TORONTO — Even Josef Newgarden was excited by his late push to take pole position at Honda Indy Toronto.
Newgarden took advantage of a rapidly drying track on Saturday afternoon, passing Scott Dixon by just 0.1964 seconds to take the best starting position for the IndyCar race. The 27-year-old Newgarden had gambled on a slow start in the final qualifying segment, but a light drizzle made it seem like he’d miscalculated with Dixon getting a sizable lead.
However, the rain let up and he found his tires gripping better. As the last car left on the Exhibition Place course, Newgarden pushed his car to the limit to knock Dixon off on his final lap.
"It was very thrilling from my side, it was a fun session to try and do something like that," said Newgarden, who will defend his Indy Toronto title on Sunday. "I was sweating in the car like ‘This is amazing! I don’t know how this is going to turn out."’
Newgarden finished the final qualifying segment in 59.4956 seconds, followed by Dixon (59.6920) and Simon Pagenaud (59.7630) to take the first three grid spots in Sunday’s race.
Dixon set a course record earlier in qualifying on Saturday, clocking a time of 58.5546 in segment two. All of the top six drivers broke Pagenaud’s record in segment two. His mark of 58.9124 was set on July 15, 2017.
Pagenaud’s record was vulnerable in part because the current track configuration is only a year old.
"It’s evolution," said Pagenaud. "The cars are really fast this year, going down the straightaway at greater and greater speeds. The engines are also improving.
"It’s awesome to be in this sport at this time. I think we’re about to see something very exciting in the years to come."
Takuma Sato (58.6777), Newgarden (58.7750), Will Power (58.8758) and Alexander Rossi (58.8997) also bettered Pagenaud’s track record during practice on Saturday morning. However, practice rounds do not count for the purpose of track records, keeping Pagenaud’s record alive for a few more hours.
James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., spun out in segment two and was penalized for creating a localized yellow, putting him in ninth with a time of 59.1581. Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate Robert Wickens of Guelph, Ont., was 10th in 59.1705.
"It’s a shame," said Hinchcliffe. "I think if we hadn’t had that spin, we might have been able to transfer into the (fast six). Proud of the SPM guys — it’s been a bit of a struggle this weekend.
"We’re keeping our heads honest. We can race from here and try to give the hometown fans a good result."
Montreal’s Zach Claman DeMelo did not qualify after a time of 1:00.6416 in the first segment.
Rain between practice and qualifying left the track in downtown Toronto slick, forcing many drivers to switch to softer red tires during the qualifying laps. As a street course, drivers have to adjust quickly to different textures on the road.
"There’s not many racetracks in the world where you have to deal with crosswalks and stuff like that," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was sixth in qualifying. "You don’t know how much moisture is going to be on the paint, where you need to really put the left front or the right front tire under braking.
"That’s the beauty of street racing and changing conditions. It’s a lot of fun, but man, the line between hero and zero is very, very thin."
Several drivers lauded the city of Toronto and race organizers for repaving Turn 1, where cars turn off Princes’ Boulevard, onto Canada Boulevard, and then on to the lengthy Lake Shore Boulevard straightaway.
"I really didn’t like this track until this weekend they repaved into Turn 1, so it’s completely changed my perspective of this place, and it’s one of my favourite street circuits now," said Rossi, who will start fifth on Sunday. "Hats off to everyone at the sanctioning body and the city of Toronto for doing that because I know it’s no easy feat."