PORTLAND, Ore — The finishing order in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland essentially mirrored the starting lineup. The pole sitter triumphed when it’s all said and done. The second place starter was second. The third place starter was third.
But, while the box score may tell one story, the actual 110 Laps itself tell another.
Alex Palou may have earned his third career NTT IndyCar Series win and Alexander Rossi may have scored his first podium of the season, but their paths to these finishes were nothing short of wild.
See, Palou’s 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship hopes went from good, to bad to great all over again all in a span of 2-hours, 7-minutes and 4-seconds. See, Palou was quickest in practice on Saturday morning, then turned that speed into his first career Indy Car pole a few hours later.
One would think the top starting spot would be the way to go in what’s always a treacherous opening lap for the Grand Prix of Portland. Instead, it was anything but.
His Chip Ganassi Racing teammate of Scott Dixon started one row behind but was hit by Felix Rosenqvist. The Arrow McLaren SP driver couldn’t get wowed up in time and went into the Turn 1 runoff. Dixon and Palou had contact and had to go low off the racing line in the same corner. Mayhem ended up behind.
But, several cars were able to get through the corner still including the points leader entering the day in Pato O’Ward. He’d go from seventh to first as a result. Palou and Dixon were among several others that had to get moved to the back due to missing the first corner.
“Definitely started a little strange and shook the field,” Dixon said of the start.
“Just starting with the start, I filled that gap because I figured Rahal or somebody was going to try and scoot down the inside of us. I bailed out of it and then got hit from behind, I think it was Felix, and that caused a bit of an interesting moment for all of us on the start there.
“Then race control, it was just the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in racing a little while. I don’t know what they were thinking or how that came about, but put all of us at the back the field. Be interesting to go talk to them later and see how they came up with that scenario.”
“I mean, I’m glad it all came back to us because we all would have looked pretty silly, I guess,” he said. “I thought it was pretty low grip in Turn 1 when Felix, I guess — when Scott and Alex and them kind of slid through, I didn’t really have anywhere to go, and I thought if we got back to the styrofoam chicane, that was acceptable. But it was self-penalizing because we all went from like first, second, third to sixth, seventh, eighth, and then they’re like, oh, you’re going to 24th. It was like, okay, cool.”
Palou was also left scratching his head after the first lap penalty for them.
“I don’t really know what happened there,” he said. “I know Scott was on the inside. I got hit at some point. (Audio disruption) on the inside, so I couldn’t really go there, so I knew I had to go through the chicane. I made it through the chicane, and I said, okay, I only lost like five positions, which is a lot, but I said, at least I’m not out.
“And then INDYCAR decided that that was not penalizing enough, and they put me in the back, which I don’t know what they want me to do at that point. Do they prefer me to like completely stop the car and make that corner, making the race unsafe? So I’ll ask Kyle; I think it was not right. It’s true that they gave us the option of doing that strategy that gave us the win today, but still, I think it didn’t really make sense.”
O’Ward capitalized. He was now leading and this trio outside of the top 15. What a dramatic turn of events. While they were in the back, Palou, Dixon, Alexander Rossi and others hit pit lane on Lap 9. For Palou and Dixon, they’d take on fuel only. Little did they know then, this would be the winning move.
The Lap 51 caution altered the entire complexity of this race which allowed Palou and Dixon to get the track position back.
“You know, with especially how long that caution was, we knew that it was going to fall into a two-stopper, so we knew we still had kind of a chance,” Dixon said. “How that was going play out, we didn’t really know. But it’s frustrating. You kind of want that easy race as far as knowing what you need to do and not having such a strange occurrence at the start to kind of flip it.
“But yeah, in the end it worked out well. Set us on the other strategy and it paid off.”
Palou said that long caution also helped them too.
“I think when they were taking a long time to penalize us. It was counting laps, and I was like, okay, this is a good thing. I know we can make the fuel mileage to make it in two only stops. And at that moment, I said, even if we were P5, I knew they were going to penalize us, but I knew that we had another option, that was to — we knew we had a really fast car. Even if we were on the same strategy as everybody, maybe we were not able to win, but I think today we were able to be in the top five, top six without a different strategy.
“You never know. Like at the end with that yellow, that put a lot of people on the same strategy as us. I said, oh, man, maybe that’s not good for us. And then that last yellow, that made us restart on blacks while everybody was on reds didn’t really help us.”
Graham Rahal, Ed Jones, Jack Harvey, Josef Newgarden and Takuma Sato didn’t pit just prior to the yellow like O’Ward, Simon Pagenaud, Scott McLaughlin, Marcus Ericsson, Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Max Chilton and Jimmie Johnson did. See, with Dalton Kellett stalled in the Turn 1 run off and Callum Ilott stalling in Turn 7, a caution was soon to come. The guys that did pit decided to take evasive action and play it safe.
It cost them dearly.
O’Ward would finish 14th as a result.
