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IndyCar Preview: Grand Prix of Monterey

Written by Dan Jones

Credit: Joe Skibinski

After having a week's break following five weeks of on-track action, the NTT IndyCar Series' summer swing continues as it heads to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for Round 8 of 17 in the 2024 season, as Laguna Seca moves to June, after hosting the season finale, ever since the circuit returned to the calendar in 2019.

And even with a week's break, the drama continues off-track, but we'll get back to that a bit later on. But before all of that, let's quickly cast our minds back to the previous round at Road America, where Will Power found himself in victory lane for the first time in 34 races, as he soared into the lead of the championship standings, as he headed a Team Penske 1-2-3 at Elkhart Lake - the first time they had swept the podium since Sonoma 2017.

Surprise polesitter, Linus Lundqvist, would have all his hard work undone, after teammate, Marcus Armstrong collided with him on the exit of Turn 1, whilst Colton Herta, who was sitting in third, also spun round, causing a melee on the opening lap. However, Penske would soon assert their authority on the race soon after, with Scott McLaughlin looking like he was in the driving seat.

Power finally returned to victory lane. Credit: Chris Owens

However, McLaughlin struggled when he had to switch to the unfavoured alternate tyre, which saw both Power and Newgarden jump him in the pits, Power fending off Newgarden to end a painful winless streak, which stretches back to Detroit 2022. That was Power's only victory when he took the title in 2022, and the championship standings look favourable for Power exiting Wisconsin. The top 10 are as follows:

Power - 236

Palou - 231

Dixon - 225

O'Ward - 184

McLaughlin - 179

Kirkwood - 179

Herta - 176

Newgarden - 169

Rossi - 162

Rosenqvist - 157

Since Road America, the Indy cars have been on track. Firstly, conducting an important hybrid test at the Milwaukee Mile, ahead of the series' return to the circuit in August. However, Chip Ganassi Racing and Juncos Hollinger Racing were missing from that test, due to their driver's commitments in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Scott Dixon, Álex Palou, Kyffin Simpson, Romain Grosjean and Nolan Siegel the full-time drivers competing in the event - Siegel claiming a class victory in the LMP2 class.

However, the IndyCar folk will not be able to compete in Le Mans next year, after the announcement of the 2025 calendar, as well as the news that FOX Sports will take over the IndyCar broadcast rights from 2025, with all 17 races on network television. The 2025 calendar sees no return to Texas, with the Thermal Club becoming a points-paying race, and Milwaukee dropping to a single round.

For the first time in 14 years, Indy cars are back at Nashville. Credit: James Black

If that wasn't enough action, Pato O'Ward, Colton Herta, Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal saw IndyCar's return to Nashville Superspeedway, as they conducted a tyre and aero test, ahead of the season finale being hosted at the venue in September - the day ending due to a crash involving O'Ward.

But let's preview Laguna Seca, and we'll run over the plethora of driver changes ahead of this weekend. As highlighted before Road America, Luca Ghiotto will race in the particularly unpredictable #51 Dale Coyne Racing car. David Malukas will finally race in 2024, after his pre-season mountain bike injury saw his contract with Arrow McLaren end early. Malukas will race in the #66 car, occupied by Tom Blomqvist for the opening five rounds, before he was dropped for leaders circle concerns. Hélio Castroneves stepped in for the rounds in Detroit and Road America.

Ironically, it's Malukas' original #6 Arrow McLaren seat which has been the talking point heading into the weekend. Théo Pourchaire, who had signed a season-long deal to replace Malukas prior to the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, has been suddenly dropped in favour of 19-year-old, Nolan Siegel, who has had two outings in 2024 for Dale Coyne Racing, and one for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Siegel will make his Arrow McLaren debut. Credit: McLaren Racing

Siegel has signed a multi-year deal with Arrow McLaren, starting from this weekend, being the fourth driver to be in the car at some point this season. It has come as a surprise to Pourchaire, who abandoned his season in Super Formula to commit full-time to McLaren, team principal, Gavin Ward, stating the move was made to set-up 'long-term competitiveness.'

It all stems from Siegel effectively giving up on his Indy NXT campaign to replace Agustín Canapino at Road America, after the team sidelined Canapino due to mental health reasons following his fans abusing Pourchaire, of all people, online following the two colliding in Detroit, which saw the end of the McLaren-Juncos alliance. It has since been confirmed by the team that Canapino will return to Laguna Seca, and will complete the 2024 season.

