Palou sees new Laguna track record within reach following test

MAZDA RACEWAY LAGUNA SECA, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - SEPTEMBER 09: #10: Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Friday September 09, 2022 in Monterey, United States of America. (Photo by Phillip Abbott / LAT Images)
MAZDA RACEWAY LAGUNA SECA, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - SEPTEMBER 09: #10: Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Friday September 09, 2022 in Monterey, United States of America. (Photo by Phillip Abbott / LAT Images)

Take a freshly-paved WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, drop two of the top NTT IndyCar Series drivers and teams onto the 2.2-mile road course for a Firestone tire test, and the byproduct from the four-hour test on Wednesday was monumental speed.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou and Arrow McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist were tasked with evaluating a range of new tires for the series’ official partner to help Firestone finalize the rubber it will bring to the season finale, and according to the championship leader, Laguna Seca’s all-time IndyCar lap record of 1m07.7s by Helio Castroneves in 2000 could fall during the September 8-10 event.

“It was awesome. It was amazing,” Palou told RACER. “We were like three seconds faster than the pole last year, and it was only the two of us on the track with the track not rubbered in and the engines not at full beans. And the grip is amazing.

“Already last year, the track was quite physical because of the high speed and especially after the Corkscrew, you have Turn 9 and then Turn 10, which (takes) a lot of commitment. But now with the new surface, man, it was so fun. Everything is ‘more.’ It was really fast. It was really physical.”

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Reigning IndyCar champion Will Power set pole for the 2022 race with a 1m11.6s set in his No. 12 Team Penske Chevy, and unofficial reports had Wednesday’s drivers running in the 1m08s range with ease. Factor in the extra performance the turbocharged engines will offer with qualifying settings applied and the benefit of 27-plus cars filling the track surface with rubber prior to qualifying, and Palou thinks Castroneves’ record set during CART’s 1000hp era might be in jeopardy.

“I think we will be able to beat that lap time during a race week if we get the good weather, because it rubbers in so much when there are so many cars and makes it so much faster,” he noted. “I think we’re gonna beat it.”

Palou expects more passing opportunities to emerge during the race in some of the faster corners where small mistakes can prove costly by the time drivers reach the next braking zone. He also hopes fans will wander out to a few corners and watch their favorite drivers fire through at incredible speeds.

“They need to go to Turn 3 and 4, — 4 was almost flat,” Palou said. “Last year, we had to brake, and it was not flat yesterday, but it was almost flat because we can use the curbs and it sounds really, really good when we go over them. And, I would say go watch at Turn 9 and 10, because 9 is so fast now when you come down from the Corkscrew, it’s crazy.

“It was already really fast, even with the old track, because you have so much downforce there, and now, it’s way more physical with the loading and the speed you take through 9 and keep so much of that speed through 10. It’s crazy-fast. And the Corkscrew didn’t change at all, which is great. It’s still really tough to do.

“Turn 6 is another one. There’s always a big compression there going up the hill to the Corkscrew and it’s pretty tricky, but now with the more speed we have, it compresses even more so it makes it trickier. So I think we’re gonna see more overtakes going into the Corkscrew by people doing some small mistakes and not getting a good exit there. There are some places where everybody should be super-quick, so one little mistake would make a lot of difference.”

Palou closed by discussing Turn 5, the corner that takes cars out of the infield and sends them under the bridge and towards the left-hander at Turn 6. At the IMSA race in May, a few drivers were highly critical of the new pavement added on the exit of Turn 5 which took away some of the challenge and risk of perfecting the corner in prototype and GT cars.

At least in an Indy car, which sits lower to the ground, the Spaniard’s experience at Turn 5 was no different than what he encountered prior to the repave.

“It’s true that they added some tarmac outside of 5, but it doesn’t affect us at all, because you still get the same curve to take, and if you go over, it falls down,” he said. “So if you go out there with an Indy car, I’m pretty sure you’re going off and crashing, but if you don’t, you’re still losing time, for sure. I didn’t even try it, because you can see that it was not the way to go. For us, at least, they haven’t changed the nature of any corner, which is good.”

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