NTT IndyCar qualifying proceeded with some drama, some strategy, and a second-generation pole winner on Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Sunday, four drivers amongst a field of 24 compete for the season’s title.

NTT IndyCar qualifying is not a simple thing. There were 24 cars at Laguna Seca, so they went out in two groups of 12. Within each group, the six fastest were identified by lap times. The resulting 12 are then sent out, and the “Fast Six” come from them. Those six will be the first three rows on the grid, and amongst themselves, the pole is decided by yet another on-track session.

To cut short the suspense, Colton Herta won the pole for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, his third of the year. He thus reprises what his father, Bryan, did at Laguna Seca back in the 1990s, when he won three poles (1997, 1998, and 1999) and also two races (1998 and 1999).

Simon Pagenaud briefly challenged for pole near the end of his time on track, but he had an off in the lap, and when asked about how entertaining it was, said, “The last lap actually the least entertaining of them all.” Handling issues? No elaboration.

But there was more to the session(s) than that on Saturday. First, strategy. The teams start on the so-called black sidewall tires. These are sets that are more durable than the “alternate,” red sidewall tires (“reds”). But not as fast as the reds.

OK, so the cars go out on blacks and try to lay down a safety lap—fast enough that it will stand up if things don’t go well in the rest of the session. They then come in and switch to reds, run a warm-up lap, and then run another couple as fast as they can. The reds have better grip than the blacks, but they also fall off really fast and are basically done as far as being good for super-fast single laps after two fast laps. They can still be raced, but that’s the concern for another day (obviously, tomorrow).

The strategy comes in trying to time the moment of leaving the pits so that there’s the max distance to the next car to get an unencumbered lap. And when to blast and when not to, because the tires fall off so fast.

The second thing qualifying offers is drama. Saturday in Laguna Seca, that came in the form of rookie Felix Rosenqvist losing his two fastest laps after a brief off in turn six cost someone else a good lap and got Rosenqvist a penalty. It happened while both drivers were on their second lap on black sidewalls, and thus wouldn’t have been super-fast, anyway.

Afterwards, Rosenqvist is said to have uttered some super-angry words. He was quoted as saying, for instance, “It was obviously one of the stupidest decisions I’ve ever seen.” His teammate, Scott Dixon, was asked about this. “What’d he say?” Dixon replied. Someone whispered in his ear. He looked surprised, but he managed to keep it easy: “He’s been knocking on the door all year long, and I think he’s still got a good shot tomorrow.” He’s talking about for a win. Rosenqvist will start 14th.

The team protested after the session, holding up the start of the next one, because Rosenqvist would have been fourth had the stewards not taken away the laps they did. The situation was a bit fluid (that is, the rule didn’t seem all that clear) in terms of whether they should dock the fastest two laps or the two just before or after the incident. Anyway, the two they took left him with a fastest lap not in his session’s top six. But it’s not as bad as it could have been. There was talk on the radio (I was standing at the fence with his spotter from the Ganassi team) that he might start last in the 24-strong field, rather than 14th.

What caused some of the confusion was that timing and scoring showed Rosenqvist in fourteenth position but with a time that would have qualified him higher, so it didn’t quite add up. It still didn’t a couple of hours later, with his strong lap posted as his time, better than that of higher cars.

In any case, fourteenth is not an impossible spot to win from, but these natural road courses are notoriously hard to pass at. Notwithstanding Alex Zanardi’s pass of Bryan Herta for the win through the corkscrew twenty-some years ago (youtube search “Zanardi, the pass” if you don’t have direct memory of it), often you start about where you finish in this kind of race. Rosenqvist’s mission will be to disprove this as a theory.

To get to the rest of the field, the fast six, after Herta, are Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, and Simon Pagenaud. Four of them (all but Hinchcliffe—sorry, Canada) are in the fight for the season’s championship, which will be decided this weekend. If you read my prior story, you know that Newgarden leads by 41 points in search of his second title in three years. (Dixon won it last year.)

When asked about the top four being in the top six in qualifying, Rossi said, “None of us got pole, so we clearly aren’t that good.”

Rossi jumped up to third, and thus a spot ahead of the championship leader, by running a very strong closing lap. His time was 1:10.2105 (yes, they can time that precisely these days), where Newgarden’s was 1.10.6719. Herta was on the pole at 110.1405. That translates to 114.867 miles an hour average. There’s a radar gun hooked to a display screen on the front straight. The gun measures speed at the fastest part of the track, and that was 163 mph.

Add that to the fact that going through the Corkscrew, a twisting, plunging series of turns starting with turn 8 of 11 on the circuit, must be positively terrifying, and you’ve got the recipe for a job that looks a lot more fun than it probably is. But yes, it does look fun. Thrilling, more like.

Adding some larger meaning to the pole win, just before the qualifying session started, it was announced that Herta was going to drive for the newly configured Andretti-Harding-Steinbrenner team next year (basically the Harding-Steinbrenner team affiliating with Andretti Autosport with Herta as the driver). Herta had two things to say about this. First, he commented that he was not tempted to leave Harding-Steinbrenner behind, because he had gotten his start with them this year, his only IndyCar ride. His loyalty over this was apparent.

Second, he said that he’d be in a bit of a bind if he were leading Sunday if falling from the lead would help his future new teammate, Rossi, win this year’s championship.

He said initially when asked, “Uh, tough question. I don’t know. I’m sure I’m gonna get talked to tonight about something of that nature. I’m hoping my position, honestly, it depends on where I am in the race, for sure. If I’m leading, it’d be really hard to say yes (and not win). There’s got to be some incentives there. Maybe we can negotiate something.” He was laughing as he said this, but clearly the answer was genuine—he’s a racer, and nobody is out there not to finish first.

A similar question was put to Martin Truex of NASCAR one time, and he was resolute in his answer: “You don’t know whether you’re ever going to win again, and wins come hard, so no, I wouldn’t let someone else win.”

And as for Herta’s pole and the potential outcome on Sunday? “We have the one-lap pace down. Now we have to work on race pace.

 

Notes:

Seventeen of the 24 drivers entered had qualifying laps in the 1:10 range. All the rest, save one, had times in the 1:11’s. The other was a 1:12. So mark that down—the entire field is within just over two seconds a lap. That means the race will proceed in tight packs where strategy will have a lot to do with the outcome.

Or as my friend Ganassi Engineer Lee Orebaugh put it, “There’s a lot more that goes into winning on the other side of the wall than on the trackside of it. It’s nothing like the old days, when you put gas in it and tires on it and went out and ran.” Watch for pit strategy, short fills, mixing up of red and black sidewall tire strategies, and more.