Track Talk: Long Beach Remains A Major Stop In IndyCar
The Grand Prix of Long Beach is back for the 34th consecutive year, and while the competing series has varied over the years, its importance to drivers has remained unchanged.
Although the 1.98 mile, 11-turn California street circuit layout is not one that allows for consistent overtaking opportunities, it stands out as perhaps the most technically challenging design the Verizon IndyCar Series pilots will face this season. The long, curved main straightaway at Shoreline Drive will offer the highest speeds the Dallara DW12s will handle over a lap, with 180 miles per hour being the normal maximum, before braking for the tricky, 90-degree left hander at turn one. While the ability to gain position at the start is sometimes an uncontrollable urge for competitors, the difficulty of this obstacle has caused many opening lap pile-ups over the years.
Interestingly enough, however, the most controversial part of this section could be the pit exit line that funnels into the first corner. Drivers in years past have attempted to cut-off this area to save time, with mixed success in terms of being able to avoid penalty or not. The most recent questionable chop came two years ago when Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud came out just ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon following the final round of stops. The Frenchman used the advantage to continue on to victory at the climax.
Once through corner one, the area surrounding the Long Beach Aquarium is tight and narrow. Even at reduced speeds, the slightest off-line move could result in wall contact. Getting out of the quick left-hander at turn five can be an issue, as the apex is bumpy and tends to travel cars toward the barrier. A short straightaway allows little chance to gain ground, but care must be taken when braking for the right at six. The entry is wide; however, it tends to funnel down in width approaching the exit, so side-by-side action here could result in contact.
The right-angled turn eight is also critical to get right as it leads onto the second longest straightaway, Seaside Way. The braking zone for corner nine represents the last realistic chance to overtake rivals, although caution needs to be in play as the changeover from the main public roads to the parking lot of the nearby Convention Center can vary in available grip. Getting through number ten is equally important as it will set the line taken through the infamous hairpin. Making a mess of this final test, can make a driver vulnerable to losing ground on the run down Shoreline Drive whether the chasing pilot is calling upon Push To Pass or not.
With the difficulty to overtake and the chances of being bogged down by traffic unusually high at Long Beach, getting into the Firestone Fast Six is a necessity. While full-course cautions made a mockery of that last month in St. Petersburg, Florida, smart money says qualifying will outweigh a unique pit strategy nine times out of ten.
Among active IndyCar chauffeurs, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais has three previous wins, all coming in succession from 2005 to 2007. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe returns as the defending champion, bolstering the prospects for him and his Canadian-based teammate Robert Wickens. The latter of SPM’s “maple leaf duo” led the most laps in St. Petersburg and could be keen to seal the deal properly at Long Beach. Five other entrants in the 24-car lineup also are former victors on Shoreline Drive-Seaside Way surrounded layout, with four of them being previous IndyCar Series champions, showing that even in the early part of the season, this event provides a potential tell towards who the eventual titlist might be.
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