By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, California – In both Friday practice sessions, only two drivers topped the practice charts which were Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who ended up being the two fastest overall drivers in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, setting themselves as early targets heading into tomorrow’s qualifying session which is expected to be tight.
Already making faster laps than last year, due in most part of the cooler temperatures and nice headwind into Turn 1, Hunter-Reay topped the morning session with a time of 1:07.933, beating Dixon’s fastest time by 0.1704 seconds.
Hunter-Reay, who won at Long Beach in 2010, said Friday’s pace has gotten him back into a groove, where the setup has shown how competitive his No. 28 DHL Honda can be this weekend after finishing 20th last year.
“We’re just getting back to finding our baseline,” said Hunter-Reay. “Last year, we had very competitive cars. Again, this year rolled off with a really good setup I think. It was a good starting point. We’ve made some changes to it trying to find what to do, what not to do, as you regularly would on a street course.
“The tricky part of a street course is you have to keep up with the racetrack, you have to be proactive with keeping up with it. As you go through the race weekend, it’s constantly changing conditions. So, yeah, it was a good first day. Definitely learned a lot. I know what to apply for tomorrow.”
Then in the afternoon, both competitors ran an even faster lap time, but it was Dixon who outpaced Hunter-Reay with the fastest overall time of the day with a 1:07.794.
With a pair of runner-up finishes in the young season, Dixon is looking to end the streak of different drivers and teams winning at Long Beach as it currently stands at six.
The 2015 Long Beach winner said strategy and having a strong starting position will be key as to whether or not he can end the streak.
“This one is a tough one just because of the strategy,” said Dixon. “Last year I think we were running second the whole race, missed the last caution, ended up running 13th. That definitely flips it. It always seems getting up to speed out of the pits here creates a lot of opportunity to pass people. That crossover becomes very important. It’s determined the race many times. We’ve won a race that way. We lost a race in ’16 because of being maybe too complacent on in and out laps.
“Qualifying is very important, as it is most weekends. Definitely on the street courses it’s a little harder to pass. I think here there’s definitely a much bigger emphasis on the pit exchange, the in lap and the out lap. Now with how everybody is using the overtake, that can change from being the same to plus or minus a second. I think that for us, for the drivers and for the teams, it’s a big part.
“I think it just shows you how tight the field is. There’s so many good car and driver combinations now that if anybody just hits it that little bit better or gets that lap a little bit put together, it’s going to make all the difference. Placement here in qualifying does definitely help.”
Hunter-Reay is motivated going into qualifying, knowing that the lap times are tight, but a bid for his seventh pole can end if a mistake is made at the rigorous 1.96-mile street course as the dirty track surface and the Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge putting on rubber at Turns 9-11 has put the drivers in a spot where errors can’t be made.
“The lap times motivate me. I see how close that is,” said Hunter-Reay. “That motivates me enough. It’s tight. Like I said, you miss something, you miss a brake point by a foot around here, it feels like you’ve lost position. It will be an interesting day tomorrow for qualifying, no doubt.”
The defending NTT IndyCar Series champion described the weather being an improvement from when he arrived in Long Beach early in the week, as winds weren’t ideal. Now after Friday, he credits the cooler temperatures as the reason for the faster lap times.
“Tuesday, Wednesday here the winds were horrendous. We were out here for a Honda meeting. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it,” said Dixon. “I think if you look at the times, the times in this session were over a second faster than last year. But the temperature, last year was very hot. The heat is the biggest performance factor for us right now, especially track temp. The tires don’t like it, the engine doesn’t like it.
“Today we had a really nice headwind into turn one, that definitely helps. Makes it difficult getting into the last corner, turn nine on the back straight there. I think the track surface has been pretty good. It’s always a little funky through 9, 10, 11, just because of the Drifters. There’s an inch thick of rubber out there. If you get a little wide, it builds up on the tire, you go straight into the fence. I think you notice everybody staying pretty tight on that corner.”
Dixon and Hunter-Reay, along with the other 21 drivers on the grid will fight for the pole Saturday, with the session starting at 3:10pm EST.