Despite his 2021 IndyCar series championship, Alex Palou has never seemed to catch on with the fans. Fast and consistent, with flashes of bravado that belie his baby face and squeaky voice, Palou has also had to rehabilitate his relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing following last year’s contract debacle with McLaren.
But winning with a 17 second advantage in a mostly spec series will do a lot to build reputations and relationships, and finding himself on the top step of the podium with Arrow McLaren drivers on either side of him a step down is a certain amount of vindication as well.
Spanish driver Palou, who started third, drove his No. 10 The American Legion Honda to a 16.8006-second victory over Mexican runner-up Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. American 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi finished third in the No. 7 McLaren, his first podium result with the team he joined this season after seven years at Andretti Autosport.
Racing has always been an exercise in tire management, and the GMR Grand Prix on Saturday on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course was more so. Devising the correct tire strategy for the 85-lap race caused considerable head-scratching for strategists and engineers up and down the pit lane Friday evening and Saturday, reflected in the reality that six of the top 10 starters began the race on Firestone primary “black” tires and four started on Firestone alternate “red” tires. IndyCar rules require each driver to use both tire compounds during road and street course races.
Palou signaled his intent and showed his speed on Lap 1 when he jumped from third to first on the red, fast-and-fragile alternate tires. He drove around polesitter Christian Lundgaard a fellow Honda driver on primary tires, in turn 13 for the lead.
For the next 65 laps, Palou, Lundgaard, O’Ward, Rosenqvist, Rossi, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Marcus Ericsson swapped the top spot as leaders peeled off the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course to execute their chosen tire and fuel strategies. The constant shuffle kept strategists on their toes, as one wrong move could have proved pivotal if a caution flag fell at the wrong time.
But the race stayed caution-free after an incident on Lap 2 between Dale Coyne Racing teammates David Malukas and Sting Ray Robb, so the outcome came down to a blend of smarts, speed and execution. And nobody did it better than Palou and the Ganassi brain trust.
Palou made his final stop on Lap 60, choosing scuffed Firestone primary tires, which are slower initially than the softer-compound alternates but whose harder compound lasted laps longer than the alternates and proved to be the better choice for consistent lap times.
Rossi took the lead on Lap 62 when teammate O’Ward pitted for a set of sticker alternate tires for his final stint. But Rossi surrendered the lead to Palou when he made his final stop on Lap 65, and then it was checkout time for Palou.
Palou had a 10.5-second lead on O’Ward when he inherited the lead after Rossi’s pit stop. O’Ward hoped to take a chunk out of that lead and perhaps even challenge Palou for victory due to the extra grip and speed of his sticker Firestone alternate tires, but Palou’s pace on both Firestone compounds proved too much. He pulled away over the closing laps, leaving the best jousting on track as the spirited, position-swapping contest for the final podium position between Rossi, Lundgaard and Rosenqvist.
“We honestly knew we had a fast car since P1 (first practice) yesterday,” Palou said. “The car has been amazing all weekend. Once we knew we were starting on reds (Firestone alternate tires), I think we knew we were going to fight for the win. Amazing work by these guys. I just had to execute.”
Palou led 52 of the 85 laps, followed by Lundgaard with 13 laps led. Palou will split $10,000 with Chip Ganassi Racing and his chosen charity, The American Legion, for his victory as part of the PeopleReady Force For Good Challenge.
The win also vaulted Palou to the top of the IndyCar standings in the most important month of the series calendar. He leads second-place O’Ward, 174-168, after five races this season. Previous championship leader Ericsson slipped to third, 19 points behind Palou, after finishing eighth in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Palou’s last victory came in the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey last September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“Hats off to them,” O’Ward said of Palou and the CGR team. “I just think they were extremely strong today. They really were. For us, we’re two, three and five as a team, and that’s pretty frickin’ phenomenal.
“The guys gave us a great race car. We were kind of just running our own race today. We were there fighting with Lundgaard and all of us teammates. Once I got clear, I had to minimize the gap I had to Alex, but I think they were very strong today. We were just hanging on there at the end, trying not to destroy our reds.”
“We’ve always been really strong on Sundays,” said Rossi. “We just haven’t really gotten the results we deserve for the performance of the car. But the fact that McLaren got three cars in the top-five in this field, and this competition, that’s a huge testament to the organization and what we have going on here. It’s a big confidence boost in good momentum going into the most important race of the year.”
O’Ward and Rossi were visibly offended in the presser when one journalist suggested that Palou had an “unbeatable” mode. “Impossible to beat? I don’t agree,” Pato said flatly. “But he’s strong. He’s on one of the best teams, arguably the best in the past few years. We’re pushing. We’re pushing. We’re right there. We’re not far off. I know we’re going to find it. Not worried.”
NTT P1 Award winner Christian Lundgaard finished a season-best fourth in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda. “I’m satisfied with a fourth,” said Lundgaard, who insisted after qualifying number one that he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a win. “But it was a tough day. The #45 Hy-Vee Honda has been quick all weekend. It wasn’t AS quick today, unfortunately, but to come home fourth is OK. There was a point in the race where I wasn’t sure if we could finish in the top 10.”
Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the top five in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, as his season-best result gave the team three of the top five finishing positions. “Overall, I’m really happy for the team,” stated Rosenqvist. “Top-five for all of us. That’s insanely good. That’s a very rare result in INDYCAR these days, so a big congrats to the whole team. Personally, I wasn’t certainly super happy with that race when we had some sense, but we lost a bit too much on the final lap in the sequence on the reds, and too much (degradation). Otherwise, apart from that, it was a pretty good race.”
