The 2019 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach was an opportunity for Alexander Rossi to back up his pole-to-win run in last year’s 44th running of the race but its location is full of opportunity for disaster.
As the second temporary circuit carved out of city streets on the NTT IndyCar Series calendar, the Long Beach racetrack includes 11 bends that introduce character and challenge to its 1.968-mile length.
A field-wide 1,633 practice laps were interrupted just once when Matheus Leist stopped on track in Friday’s Practice 2. The weekend did include heavy crashes for Tony Kanaan, Felix Rosenqvist and Colton Herta, but not until qualifying — when speed and stakes are high — or during the race, in the case of Herta.
Limited carnage is more a reflection of driver skill than an easy circuit: Onlookers were forced to the edge of their seats all weekend long as the world-class drivers left mere inches between their Dallara IR-12 machines and the concrete barriers. Sometimes less.
Rossi grew a substantial lead following the race’s only stoppage for a Lap 1 incident, but the daunting limits of the temporary street circuit kept the winner of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in check.
“I don’t know that you worry about what could happen,” Rossi said when asked about his mindset while handily leading the race. “You just start to leave — especially around a track like this — margins.
“There’s quite a few corners that, to get the maximum lap time, you have to be right up against the wall on entry, apex and exit. You leave half a car width.”
The gap Rossi created back to second place was an obvious indication of his on-track prowess and is backed up by hard data. Rossi’s Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay was untouchable over a single lap, but the eventual winner laid down the fastest section time from the end of the main straightaway through the exit of Turn 1 on Lap 39 and was also quickest of the day through Turn 6 and up to Turn 8 — critical portions of a lap at Long Beach.
Also having hurried from the end of the backstretch all the way through the hairpin faster than 21 of his 22 competitors, Rossi may have executed every corner with care, but his pace on the fourth race day of 2019 hardly took a hit.
“You can’t back off, but you just leave a margin for error in case for whatever reason you have a lapse in judgment, or a bit of oversteer, you don’t slap the wall,” the 2018 championship runner-up continued. “Other than those kind of thoughts of just being smart, there’s not really anything that changes. You still drive the car — instead of driving at 101% of its capabilities, you drive at 97%. By no means are you relaxed.
“Last year, for example, we actually had a brake issue. That was more of a panic than this year, whereas everything on the car was great. We knew what our gap was and our margins. It was just kind of cruising. You do have times when it’s like that, but today wasn’t that day.”
Rossi faces IndyCar’s marque month of May next, perhaps along with stiff competition that will indeed make his sixth career win look like a Sunday cruise on the streets of Long Beach.
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