For those that didn’t pit, it hurt them too. Rahal went from in the catbirds seat to finishing 10th.
That opened the door for the guys that were affected by the opening lap, first turn incident. Rossi, pit on Lap 78. That was two laps later than Jack Harvey. He beat Harvey out. Palou, pit one lap later on Lap 79. He was easily in the lead after his No. 10 Honda exited pit road. Dixon, pit for the final time on Lap 80. He came out behind Palou but Rossi quickly got by him for what was second place.
Despite a couple of cautions, the running order wouldn’t change. Palou, would cruise to his third career Indy Car triumph and retake the points lead back over over O’Ward by 25 markers. That’s a 35 point swing with him entering 10 points down.
Rossi, would score his first podium of the season and 25th of his career with a runner-up in his No. 27 Honda. It was finally a finish he’s been searching for all season with bad luck striking more times than now. He said that he had nothing for Palou in the end without the Spaniard making a rare mistake.
“I mean, we kind of closed within the half second window, and it was just some dirty air, and we had some understeer in that corner in particular,” he said. “Yeah, from there we lost eight-tenths and kind of came back at it, but ultimately unless the guy in front of you makes a mistake, we were even on Push-to-Pass and using it at the same time.
“That’s just the way it goes. We were trying everything to put him under pressure and see if we could get him to lock up front, but ultimately he’s the championship leader for a reason and drove a great race, and you’ve just got to accept second sometimes.”
Dixon, brought his No. 9 Honda home third for his 126th career podium and just his fourth all season. It was his fourth top four in the last six races though but by virtue of Palou’s win, Dixon falls to 49 points out with two races remaining.
Harvey finished fourth in his No. 60 Honda for his second top five of the season and his third straight top 10 while Newgarden rounded out the top five in his No. 2 Chevrolet.
Here are my main takeaways from a wild day in the Pacific Northwest.
Turn 1, Lap 1 Strikes Again
Death. Taxes. Crash in Turn 1, Lap 1 of the Grand Prix of Portland. It happened again and this time, ironically enough helped those that were involved. Still, when we come back here in 2022, we have to know that a crash could occur and could do so at any spot in the field. I mean this one happened with the guys up front. Since we’ve came back here in 2018, we’ve had an opening lap crash in the first corner every time.
I mean the situation isn’t a good design. From a wide front stretch with a lot of real estate to work with on a straightaway that span 2,450 feet to then dive into a tight right hand corner and a quick left after.
With 27 cars fighting for the same spots, nothing good can come out of it.
Rahal/O’Ward Screwed By Cautions
After the opening lap incident in the first corner, Pato O’Ward and Graham Rahal were the ones to beat. O’Ward would lead the first 28 laps before hitting pit road for the first time of his race. Rahal, rode P2 that entire first stint and stretch his fuel to Lap 35 before pitting for his first stop. By staying out an extra six laps, it allowed Rahal to leap frog O’Ward for the lead.
This was now shaping up to Rahal’s race to lose. Both needed help on fuel, but they were the top cars throughout most of the first half of the event.
Then, Lap 51 happened. Dalton Kellett was stalled in the Turn 1 runoff. Callum Ilott stalled in Turn 7. O’Ward and several others were fearful a caution would fly at any moment so they ducked down pit road. Rahal, didn’t.
This cost them both.
Rahal felt like this was the yellow that they needed to help them make it to the end now on one more stop. The thing is, while it helped Rahal, it also hurt him. This yellow helped those on the alternate strategy as it put them ahead of O’Ward and all those that pit with him, but also would allow him to get ahead of Rahal and the few that were trying to stretch fuel themselves.
O’Ward, finished 14th. Rahal in 10th.
It was a day that got away from them due to that Lap 51 yellow.
Long 1st Stint Helps Newgarden, 3 of the 5 Championship Front Runners Earn Top 5’s
We saw a wild day and one that started off looking like Josef Newgarden would be the odd man out when it was all said and done. He only qualified 18th. Points leader Pato O’Ward came from seventh with fifth in points, Marcus Ericsson, in 10th. The Ganassi boys who saw second and fourth in points started first (Alex Palou) and third (Scott Dixon) respectively.
Instead, it was O’Ward who was affected. He led the opening 28 laps before pitting. That and the Lap 51 decision to pit before the caution flew cost him dearly. He’d bring his No. 5 Chevrolet home in 14th as a result.
Newgarden, went long on his first stint in going to Lap 39 before pitting for the first time. That allowed him to charge from 22nd to 16th to the top five at that point and it would be a move to pay off. Newgarden, would remain on that alt strategy the rest of the way but by pitting as late as he did, it allowed him to pass all but one car on that strategy.
He’d finish fifth in the end.
Ericsson, was one of those that pit before the Lap 51 caution with O’Ward but he’d capitalize on it and earn a top 10 to finish seventh.
Palou and Dixon though rebounded to finish first and third respectively and end the day the way it started when they rolled off the grid.