Scott Dixon finished sixth in the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “The PNC Bank #9 was super fast, but we got caught up in a complete mess on the first lap when Graham [Rahal] spun in front of us after he got hit. Then there was another accident in Turn 7 and I think we were like 17th or something at that point. Then we spent the rest of the race trying to make up spots. But 17th to 6th is pretty good! I think if we’d had a [mid-race] caution, we couldn’t made a run at [the victory], but congrats to Alex [Palou], that’s awesome for the whole Ganassi team.”
Josef Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 Chevrolet at Team Penske, qualified poorly and never really factored in the race but did move up to finish 7th. “We unfortunately had a slow final stop,” said Newgarden. “I think we had a slow plug in. I think we lost seven or eight seconds just trying to get that right. I think today was a third-place day. If we get the final stop all good, that’s probably where we land and we ended up seventh.
“It’s kind of been the story of the year, just not great timing on some of this stuff. Not a bad day. I told the team this was a good fighting day. Great fighting day with the Snap-On car. Team Chevy did a fantastic job. I would have been really pleased if we left with a third but we’ll take the seventh and roll in to the big show and hopefully have a really, really good day.”
Newgarden’s Penske teammate Will Power collided early with Kyle Kirkwood, but recovered to 12th. “”It was good recovery. I mean, real pity about that incident to get spun out,” said Power. “Now we move on to the big one.”
Penske driver Scott McLaughlin—like Newgarden—also didn’t qualify well, but didn’t find the top 10 on raceday the way Josef did when he had to splash and go at the end. “Obviously a little frustrated at how we qualified with the Odyssey Battery Chevrolet,” said McLaughlin. “After practice I thought we should challenge for the Firestone Fast Six. Then, after warmup, I thought we were better and starting on the red tires would give us a chance to make up a few positions over the start of the race.
“The first corner of this race is always a bit chaotic and it caught us today with some front wing damage that we had to come in and repair. Immediately that changes our strategy, but we fought back and looked to be in a position for a top 10, which would have been acceptable considering.
“We’ll have to go back and look at why we got so low on fuel. Luckily the light came on in time for me to hit pit road and take on one gallon to make it to the end. Frustrating but we need to forget this result and focus on the 500.”
2021 GP winner Rinus VeeKay soldiered on to 13th. “It was a pretty good race, but quite tough,” said VeeKay. “We were just short on pace, but in every on-track battle I found myself in I was able to get the better spot. I did everything I could today and we were able to move up to 13th from 17th. Brought the No. 21Bitnile Chevrolet home clean, picked up some points and now am looking forward to the Indianapolis 500.”
With today’s win, Honda has increased its lead in the IndyCar Manufacturers’ Championship to 26 points over Chevrolet (413-387).
The next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race is the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 27 on the 2.5-mile IMS oval.
Practice for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” starts Tuesday, May 16, with PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying on Saturday, May 20 and Sunday, May 21.
INDIANAPOLIS – Results Saturday of the GMR Grand Prix NTT INDYCAR SERIES event on the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):
1. (3) Alex Palou, Honda, 85, Running
2. (5) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 85, Running
3. (10) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 85, Running
4. (1) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 85, Running
5. (2) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 85, Running
6. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 85, Running
7. (13) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 85, Running
8. (7) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 85, Running
9. (14) Colton Herta, Honda, 85, Running
10. (8) Graham Rahal, Honda, 85, Running
11. (18) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 85, Running
12. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 85, Running
13. (17) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 85, Running
14. (6) Kyle Kirkwood, Honda, 85, Running
15. (11) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 85, Running
16. (16) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 85, Running
17. (15) Devlin DeFrancesco, Honda, 84, Running
18. (24) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 84, Running
19. (21) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 84, Running
20. (4) Jack Harvey, Honda, 84, Running
21. (25) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 84, Running
22. (26) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 84, Running
23. (27) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, 80, Running
24. (23) Benjamin Pedersen, Chevrolet, 79, Running
25. (19) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 58, Mechanical
26. (20) David Malukas, Honda, 2, Contact
27. (22) Sting Ray Robb, Honda, 1, Contact
Winner’s average speed: 115.234 mph
Time of Race: 01:47:56.7003
Margin of victory: 16.8006 seconds
Cautions: 1 for 3 laps
Lead changes: 12 among 8 drivers
Palou, Alex 1 – 17, Lundgaard, Christian 18 – 19, Rosenqvist, Felix 20 – 22, Ericsson, Marcus 23, Rahal, Graham 24 – 30, Lundgaard, Christian 31 – 41, Palou, Alex 42 – 43, Ericsson, Marcus 44, Dixon, Scott 45 – 47, Palou, Alex 48 – 59, O’Ward, Pato 60 – 61, Rossi, Alexander 62 – 64, Palou, Alex 65 – 85
NTT INDYCAR SERIES Point Standings:
Palou 174, O’Ward 168, Ericsson 155, Grosjean 134, McLaughlin 133, Newgarden 131, Dixon 127, Power 122, Lundgaard 111, Rossi 108, Kirkwood 108, Herta 107, Rosenqvist 97, Ilott 92, Rahal 86, Malukas 79, Armstrong 77, VeeKay 64, Canapino 56, Castroneves 53, Harvey 53, Ferrucci 51, Pagenaud 50, Daly 49, DeFrancesco 46, Robb 42, Pedersen 40, Ed Carpenter 17, Takuma Sato 5
story and photos by Tim Hailey with story help from IMS, Honda and Chevrolet
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