Pole “would have been amazing,” but Newgarden race-focused from P2

Photo: IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS – Josef Newgarden stood, waiting, wondering whether his four-lap run of 230.700 mph would stand as the pole-winning speed for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

One by one, with Townsend Bell, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, they came up short of the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet.

The tension was the polar opposite of the polar bear car – it was hot.

And in far less than the amount of time it took for an ice cube to melt, Newgarden’s pole opportunity also slipped away.

By all of 0.060 of a mph and 0.0407 a second after four laps, and 10 miles. James Hinchcliffe beat him.

Not that Newgarden minded, that much.

“Pole is incredible. I wanted to win it so bad. It would have been amazing,” Newgarden said in the post-qualifying press conference.

“But the main thing is, we gotta win this race. We’ve done a great job of getting to the top nine. Getting a good starting spot today was the goal, and we got a good second. We were second best.

“You can’t take anything away from James and the Honda and the whole team. It’s a stout operation. Amazing four laps. We all had an equal opportunity. They deserve everything they got today.”

Newgarden’s Ed Carpenter Racing team gambled on strategy a bit. He qualified Saturday at a higher downforce rear wheel pod configuration, with extra winglets on both his left and right pods. His Saturday speed of 230.229 mph – run in that higher downforce configuration – was still good enough to make it to the Fast Nine Shootout on Sunday.

That being said, come Sunday when Newgarden took the winglets off and qualified more trimmed out, the speed was bound to come.

A 231.551 mph first lap, the fastest of the day and the only qualifying lap in the 231 mph range, was still hard to fathom.

“I was shocked when I saw the first lap,” Newgarden admitted.

But he said the run was about what he could have hoped for.

“The run itself wasn’t terribly bad. Thought we had the car sorted. It wasn’t easy,” he said.

“We were running with a bit more (downforce, than it may have looked) today. But we kept the speeds up. It wasn’t as on the edge as it could have been. Putting it on ragged edge hasn’t been as successful this weekend.”

The reference to it not being as much on the edge as it could have been goes to the aero changes this year, particularly the “infamous” domed skids on the underside of the chassis and the rear wing beam flaps on the rear wheel guards.

Drivers and teams have noted the cars have been tougher to drive, but it has also provided a great test of driver talent.

For Newgarden, a better race is the goal, because this has been a race where he’s struggled results-wise.

He has prior starts of seventh, 25th, eighth and ninth — but his finishes have been only 25th, 28th, 30th and ninth.

After a playful jab from fellow front-row starter Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will roll off third next Sunday, Newgarden said he’ll have to study the 2014 Indy 500 champion’s past races.

“I’m gonna get a glass of milk and study his strategies. See what I can do to be like Ryan tomorrow,” he joked.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”