LONG BEACH, California – The streets of this port city welcomed the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach back to its beloved traditional springtime date for the first time in three years last weekend.
But there was another reason that the 47th edition of Southern California’s crown jewel of auto racing took on added significance this season.
After a spaced-out start to 2022 with two races in two months, Long Beach begins a stretch in which the season will begin in earnest. Next week, it’s a critical Indy 500 test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which leads into the May 1 race at Barber Motorsports Park.
It’s full throttle from there with the NTT IndyCar Series on track for five consecutive weeks from the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 14 through the June 12 event at Road America (which essentially will mark the midpoint of a 17-race schedule).
The highlight, of course, is the 106th Indy 500, whose double-points format effectively means there will be six races in the span of a month after three in the season’s first two months.
Simon Pagenaud of Meyer Shank Racing smiles and describes the first three races as “an aperitif” to 2022.
“Yes, we had a bit of a warmup,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “The aperitif was interesting. To me, it’s time to score some points, make sure you establish yourself where you think you should be. It’s going to be important to have good points scoring from now until Indy. So it’s an important time of the year already.”
With the aperitif having been consumed, and IndyCar headed from its most savory street race to its main course at the Brickyard, here were some leftovers from Long Beach:
CHEVY’S CHASE GATHERS STEAM
Team Penske’s three-race winning streak (along with five podiums and seven top fives) to open the season undoubtedly is partly due to the organization’s efficiency in slimming from four to three full-time cars.
But it also is indicative of the 2022 gains made by Chevrolet, whose Ilmor engine builder restructured its approach after hiring Ray Gosselin as its vice president of engineering in the offseason. After finishing second to Josef Newgarden at Long Beach, Romain Grosjean admitted his Honda “couldn’t quite keep up” on the straightaways with the winning Chevy.
Gosselin, who arrived from a long run as an Andretti Autosport engineer for Ryan Hunter-Reay (including the 2012 series title and 2014 Indy 500), has brought a more team-oriented approach that has focused heavily on proactively reacting to driver feedback.
While the Penske trio of Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin and Will Power has excelled, other Chevy drivers have noticed improvements in both handling and horsepower. Chevys took three of the top five at Long Beach, including a season-best fifth for Pato O’Ward.
“It’s had a great impact,” Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay told NBC Sports. “The Hondas have been stronger the past two years, and I feel like there’s big improvements coming (for Chevy). We went to Barber last week (for a test), and we’ve always struggled to get the power down there at the hairpin, and now I come there and get the power, and it’s fine.
“I have the feeling that every feedback I give is being analyzed. I’m very happy with it. I think also with Penske being back on their peak level. They’re the best team so far this year. I think it also helps us indirectly because they gave great feedback, too. They have three great drivers giving feedback, too. They’re fine-tuning instead of trying to find a whole new way like last year, so I think the whole Chevy dominance right now is helping us out a lot. Right now we have options. We can try several things throughout a weekend. Last year, there were a few little adjustments but no options. We definitely have improved.”
Arrow McLaren SP driver Felix Rosenqvist said three to four Chevy engineers have been in the team’s truck after every practice and qualifying session soliciting feedback from him and teammate Pato O’Ward.
“It seems they are very into the driver feedback; it’s a whole new approach,” Rosenqvist, who sat on the pole position at Texas Motor Speedway and qualified fourth at Long Beach, told NBC Sports. “I think Ray’s experience working with drivers because he used to be a race engineer, he’s filled that gap where it’s actually important to listen to the drivers and work on that driveability, mainly.
“Interestingly, as these engines, you can’t do anything mechanically because of homologation, so it’s mainly all been on software, which is really impressive. We kind of turned a lot of things around just by a laptop. That’s pretty cool.”
Rosenqvist and other Chevy drivers are eager to see the results next month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with an Indy 500 test April 20-21 as an early indicator. VeeKay was encouraged by his car’s speed in the draft at Texas last month.
“Of course, Indy is always a different game, but I think if anything we’re going to be better,” he said. “How much, I don’t know. But no way we’re going to be worse.”
Hondas have won the past two Indy 500s and led 180 of 200 laps in the 2020 race.
“Obviously when we get to Indy, it’s all about raw power,” Conor Daly, whose Ed Carpenter Chevy led a race-high 40 laps last year at the Brickyard, told NBC Sports. “So the driveability doesn’t matter as much, it’s who brought the biggest engine. It’s good Chevrolets were strong (at Texas), but really, we don’t know what happens when everyone shows up with their Indy spec engines. But I feel more confident than I ever have in Chevrolet. They’ve been working hard. You can see it when you’re bringing in new people and trying all this stuff. They’re definitely pushing.”
NEWGARDEN GOES TROPHY HUNTING
After arguably the biggest win of his IndyCar career and his second consecutive victory this season, it was notable that Josef Newgarden immediately steered his postrace interview toward May.
“I’m feeling positive about where we’re going, but we have a long way to go,” Newgarden told Marty Snider when asked about the Team Penske driver’s first winning streak in five years. “Indianapolis is where we need to perform at Team Penske. We know that. I want a Borg-Warner (Trophy) so bad.”
The Indy 500 now is the only major void on the two-time series champion’s resume (whose 22 victories rank 10th all time). In 10 starts at the Brickyard, Newgarden, 31, has only three top fives and one podium (a third in 2016), and he acknowledged the importance of excelling in the big races during his postrace news conference at Long Beach.
“They definitely matter,” Newgarden said. “I think people put a lot more respect behind them, right. Helio (Castroneves) is a great example, four Indy 500s and two Rolexes now, that’s a big deal. If he only won 20 races total in his career or something, but he had all that, that kind of weights him in a different category. So I think it’s weighted differently, no doubt, than just outright wins.
