly, it will reduce the weight of the cars, ahead of the implementation of the hybrid mid-season.

As used in St. Petersburg, the series will also trial split practice with a different format, with all drivers heading out for the first 45 minutes. The drivers will be split into two groups, similar to qualifying, where they will run in a 10 minute segment, with the clock stopping for the first red flag. Rookie drivers will be able to participate in both sessions, giving Pourchaire the maximum preparation time, as well as Siegel, Kyffin Simpson, Christian Rasmussen, Tom Blomqvist and Linus Lundqvist - who will run a special livery this weekend - promoting the 'Unfrosted' film.

But what to look out for in Long Beach? Andretti's dominance of the event in recent years stands them in good stead. Herta and Kirkwood have been very strong here in their careers, with Ericsson impressive too. Newgarden dominated on the Streets of St. Petersburg, a circuit with a similar challenge to Long Beach, and with the 'New Newgarden' seen in 2024, it could be another great chance to lock himself in as the early championship favourite.

Can Newgarden continue his impressive early season form? Credit: Joe Skibinski

Alex Palou's weakest round of the season in 2023 came on the Streets of St. Petersburg, and it looked like he would have it difficult in 2024, until he finished 6th. Long Beach hasn't been Palou's strongest circuit, but he has taken three top fives in three appearances, and will be looking to relinquish the gap back to Newgarden in the standings.

Pato O'Ward started the season impressively in St. Petersburg, but Long Beach is a venue he hasn't had the best experiences with in recent years, after being punted by Ed Jones on championship-decider day in 2021, before colliding with Scott Dixon and pulling himself out of winning contention last year after an over-ambitious move. Can O'Ward take the calmer approach that was seen at the back end of last season to claim some solid points for his own championship push?

Scott McLaughlin heads to arguably his weakest track on the schedule, with a best finish of 10th in his IndyCar career. McLaughlin is the only man to podium in both St. Petersburg and the Thermal, and will desperately want to continue that form in Long Beach, can he overturn his previous woes?

It's the most prestigious race of the season outside the Indianapolis 500, and one that the drivers want to win. Can Andretti claim yet another victory here - can Herta win at home? Will Newgarden continue his impressive start to 2024 or can the likes of Palou or Dixon cause him difficulty? With racing action back on, and points back on the table, it's all to play for as IndyCar heads to the Streets of Long Beach.


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