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IndyCar Road America Friday Stories: Limit-finding, Ferrucci’s speed and Fittipaldi in awe

Written by Archie O’Reilly


Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou topped IndyCar’s Friday practice session for the Grand Prix of Road America, reversing the Detroit Grand Prix front row by notching a time 0.0797 seconds faster than Andretti Global’s Colton Herta.


“It’s a really great start so far,” Palou said. “It doesn’t mean anything - it just means that the car is really good, easy to drive. It’s great to be back here - a proper track for IndyCar. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”


The headline performance came from Santino Ferrucci in his No.14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevy, placing third and less than two-tenths of a second behind leader Palou. His best qualifying result of last season came with an 11th-place start at Road America - IndyCar’s longest road or street course. 


Josef Newgarden, for the Team Penske outfit that has a technical partnership with Foyt was fourth and his two teammates also inside the top 10 in seventh and eighth. 


Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard rounded out the top five, with teammate Pietro Fittipaldi 11th on his first visit to Elkhart Lake and Graham Rahal 16th. All three cars were running in the top 10 during the primary tyre running.


Detroit podium-sitters and Kiwi duo Scott Dixon and Marcus Armstrong made it all three non-rookie Ganassi drivers inside the top 10 in sixth and 10th. Pato O’Ward was ninth as his Arrow McLaren teammates Alexander Rossi and Theo Pourchaire sat 15th and 18th.


One particularly notable performance came from Luca Ghiotto in his third-ever IndyCar outing in Dale Coyne Racing’s No.51 Honda as he finished 17th. 


Nolan Siegel also deserves his plaudits after leaving his Indy NXT practice session prematurely to fill in for Agustin Canapino in Juncos Hollinger Racing’s No.78 Chevy. He put drivers behind him in the time sheets during the primary tyre runs before ultimately finishing last of those that logged laps, though he was impressively competitive amid the short notice.


Drivers finding the limits


It was a turbulent day for Juncos, who had Canapino pulled out for “a leave of absence” inside the two hours leading up to practice, before cars had even emerged on track. And it was about to get worse.


While Siegel appeared to have a smooth session, Romain Grosjean caused the session’s only red flag with an off-track excursion at Turn 14 at the start of his first timed lap. The front end of his No.77 Chevy became buried in the tyre barriers and ended his session before the 75 minutes of running had really even got going.


Grosjean was the only driver to suffer any session-ending damage, though plenty of other drivers went off-track as they tested the limits across the long Wisconsin-based track.


There were spins for Lundgaard and Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR)’s Christian Rasmussen. And among others finding their way out of the confines of the track were Power, Dixon and O’Ward, plus Andretti’s Kyle Kirkwood and ECR’s Rinus VeeKay. Armstrong ended the session with an excursion and, while he got going, saw the red flag fly with the chequered.


Last year’s event saw Road America repaved, leading to a lot more grip than was on display in opening practice this year. Palou’s quickest time from this year was around 1.4 seconds slower than Rossi’s pace-setting time in 2023. 


“With the repave last year, the track had this peak of grip, which was phenomenal for our cars,” Ferrucci said. “It was incredibly fast. Obviously you guys have tough winters up here [in Wisconsin] to say the least. I’m from Connecticut… when we’re in the middle of summer and I have a hoodie on, I can’t imagine what it’s like here in December and January. 


“When we saw the practice with the Indy Lights, the [USF] Pro 2000 Series, we saw they were about a second off. We figured we’d be a little bit slower. We didn’t quite know what the car balance would be like. But the conditions are incredibly technical. Honestly it makes it a lot of fun…


“I had my fair share of dropping wheels, flying through the dirt, especially coming on to the main straight. I think everyone will agree the balance of the cars is probably pretty snappy right now. For me, I love driving an oversteer race car. If you looked at my steering trace, you’d think it was not real.”


Ferrucci


Ferrucci was keen to point out that his Foyt team “had a good car” on the repaved Road America track. And while lots of events have seen a clean slate amid the Penske alliance, Foyt were able to draw on some strengths from last year to finish a “competitive” third in the first practice session of the weekend.


“We have four top 10s in six races [this season] - on all tracks now,” Ferrucci said. “We unroll pretty quick. Last year we were actually competitive here, which was nice. We were able to take some of that and mix it in with our Penske alliance. Obviously we get some dampers from them. So putting everything together, we have a pretty good car. 


“I actually feel very comfortable because it’s a car I’ve been in before. I’m not trying to learn something new for the first time this weekend as far as setup goes. It’s a very similar car off of Barber as well. We’re starting to find the sweet spot for me because I don’t drive quite like the other three drivers or like my teammate. It’s been a bit of a learning curve.”


Ferrucci, currently 12th in the championship, now has his sights set on a maiden IndyCar win. He takes encouragement from the fact he has been able to match or even do better than the Penske drivers in flashes.


“With their help, we’ve been able to do as well as them,” he said. “It’s very hard to beat a team like Penske. They won quite a few races already this year so to be just as quick as them or even for this reference quicker, it feels really good for how small our team is. 


“Still part of that speed is due to James Schnabel - who is a Penske employee, my race engineer - and them helping us out. It’s pretty cool.”


Ferrucci is a big fan of Road America, which he describes as “a true race track” that is “not a paved parking lot” as he says is seen in other series. He likes and embraces the punishing and “high stakes, high reward” nature of the track.


Fittipaldi’s “number one” US track


While he is not an IndyCar rookie, Fittipaldi enters his first full season in the series with knowledge of only four of the tracks he is set to visit. Road America is another new experience.


“Every time in the first practice it’s always like doing as many laps as possible on the first set of tyres,” he said. “Because I’m not deemed a rookie, we have one set less. We’re always a little bit on the back foot in terms of that using a tyre to try to learn the track. Every time I’m getting in the Indy car, I’m just adapting to the new tracks quicker and quicker. 


“Understanding where to extract lap time with the car, which initially with the inexperience, it’s a little bit difficult. Once you start understanding it, you start getting it. To learn new tracks, the process is faster. Team gave me a good car today in practice. We were pretty competitive from the get-go.”


To round out the opening session in 11th was an impressive effort from Fittipaldi having never visited the track before. And he relished his first experience.


“Probably the best track I’ve raced in the US or driven in the US,” he said. “This one is by far number one at the moment…  it’s different but it has a similar feeling to Spa just because the asphalt is so smooth, the corners are so flowy, the straights are so long. 


“It’s such a long track as well. You feel lonely out there at times compared to the recent tracks we’ve been on - you have cars always around you. This time I’m like: ‘It’s unbelievable, there’s no traffic.’”


Fittipaldi says the car “definitely has speed” and is targeting a first top-10 finish since returning to IndyCar. It may be far-fetched but he is trying to channel the successes of his grandfather Emerson Fittipaldi, who is a three-time Road America winner.


“The thing about here is just gaining momentum,” he said. “It’s a flowy track. You need to just let the speed come. It’s just about being patient. When it’s there, you’ve just got to send it. Even though it was a long time ago, the principles of racing are always the same: condense the brake zone, carry as much minimum as you can, get a full throttle as early as possible.”

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