Written by Dan Jones, Edited by Meghana Sree
There’s one last 2023 rodeo for the NTT IndyCar Series, as they head to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for Round 17 of 17 in the 2023 season. With the championship wrapped up, and silly season as fierce as ever, all cards are off the table heading into the Californian desert, with the final bragging rights of the 2023 season on the line as drivers look to end their 2023 season on a high.
But let’s look back at the previous round in Portland, which saw Alex Palou win his second IndyCar Series title, with yet another runaway victory in Portland - his fifth this season. Graham Rahal qualified on pole for the second road course in a row, but when the alternate red tyre proved to be the wrong tyre choice to start, many, including Rahal and his front row partner, Scott McLaughlin, found themselves stuck in the midfield.
This allowed Palou the opportunity to overcut the pair, and he never looked back, storming home to a dominant victory and sealing his second title in the best possible fashion. Felix Rosenqvist took what looks to be set for a final Arrow McLaren podium for him, as he heads off to Meyer Shank Racing. Scott Dixon took the final step on the podium, on the day where it was confirmed that a record-equalling seventh title would have to wait for another year.
Palou’s championship was always inevitable, and he has blown the ultra-competitive field away in 2023. He will also have his eye on Laguna Seca, where he claimed one of IndyCar’s most dominant victories ever, winning by over 30 seconds here last year, and will be aiming to replicate that this time around.
But just like Palou, let’s turn our eye to Laguna Seca, a 2.238 mile (3.602km) circuit, nestled in the Monterey Peninsula, featuring 11 corners, most famous of all, the iconic Corkscrew. A hot and humid affair is to be expected at Laguna Seca, as it holds the season finale for the final time for the foreseeable future, due to that honour being passed over to Nashville for 2024. Now, let’s delve into the circuit, one full of elevation changes and challenges. Drivers start their lap with an uphill claim, on a slight kink to the left. Once they’ve gone over the crested kink, drivers then face a sudden downhill drop to the double-apexed Andretti hairpin, where they will go wide on entry and cut back across for the second apex. Drivers will then drift left for the slightly off-camber Turn 3 right-hander.
Next, a small uphill climb at the fast right-hander at Turn 4, as drivers continue to climb toward the slightly slower left-hander at Turn 5. Turn 6 is a terrifying left-hand kink, which is completely blind on entry, with drivers simply guessing where the corner is as they shift down two gears. The continual climb continues through the unsighted kink at Turn 7, before the most famous corner on the entire schedule, The Corkscrew.
The Corkscrew features a completely blind approach, drivers forced to guess where the apex is when entering uphill into the left hander. As you turn left, drivers are immediately approached with a dramatic downhill right-kink, where any over-application of throttle will force you into a spin, as drivers plunge down the 18m drop.
After the Corkscrew is a difficult off-camber left-hander, which invites you to run onto the gravel out wide, as the track continues to fall away downhill, before two slower corners that finish the lap at Turns 10 and 11- a right-hander followed by a short-run to the left-hander.
With Laguna Seca only recently returning to the IndyCar fold, there aren’t many previous winners. Palou dominated last year's event, clearing the field by over 30 seconds. Helio Castroneves also won at Laguna Seca, when it was previously on the schedule, way back in 2000.
But the winner of the other two events? Colton Herta; and he is the man to look out for this weekend. Aptly called Herta’s House, the success of Herta and his father, Bryan Herta is undeniable at the circuit, both having two wins apiece, with the younger Herta taking his in 2019 and 2021. And one should watch out for Herta. The California native is still yet to win a race this year, something he has done in all his other full IndyCar seasons. Qualifying has been strong for Herta, particularly on Road Courses, and with his history at the event, as well as a first victory of the year on the line, he will be a very, very strong bet.
One of the key stories coming into Laguna Seca is the battle for third in the championship. Josef Newgarden lies nine points ahead of Pato O’Ward, with McLaughlin 22 points behind Newgarden. Newgarden has broken his trend of finishing second in the championship, whilst O’Ward will be looking to match his best ever season result. McLaughlin bids to make it his most successful year in his short IndyCar career.
