Laguna Seca has seen a thing or two since its construction in 1957, nestled among the dusty, sweeping hillsides between Monterey and Salinas, but not many races around the ‘dry lake’ have been as chaotic or frenzied as Sunday’s IndyCar Series finale, which very much had the feel of ‘School’s Out’ ahead of its five-month off-season.
No fewer than eight caution periods were required for a rash of overambitious lunges and botched overtaking moves, the likes of which wouldn’t have been out of place in the junior formulas.
But, as so often in these unpredictable scenarios, the jigsaw pieces were tossed into the air and landed in the familiar shape of Scott Dixon, the six-time champion, who stroked to his third win in four starts. This despite a grid penalty for an engine change and a drive-through for causing a collision at the exit of Andretti Hairpin on the opening lap.
Juri Vips, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
That decision incensed him, as have a number of calls from Race Control this season, and another bone of contention has been its restart rules. The stretch of asphalt between the penultimate and final corners was vaguely declared the restart zone and led to a trio of clumsy collisions in the braking zone that brought the yellow back out just seconds after the green had been waved.
“The restarts have been interesting this year,” says Dixon. “Sometimes it’s the only advantage you can get, right? You try to jump it. We’ve seen a lot of that throughout the year. I think in the off-season we have to try and figure out a way to do that a bit better.
“Even if we need to maybe go to no passing until the start/finish line or something. But you don’t want to make it boring either.”
When he got to the head of the field, Dixon floored it before Turn 10 and strung the field out – hey presto, no shunts at Turn 11.
“Composure is just trying for the biggest advantage possible,” he mused. “I went a lot earlier. There was no caution. Yeah, that’s what the guys needed to do.
“When you go out of Turn 10, [it’s] kind of congestion, some people are on bad tires, they can’t stop as well. You kind of get this whole pack-up, this rubber band effect. Ultimately if you kind of go out of Turn 9, like I did, it strings it out a little bit more.”
Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian Honda, Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport Honda
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
When asked by Motorsport.com if a restart zone on the frontstretch coming to the start/finish line would have prevented the troubled restarts, Team Penske’s Will Power said: “It would fix everything if you cannot pass until you’re out of that corner. After the apex of the corner is the only place you can pass. Before the apex, you cannot pass someone, and you cannot be overlapping. So, single file until you get out, then go have at it.”
But even the start itself, which is two-wide nominally the actual stripe across the track, was something of joke as Colton Herta in particular gained multiple places by anticipating the green. The irony then being that it was he who Dixon was squeezed by, leading to him punting off Rinus VeeKey to receive his penalty…
Add that unnecessary chaos to the requisite evil of a repaved track, which has yet to weather in and equalize with the grip off the racing line, and it equalled contact levels more akin to a midweek late model stock car bash around a short oval than America’s premier open-wheel series.
Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet, Juri Vips, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Marcus Armstrong, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
“It was peak IndyCar,” said Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who finished second after being shoved into the gravel on the opening lap. “I think I hit everything but the pace car.
“It was wild. I mean, for me as a driver, it was probably the most craziest race I’ve ever had in my career just from an up-and-down perspective. It probably takes me back to the year I lost the Supercars championship for the first time. Up and down, penalties, things you could avoid and couldn’t avoid. It was just nuts.”
The repave meant that the track record was shattered, with Christian Lundgaard’s 1m06.4610s topped Helio Castroneves’ mark from 2000 by well over a second. Compared to last year’s pace, it was almost 5s faster!
But it also meant that the racing line was something of a high-wire act, where running wide was penalized by a trip to the gravel trap of the tirewall, with crashes causing 20 red flags across the four days.
You could take a lap of the track noting the crashes across the weekend endured by the series’ top names: McLaughlin suffering a wild spin after rear-locking on the white line for Turn 2, Pato O’Ward ended FP2 in the wall at Turn 3, the following corner already claimed champion Alex Palou in testing on Thursday, but would add Romain Grosjean and Power, who wrecked in the final moments of qualifying.
Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet
Photo by: Tyler Clemmensen
Dixon took a wild ride through the Turn 6 gravel, while Power also spun off at the top of the Corkscrew and Lundgaard suffered a back-pummelling landing at the bottom of it. Turn 9, which became borderline flat-out on alternates, waited until the race when Callum Ilott ran wide there, while plenty scooted off at Turn 10, including Graham Rahal who only just got back in time before the pit entry! And at Turn 11, just about everyone overshot at some point in practice or clashed in the race.
It was all very similar to when another crown jewel of American road courses, Road America, was repaved. Perhaps it was no coincidence that now two-time champion Palou crashed at both while finding their limits…
And with the dust (and gravel) now settled, we have the painfully long five-month off season before it starts again on the streets of St Petersburg. Next year, the Laguna date is expected to shift up to April, so will one Californian winter be enough to take away that high-grip edge? It shifts forwards to allow the wild streets of Nashville to host the finale.
McLaughlin was asked if he could remember a wilder race than Sunday’s: “Nashville,” he shot back. “Every Nashville race, except for the one this year!”
You get the suspicion that IndyCar simply loves the drama of it all…