While the streets of Long Beach, California may not feature the prestige of a street racing layout such as the Monaco Grand Prix for the Formula One World Championship, the Toyota Grand Prix remains one of the classic, nostalgic events in the Verizon IndyCar Series, dating back to 1978, when it was indeed a part of Formula One. All of the legends of American open wheel racing have won on the multiple layouts used by the event organizers, led by the six victories earned by Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Al Unser, Jr. Mario Andretti is second on the winners list with four wins, while Sebastien Bourdais leads active drivers with three victories, all during Champ Car World Series sanctioning.
Despite the domination by a few drivers during the CART era, only current Toyota LMP-1 factory driver Mike Conway has earned more than one victory at 1.98 mile circuit since the event officially joined the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2009. However, despite that fact, the twenty-one car lineup this weekend does feature seven former Long Beach winners, including current road racing ace Will Power of Team Penske, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport, AJ Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato, and defending race winner Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, who also claimed IndyCar’s most recent event at the Phoenix International Raceway one-mile oval last month.
Obviously, with the Chevrolet-powered entries appearing to show an edge in qualification trim, the early advantage on the balance scale tilts in the favor of Team Penske and Ganassi in terms of who could win the biggest street race on the IndyCar circuit. The Australian Will Power, who won at Long Beach in both 2008 and 2012 is of course a major candidate, as is St. Petersburg, Florida race winner Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya, who claimed his first American open wheel race win here in 1999, is tailor made for the tight confines where aggression meets knife-edge perfection. While Helio Castroneves also won here with Penske in 2001, the hottest driver of the Captain’s current quartet could be Simon Pagenaud, who currently leads the Verizon IndyCar Series championship points table entering Long Beach. The Frenchman has claimed runner-up honors at each of the first two events in 2016 and despite not yet claiming his first win for Team Penske, the former Grand Prix of Indianapolis champion is among the potential top picks for Sunday.
Certainly CGR’s Scott Dixon also has to be featured among the top picks, as could his impressive rookie teammate Max Chilton, who earned his best result to date at Phoenix when he finished seventh. While the Englishmen never achieved much success during his two seasons in Formula One, two of Chilton’s three best efforts did come at the Monaco Grand Prix, with back to back 14th-place finishes. Based on that, the tight confines of the Long Beach layout, particularly around the Long Beach Aquarium section of the track should suit him just fine.
As for Honda, the next three races may represent their best chance to claim a victory before the 100th Indianapolis 500, where they could be a decided underdog. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay tags Long Beach as his favorite track on the IndyCar circuit, however outside of his victory in 2010, the American has also tasted bitter luck recently in Southern California. In his last five outings, he has fared no better than sixth at the finish and has failed to finish three times in that same time frame. Honda’s other top picks include the aforementioned Takuma Sato, driving for Super Tex AJ Foyt and Mikhail Aleshin of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, who each earned top six results in the St. Petersburg opener. Like RHR however, the results are suspect at Long Beach for Sato. Outside of his only IndyCar win to date in 2013, the Japanese veteran has placed no better than eighth since along Shoreline Drive. The Russian prospect Aleshin however, did fare well in the sole Long Beach performance, earning a sixth place here two years ago, his best result in his IndyCar career prior to this year’s first event.
As for the circuit itself the 1.98 mile, 11-turn design features several tight sections, yet two very opportune chances to overtake. The first is at the end of the long pit straight entering the 90-degree left hander at turn one. If one can exit the infamous final hairpin turn cleanly, one punch of the Push to Pass button should allow for an easy overtake, assuming the same rules outlawing blocking remain consistent this year. In addition, the end of the Seaside Way back straight at turn nine is an equally good out-braking spot and could provide drama on the final lap. One notable incident here came in 1992 with Galles Racing teammates Danny Sullivan and Al Unser, Jr. collided on the last lap, with Little Al finding the wall and Sullivan taking the victory.
After coming close twice to open the season, the third time will be the charm for Simon Pagenaud, as he will claim his fifth career Verizon IndyCar Series victory on Sunday, however his first for Team Penske. Expect an inter-squad duel for it, that could involve Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya for good measure.