Verizon IndyCar Notes & Quotes: Long Beach Friday

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Here are some of the notes and quotes from Friday at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach:

  • Like old times: A host of open-wheel veterans/legends, Dario Franchitti, Gil de Ferran and Al Unser Jr. among them, are all in the spotlight this weekend even though none is in the marquee race. De Ferran’s open-wheel luck eluded him at the circuit although he won the 2009 American Le Mans Series race, co-driving with Simon Pagenaud in the team’s Acura ARX-02a, the same year Franchitti won his first IndyCar race back after a one-year NASCAR sojourn. Franchitti was given a medallion as part of the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame; de Ferran was named to a new consulting role with Honda Performance Development. Both drivers had huge success with the manufacturer. Meanwhile Unser Jr., the “King of the Beach” with six races wins on these streets, will compete in the Pro category in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race on Saturday.
  • On another Dario note… The four-time series champion was named as an ambassador for the SAFEisFAST.com initiative, part of the Road Racing Driver’s Club program. Bobby Rahal, who heads the RRDC and was Master of Ceremonies at Thursday night’s dinner honoring Mario Andretti, made the announcement in a press conference on Friday. Additionally, Honda has formed a partnership with SAFEisFAST.com as well.
  • And a third Dario note… You’ve gotta love this picture of old Team KOOL Green teammates Dario and Paul Tracy chilling on pit road. “PT” is calling this weekend’s IndyCar action on NBCSN alongside Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell. Kevin Lee, Kelli Stavast, Marty Snider and Robin Miller will be in the pits.
  • Hawksworth’s stout effort: English rookie Jack Hawksworth continues to surprise/impress/pick your other superlative in the No. 98 Charter/Castrol Edge Honda for Bryan Herta Autosport. He ended third on Friday. Said the Bradford native of the Long Beach street circuit, “It’s a little bit more of a generic street circuit compared to St. Pete – I’ve always thought St. Pete was very tricky to get the balance right. I’m enjoying it. It’s a great location and a great event and it should be a good weekend.”
  • More Sato progression: It’s good for Takuma Sato and the A.J. Foyt Racing team to have come out of St. Petersburg, where they won the pole position, frustrated with a seventh place finish. The team/driver combination is bordering on making that next step to the top tier of teams on a consistent basis. The driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Honda ended Friday in fourth.
  • Newgarden’s roller-coaster 24-plus hours: During Thursday’s media lunch, Josef Newgarden wasn’t introduced due to his past racing accolades, instead by more of a joke describing his personality. The Tennessee native let his driving do the talking on Friday, ending sixth overall, despite a brief incident at Turn 8 in first practice. “We had a moment in the first practice that set us back a bit, but not a huge upset. I got into the wall, but we were able to recover. We are pretty comfortably in the top 10, but it’s easy to slip outside of the top 10 if you don’t watch carefully,” said the driver of the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda, which is also sporting Rising Star Racing signage this weekend. Friday night, he took a drift ride in a two-seater too. 
  • Servia getting acclimated: Oriol Servia’s first day of official race weekend on-track action ended P18 in the black-and-red primered No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. “The day was difficult to define. We are working on the car. We’re still not really comfortable yet. Both Graham and I have had exactly the same comments from both sessions so that will definitely help our engineers go in one direction that we both feel we need to go. The other good thing is that although we aren’t happy, we’re still not that far off on the lap time, especially on old tires,” said the Catalan.
  • Huertas continues to surprise: I wrote this at St. Pete as well, but I’m seriously impressed by Colombian Carlos Huertas in Dale Coyne’s second car. Today was his first day at Long Beach and by the end of second practice, he was within half a second of his significantly more heralded teammate Justin Wilson. Granted, that 0.5377 gap was 12 positions (eighth to 20th), but he is seriously punching above his weight considering his lack of comparable seat time to the other 22 drivers in the field, and to the three other rookies.

Saturday, it’s practice three and qualifying. Qualifying airs at 6 p.m. EDT on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

COMBINED PRACTICE TIMES
QUALIFYING GROUPS

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.