“I would love to get some more big game, but I’m definitely a guy of averages, I just try and let’s get as much as we can across the board, and that’s typically what leads into championships. The championships are on the average side, and then if you’re not going for championships you can just go for the big prestigious events. Some people have careers where those are the ones they knock down.”
Is this finally the year for Newgarden?
“I’m focused on it; I can’t do more than what I’ve done in the past, I can tell you that,” he said. “So I’m not putting extra pressure on myself that I have to do some superhuman feat. It’s for whatever reason just not clicked yet, so I’m just staying the course. I’m going to put myself in position to maybe win the race, and one of these years it’s got to work out. It’s a tough one to win. I think that’s what makes it so special. You can go your whole career and not win the Indy 500, and I accept that if that’s the case, but I’m not going to go down without a fight.”
THREE ERRORS FOR ANDRETTI, HERTA
Long Beach seemed a repeat of Nashville in many ways for Colton Herta, who crashed after starting on pole position and also grew frustrated on the team radio after realizing he had been cycled out of the lead and lost control of the race despite having a seemingly dominant No. 26 Dallara-Honda.
Unlike Nashville (which was a result of cautions), Long Beach was because of a slow pit stop that dropped him behind Newgarden and Alex Palou. It was while pushing on the in lap for what was likely to be his final pit stop that Herta slammed the wall in Turn 9.
It was the third consecutive race to start the 2022 season in which a mistake had plagued Herta, who finished fourth at St. Pete because of a fueling error and 12th at Texas because of a slow stop for a pit gun problem.
.@ColtonHerta went from chasing the leader to ending up in the wall.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 13, 2022
“It’s very tough when you have three issues like that to start a season,” IndyCar on NBC analyst James Hinchcliffe said on NASCAR America Motormouths this Monday (video at the top of this post or by clicking here). “You never want to get behind and get down on yourselves. You have to keep that morale up.
“As a driver, a lot of that does come on you. These unforced errors by Colton, the struggles in the pits, it’s a tough blow for these guys, because obviously, the pace is there. I don’t think anyone would question that Colton Herta is one of the fastest racing drivers on the planet now.
“He and (engineer) Nathan O’Rourke work phenomenally great together and have built a great rapport, but they’ve got to see the results. These guys are going to be upset and be kicking themselves but can take some solace that the pace was there. If they keep their heads down and keep digging, eventually the results will come.
GANASSI TAKES IT TO THE STREETS
After an offseason of working on the tight layouts, Chip Ganassi Racing has shored up its street course performance this season. Besides another podium at Long Beach for Palou (who was second at St. Pete), Marcus Ericsson was on track for a top five before a late mistake, and Scott Dixon finished sixth after gaining 10 spots on an early pit stop
“The car was really fast; I’m so bummed for the big mistake that took us out of qualifying,” said Dixon, who started 16th after an “undriveable” setup left him unable to advance from the first round of qualifying. “I think if we had started in the top 10, we could have won that race.”
Ganassi’s notable exception at Long Beach was, of course, the nightmare weekend for Jimmie Johnson, but the No. 48 driver said he could feel “the energy in the transporters” over the team’s street course improvement and also is beginning to understand the craft and the importance of tires (despite his three crashes on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile course).
“I’m starting to feel it, and it’s something I never had to worry about before in my (NASCAR) career,” Johnson said. “Maybe Martinsville for qualifying. But you’ve got to turn the tire on. You have to get enough energy and temperature, and then the pressure builds for the tire to get in its window to work. These cars are so lightweight. You have so few laps to get the car going, that you can turn on the fronts and not the rears, or you turn on the rears and not the fronts.
“So even down to the sequence of out lap and how you’re using the brakes, warming the tire, it’s all part of this ratio of turning the tire on. I’ve never in my life had to worry about it. It’s bizarre. So I’m doing a lot more listening than talking about it. But I can now identify with when I turn the tire on. I need to get better at it.”
✌🏼Long Beach pic.twitter.com/yUxvx3TDjr
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) April 11, 2022
While the road courses of Barber and the Indy GP will be challenging while healing from surgery on his fractured right hand, Johnson will have less of a learning curve on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. At Long Beach, Johnson still was basking in the afterglow of his career-best sixth at Texas, which drew phone calls and texts from Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and countless drivers and team owners from the Cup Series.
“It was like I won a championship,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard from NASCAR friends and people I didn’t think were watching or paying attention. It took three days to dig out of text messages and emails after finishing sixth.
“It was really, really special.”
CALDERON PERKS UP IN START TWO
Long Beach was a solid outing for A.J. Foyt Racing’s rookies. Kyle Kirkwood was “over the moon” about his first top 10 in the NTT IndyCar Series, and Tatiana Calderon quietly marched to a 16th-place finish as the first (and only) car a lap down.
“We made a huge step from St. Petersburg to here,” said Calderon, who is running road and street courses this season. “The pace was really good at stages.”
The Colombian had received a good omen three days earlier when Pop’s Java sent an invite on Instagram to Calderon, who always scouts for good coffeehouses on the road with her sister, Paula.
“They wrote me a message if you’re ever in Long Beach, come by and try our coffee, so I was like, ‘That is a good sign,’ ” Calderon told NBC Sports. “We went there, and it was really, really nice coffee. It’s unreal how we can connect these days, honestly.”
Calderon will be making her third IndyCar start in the May 1 race at Barber Motorsport Park, where she hopes to enjoy more continuity after a six-week break between her first two starts.
“I think naturally I’m going to be in a little disadvantage because even in the ovals, you get grip with the car,” she said of her part-time schedule. “You get a bit more laps. You have to take everything as it comes.
“I’m sure it’s still going to be a steep learning curve for me, but I think I understood a lot of things from St. Pete.”
— Tatiana Calderon (@TataCalde) April 12, 2022