By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
MONTEREY, California – In the closing minutes of Friday afternoon’s practice, Ryan Hunter-Reay maximized his red compound Firestone tires to set a scorching time of 1:09.9105, putting him on top of the board at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Hunter-Reay dethroned rookie points leader Felix Rosenqvist by 0.0200 seconds and when comparing his No. 28 DHL Honda after Thursday’s two test sessions, Hunter-Reay felt better about it but his concern shifted towards the tricky nature of the 2.238-mile circuit.
His goal is to avoid making any mistakes that could bite he and the other 23 drivers.
“We have a very small window to get it right. We’re not really resting on this one,” Hunter-Reay commented. “We got a lot of work to do still and it’s tough out there for everyone. To nail a lap is a very small window. The margin for errors is very thin.
“I think we made the car better today as went through the day and working with Alex (Rossi). We’re heading in the right direction and hopefully put these two cars together on the front row.”
Rosenqvist’s rookie rivals Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci were also strong as they took two out of the last three top-five spots with championship contender Simon Pagenaud sandwiched between them.
The man third in points felt this session was an improvement after being eighth fastest this morning and confident about his red compounds, which brought him more confidence heading into Saturday’s qualifying session.
“We’re making big improvements on the car. I’m determined,” Pagenaud said. “I really want to do the best I can this weekend and take my own destiny in my own hands. I’m pushing hard for the car, it’s feeling really good. The reds are even better which is a good sign for qualifying.”
Points leader Josef Newgraden took sixth with Scott Dixon not far behind in seventh. The latter brought out the session’s only stoppage after going off in Turn 10 and had to serve a five-minute penalty for causing the red flag.
Roughly the same time, Pagenaud came into the Andretti Hairpin hot and went into the gravel, but was able to keep his No. 22 DXC Technology Chevrolet going and brought it back to the pits.
For Newgarden, he’s found instantaneous love for Laguna Seca as his 41-point cushion could either go up or down pending on how Sunday fares, especially with tire degradation being the worst he’s seen.
“I’ve never run here before and I love this track. I’m fired up and I think the tires are going degrade like crazy,” Newgarden said. “It’s going to make a terribly difficult day for us and hopefully an entertaining victory.
“You got to make the rears last. It’s very difficult to keep the rear tires underneath you, so that’s my focus is how can we make it much longer than everyone else.
“This is the worst we’ve had anywhere. I’ve never seen the tires go out like they do here, so I’m a little bit worried about that. If we can make a better setup, I think it’s going to help us on race day.”
Missing from the top-10 was once again second-place points man Alexander Rossi, who’s horrendous Friday continued as he only improved from 24th this morning to 23rd in the afternoon session.
However, a positive light came at a convient time for Rossi as he made tremendous improvement in the 30-minute warm-up session where he topped the charts with a time of 1:10.0988, 0.7838 seconds quicker than Hunter-Reay.
Rossi felt okay about his No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda after overcoming a broken bolt which has resulted a tremendous setback.
“This morning was difficult because we didn’t get a lap in on blacks. We kind of sacrificed the second session to try get as many runs as we could to find and go through the checklist. We’ve saved the new reds for the warm-up session, so I think we’re getting there.
“We used yesterday and today to try running a lot of things and make sure we didn’t leave no stones un-turned,” Rossi said. “We’ve put most of the stones and there’s a couple of more to come tomorrow morning, but we’re trying to make sure we have everything squared away for tomorrow and Sunday.”
Rossi expanded on running the red compounds is stronger which makes the decision of which tire compound will have the most advantage going forward, agreeing with Newgarden’s comments about tire deg being awful.
“We got to be on the Firestone red tire for the first time today and that’s definitely a stronger tire,” Rossi said. “I think deg is going to be a big issue on both compounds and try to understand which one you want to be on for the race.
“That’s kind of the similar conversations we have every weekend, but the magnitude of the deg is higher than we’ve seen probably since Sonoma last year. I say here and Sonoma are probably on the same level.”
Qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey commences at 4:35 pm EST, airing live on NBCSN as everyone are gunning to make the final Firestone Fast Six of 2019 and claim pole position.
Being the fastest out of the four title contenders in both 45-minute sessions, Pagenaud said the red compounds are only good for one solid lap before it starts to drastically decline.
“It looks like its Lap 2 on the reds. It looks like you’ll only get one lap because the tires degrade after that. So you really need to make those pressures with your driving and put it all together on that one lap. It’s going to be fun.”