Let's delve into the track that the 27 drivers will be navigating across the weekend, a 2.238 mile (3.602km) road course, nestled in the Monterey peninsula. With 55 metres of elevation, it's one of the most topsy-turvy venues of the season. The drivers will race for 95 laps in Sunday's race - last year's was a particularly chaotic affair, with eight cautions, and no real race rhythym, as drivers ended their seasons in the most calamitous fashion.

Drivers start their lap downhill, with a flat-out left kink, the venue of Santino Ferrucci's mind-blowing save last season. This heads immediately into the double-apexed Andretti hairpin, which is where the chaos start on Lap 1 last season. Drivers then drift left, alongside pit exit, for the mid-speed Turn 3 right-hander.

The circuit then slowly climbs uphill for the high-speed right-hander at Turn 4, before a lower speed left-hander soon follows at Turn 5. Drivers continue to climb uphill into the terrifying high-speed blink left-hand kink at Turn 6. They continue to rise as they head down the Rahal straight - named after Bobby Rahal, who has the most wins at the circuit with four.

See what I mean? Credit: James Black

Then comes the most famous corner of the entire schedule, The Corkscrew. A dramatic blind drop into a left-right chicane after the drivers have finished climbing uphill. Drivers will meet an 18 metre drop in elevation. It's particularly easy to get this wrong, several drivers will spin at the corner - but also presents some of the coolest images of the season.

The track continues to fall away in the off-camber left-hander at the Rainey Curve, before a right hander at Turn 10 brings them to pit entry, with a left-hander at Turn 11 to end the lap - the note of many of last years incidents, as drivers got desperate on restarts.

Only three drivers in the current field have won at Laguna Seca. As he so often does in those kind of races, Scott Dixon found a way to avoid the chaos, as he took his first victory at the circuit in 2023. In very Álex Palou fashion, he dominated the race in 2022, taking an unprecedented 30 second win, which led him toward his dominant 2023 season.

Can the house be fortified futher? Credit: Joe Skibinski

But this place is aptly nicknamed 'Herta's house,' following Bryan Herta's regular success at the circuit, as he took victories in 1998 and 1999. And when the circuit returned to the calendar in 2019, his son, Colton, continued to flex the Herta name over Laguna Seca, as he won on the circuit's comeback, as well as the following event in 2021.

Since that 2021 victory, Herta has won one race, at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in 2022. Herta is long overdue to break that duct, and this weekend provides a very good chance. Herta has been in contention for victory in each of the last three races, all coming apart for various reasons, some in, some outside of his control.

It's been Herta in the headlines for the majority of the season, some excellent performances coming undone through hints of desperation, some, like Road America, falling apart before they'd even begun. Herta needs to solidify himself as a serious championship contender soon if he is to play a more significant role in the outcome of 2024.

It was title day here for Power in 2022. Credit: Chris Owens

Will Power is the only one of the breakaway three in the championship to not have won here, but has taken three top four finishes since the circuit has returned to the schedule, and won the title here in 2022. Power's season has been defined by consistency, a lowest finish of sixth on road and street course races this season.

Arrow McLaren have had a particularly difficult few weeks, and nothing would be better for them than taking home a first on-track victory since 2022. Pato O'Ward remains in the bigger championship picture, despite a frustrating run of races. However, similarly to Herta, it feels like O'Ward needs another headline result to put him back into the mix. The question marks will remain over Nolan Siegel though, being thrown in at the deep end in some ways, and with a huge expectation to perform in the surroundings of the situation with Pourchaire.

This has not been Josef Newgarden's best circuit on the schedule for several years. Newgarden's 2024 has also always seen finishes in the top four, or outside the Top 15. This lack-of-consistency is not what is needed to win championships, so Newgarden, and teammate Scott McLaughlin will also be hoping for key results this weekend.

It's a long-awaited return to action for Malukas. Credit: James Black

There's so many key individuals to look out for this weekend. How will Nolan Siegel perform after the controversy of the last few days? How will David Malukas fare with his wrist on his comeback to the series? Can Herta finally solidify something at his own house? Will Dixon, Palou and Power continue to break away at the front?

Laguna Seca also signifies the last IndyCar event before they switch to the hybrid engine ahead of the next round at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. 2023 saw it's chaos partially down to a re-pave prior to the weekend, where lap records tumbled. This weekend could see even faster laptimes with the lighter parts brought in for the hybrid still on the cars.

There is plenty to look out for at Laguna Seca this weekend, and with storylines everywhere you look, don't miss round eight of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.


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