Who’s the favourite here? Newgarden comes in with the advantage, but, it’s no secret that road course form has been a huge Achilles’ heel for Newgarden this year, with only three top tens from six road courses. Compare that to O’Ward with a 6/6 record - with a worst finish of eighth, and McLaughlin with a 5/6 record, with the Kiwi not finishing outside the top ten since the Indy 500.
O’Ward’s road course strengths in 2023, coupled with his excellent qualifying form, probably leaves him with the best chance. But, Newgarden has gone well at Laguna Seca, claiming runner-up last season, despite starting from the back, on a track notoriously difficult to overtake at. McLaughlin is certainly the outsider here, and would probably require at least a podium, but with McLaughlin the only Chevrolet to win on a road or street course this year, that statistic is in his favour.
The Rookie of the Season award is also still theoretically on the line, however this does look like a fairly conclusive outcome. Marcus Armstrong comes in 26 points over Agustin Canapino, coming into the race weekend. Canapino would require at least a fourth place finish (on the assumption that Armstrong starts the race) if he were to topple Armstrong, and with a best finish of 12th in 2023, Canapino has a mighty uphill task in 2023.
What is more in the balance for Canapino is the fight for the leader’s circle. The Top 22 cars of the season (excluding the #11 Chip Ganassi Racing), gain an extra $1,000,000 toward next year’s funding, if the car finishes within the Top 22. The standings are as follows: #20 Ed Carpenter Racing (Daly/Hunter-Reay): 179 #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan (Harvey/Daly/Vips): 172 #29 Andretti Autosport (DeFrancesco): 169
—------------------------------------------------------------------------------ #60 Meyer Shank Racing: (Pagenaud/Daly/Lundqvist/Blomqvist): 166
#78 Juncos Hollinger Racing: (Canapino): 164
It’s extremely tight for the final funding spot of the season, so let’s look into the likely outcome.
We can probably assume the #20 Car is safe, its gap is sufficient enough to below the cutline, and would require a Top 12 finish from Blomqvist. Blomqvist is in only his third IndyCar race, and isn’t expected to be racing that competitively. The real battle looks between Canapino and DeFrancesco, with just five points separating the two. DeFrancesco comes in with slightly better form, but Canapino has been more impressive this season, a real mystery for the final funding spot.
Being Laguna Seca, it will be a final affair for many drivers and teams. Romain Grosjean’s frustrating two-year stint with Andretti will finally come to an end, as his replacement, Marcus Ericsson will have his last race for Chip Ganassi Racing and heads to replace Grosjean, whilst Ericsson will be replaced by fellow Swede, Linus Lundqvist.
Talking of Swedes, Rosenqvist was the latest domino to fall in the driver market, as he was announced to line-up alongside Tom Blomqvist in 2024, at Meyer Shank Racing, as Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar career looks to come to an end after his Mid-Ohio crash. Helio Castroneves will also be stepping away from full-time racing after Laguna Seca, but insists the ‘Drive for Five’ is still on at the 108th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
David Malukas looks primed to replace Rosenqvist at McLaren for 2024, as the young star continues his upward trajectory. Many other questions remain, including the futures of Santino Ferrucci, Sting Ray Robb, Callum Ilott, Agustin Canapino, Conor Daly, Devlin DeFrancesco and Ryan Hunter-Reay, in what is a fascinating 2024 driver market.
Laguna Seca will also be the last chance for many drivers to win a 2023 race. Herta was mentioned above, who is racing in a throwback livery to his father’s car at Laguna Seca, who is yet to win alongside the names of Grosjean, Rahal, Will Power, Alexander Rossi and O’Ward - the Mexican remarkably not having a victory despite seven podiums. Can any of them break their duct at the last chance? The championship might be over, but the eyes of the IndyCar world remain fixed on Laguna Seca. Can Herta continue to lock down the fortress? Who will get third in the standings? Who will be included in the leaders circle? There’s still lots to look out for, so don’t miss IndyCar’s last 2023 rodeo at Laguna Seca.