until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


IndyCar street racing tips for Grosjean and Johnson

by Jack Benyon
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

There’s a reason only one rookie has ever won IndyCar’s Grand Prix of St Petersburg, and it gives you an idea of the task Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson are facing this weekend.

The ‘rookie’ who won was Graham Rahal, but that term was a slight misnomer as while new to this brand of the IndyCar Series he’d contested the final year of Champ Car in 2007.

While Grosjean has his years in Formula 1 and various other series to count on when it comes to street racing, he’ll still face unusual challenges in IndyCar.

Johnson’s baptism in single-seaters will continue without any real knowledge of cars like this up close and personal with the barriers.

With the size of the task at hand The Race outlines some of those key challenges facing the two true rookies at St Pete.

Hammering the brakes

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While Barber may have felt like a familiar road course to Grosjean and Johnson, with more fast and flowing sections and few heavy braking zones, St Pete is full of the latter. Especially the key overtaking zone at Turn 1.

Punching the brakes at the very last second is going to be key, and both drivers are going to have to adapt to that quickly on two different tyres with varying fuel loads. Johnson picked out how different the car feels light vs full fuel after his debut last weekend, and that will obviously affect braking points and tyre performance in the race significantly.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Azerbaijan Grand Prix Qualifying Day Baku, Azerbaijan

For Grosjean, his experience of somewhere like Baku will be key with many similarities in the type of circuit. However, an F1 car is pretty much on rails once the power is applied – even in a Haas – and that won’t be the case in St Pete.

We’ve seen how quickly the IndyCar can bite, last year at St Pete was the perfect example where road course ace Alexander Rossi and polesitter Will Power crashed in the same place in unforced errors.

While Barber offered room for manoeuvre – albeit with grass as opposed to miles of asphalt run-off as is common in F1 – St Pete will be much more punishing if there’s any failure to correct the rear end stepping out. And it happens a lot.

The closeness of the field

Ntt Indycar Series Firestone Grand Prix Of St Petersburg

Track position will be important at St Pete, even if there are more chances to overtake than at Barber. However, Grosjean and Johnson face the unusual prospect of coming to a track starting at zero.

Both drivers tested at Barber before the season started and there was plenty of uncertainty there for all the IndyCar drivers due to the fact that none of them had driven on the softer tyre used to qualify on the relaid Barber surface. That gave Grosjean especially the perfect chance to capitalise on a more even playing field.

In the first qualifying group at Barber the difference between making it into the top 12 or not was 0.0344s in group one and 0.0488s in group two. At St Pete last year, the gaps were 0.0556s and 0.1424s in each group respectively.

That tells you how important getting up to speed quickly is going to be this weekend. Grosjean made the top 12 by just under four tenths at Barber which was impressive, but heading into St Pete he has just two practice sessions to learn a circuit most of his rivals know very well.

Motor Racing Izod Indycar Series Round 3 Grand Prix Of Long Beach Long Beach, California

Those deficits also mean a lot of cars on track – and often with the pressure coming down to the last possible lap.

It’s like “Monza for the F1 guys, but it’s every track, every weekend!” says The Race’s IndyCar Podcast co-host JR Hildebrand, who has two top fives at the Long Beach street course (pictured above) on his resume.

Track conditions

Ntt Indycar Series Firestone Grand Prix Of St Petersburg

Fundamentally, all tracks evolve and that’s nothing new to either Grosjean or Johnson. But how they evolve, and how to read that in the context of your own tyre life/performance, fuel loads, the wind speed and direction and track temperature has become a key part of qualifying and performing well on an IndyCar circuit.

This becomes heightened by the fact that there are feeder series with different rubber running in-between the IndyCar sessions (don’t forget international viewers can watch Indy Lights on The Race’s YouTube channel) and that the St Pete asphalt is different to most tracks either driver will have raced on in the past.

“I think the biggest thing that stands out to me that I would expect to be different for Grosjean is the progression of the circuit over the course of the weekend is pretty dramatic, even more dramatic I would expect than an F1 street circuit,” Hildebrand said on The Race’s IndyCar podcast.

Apr 21 : Grosjean 'absolutely delivered' on his IndyCar debut

“It’s a place where the teams that have been there, with drivers that have done it for a long time, don’t get it right every weekend because you just get caught up in weird situations.

“So I think that lack of predictability of how those sessions are going to go is something that will be new to him, or more of a difference.

“There are definitely times where you have to stick in a lap in qualifying where everything’s not right, when the tyres aren’t up to temp or pressure. There’s just a lot more variability.”

It’s not all gloom for Grosjean

Romain Grosjean Dale Coyne Racing Indycar Barber

There might be a host of challenges facing Grosjean and Johnson, but the reason these drivers have risen to elite motorsport is because of their ability to overcome that adversity.

Hildebrand saw something from Grosjean at Barber that makes him think the Dale Coyne Racing driver will be a contender all year long.

“I think what Romain showed at Barber and through testing is that sort of driver’s sense of where the limit is and what you’re looking for from the car – in corner entry or whatever,” says Hildebrand.

“That tells you as a driver that you’ve got the car where you want it, and it’s working as you like, and you can attack from there.

“It seems like he’s got a sense of that in the IndyCar. And I think that’s something that, if you’ve got a sense of it at Sebring, or at Barber, that doesn’t go away anywhere.

“If they can put a good car underneath him, and he can manage to not get caught out by the conditions, I would expect at this point he’s going to show some speed wherever we go.”

It’s hard to disagree, but St Pete will be the first chance we get to see if the running Grosjean got at Barber really boosted his performance, and if he’s as up to speed as he looks when we reach a totally new challenge.

Johnson needs more time

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Barber showed that Johnson isn’t getting the power down quickly enough and isn’t familiar enough with how the car reacts in certain scenarios to know how to rescue some potential slides and spins. That was expected given only five days in the car prior to the weekend.

It’s going to take him a long time to get fully up to speed, but St Pete is going to throw a lot of challenges at him and that will be great for his learning curve.

It’s a place he’s going to look even further off the pace because of the challenges outlined, but this is a learning experience and providing he ends the weekend faster and more aware of the intricacies of the car on a street course then his job will have been done.

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