Test Helped Ganassi Cars
Chip Ganassi Racing planned out their testing program flawlessly. With limited test days available now-a-days, plus a condensed weekend schedule, Ganassi elected to backload their on track time for the 2021 season. They came to Portland as well as Laguna Seca for what now looks like a brilliant move in the process.
They were quickest in both practice sessions this weekend, won the pole, won the race and put 2 cars on the 3 spot podium. For Palou, he singles out that test day as the biggest factor that won them the pole and the race as well.
“For sure that made our life easier,” Palou said of the test here. “Especially only having one practice with the schedules we have nowadays with COVID, it’s pretty hard for a guy that doesn’t know a track to learn it in one practice..
“But yeah, that test gave us the pole and the win I would say today. At some point we were on blacks, the last 10 we were on blacks and everybody was on reds, and we were still a tiny bit faster than Rossi. Yeah, we were really strong, and that’s because of the test we did for sure.”
Second place finisher Rossi agreed. He said that by them not testing here, it was the difference in the end.
“We didn’t test here like Ganassi did, so I think to get two cars in the Fast Six against them was pretty good,” he said. “I think when you have a two-day event for really no reason and you only have one practice session and an hour and a half between practice and qualifying, it makes it hard for the guys that didn’t test here.”
Palou has won 2 of the 4 races that he’s been a true rookie at this season. These test days have been very beneficial in getting him up to speed quicker.
“Yeah, it’s a team,” he told me. “Like they gave us a really good car. Got my first pole in INDYCAR. Scott finished third, as well. So having two cars on the podium shows that we had a good car today.
“I don’t know; I think we do a really good job at the simulator at HPD together with Honda, and we work really hard. Yeah, it’s working out, and it’s paying off on track, so we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing.”
That’s why he’s excited for next week too in the sense that they also tested in Laguna.
So did Andretti Autosport though. They also tested at Laguna Seca. Rossi, says that he hopes that the testing advantage does help next week in the sense that they did test at Laguna and it went well for them there.
“Hopefully the advantage kind of comes back to us in Laguna and we can have a little bit of upper hand coming out of the box there,” Rossi continued. “But ultimately I think the team has been doing a good job as of late, and we’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”
Following Laguna is Long Beach, a place to where he’s won in each of the last two stops to the scenic street course. He led 71 laps in 2018 and 80 in 2019.
“We’ve got two good shots at it,” he said on the final two races to end his two year winless drought. “I think we came out of the summer break with some solutions and identified some issues, and I think that’s been a positive and kind of carried forward, and yeah, we’ll do everything we can. We’ve got nothing to lose in these last two, so we’ll try our best to take some points away from those guys and see what we can get.”
Palou, is excited about Laguna Seca but nervous about Long Beach.
“We need to try and take some advantage of Laguna,” he said. “We know we have a good car there, and I say that because I tested there, that car. I know the track, and I know we can be strong there. So we’ll try and take it a session at a time and try and score really big points at Laguna.
“Laguna Seca next week, it’s going to be good for us. It’s a road course. I think we’ve been fighting for all the road course races this year, so feeling pretty strong about that.
“Hopefully we get another win, and then we’ll see what happens at Long Beach.
“Long Beach, that’s going to be interesting and exciting, but nothing I can do about it. Never been there, all my competitors been there and won races there, so it’s a bit scary, but hopefully I can do a good job at Laguna so I can be a bit more comfortable at Long Beach.
“This year I think we struggled a bit on the first couple of races on street courses, but we got a podium at Detroit. We qualified P3 at Nashville. Yeah, we are fast on street courses, too.”
Dixon says that it’s all about going for wins now. He’s 49 points out which may be too far. But, if it gets too wide between he and Palou, then he’s all in to help his teammate earn a championship instead.
“I think we definitely found some setup things from Friday morning to the afternoon,” Dixon said. “Hopefully we can apply that to maybe Laguna. Obviously Long Beach is very different. But good momentum for the team. I think that’s key.
“A lot of us have had good speed this weekend, which hopefully that transfers to next week and the weekend after, and ultimately trying to keep a championship at Ganassi.
“It’s definitely been a trying season for us, but ultimately if it comes down to we need to help Alex, that’s fine, too. I think for us it’s about keeping the championship at home and at the team.
“So yeah, it’s just the way it rolls sometimes. But yeah, we’ll — obviously we’ve seen it. We saw it at St. Louis how quickly it can flip. We’ve seen how quickly it can flip this weekend. Unless you’re out, you’re not out. We’ve won championships on a tiebreaker. It’s all possible.”
Penske On Penske Crime Again
For the third time in four races, we saw a Penske on Penske crime. It happened twice on the streets of Nashville with Will Power punting Simon Pagenaud and Scott McLaughlin. It happened again in Gateway with Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden. Now, it happened on Lap 86 with Pagenaud and Power again. With Penske having a rough weekend in starting 14th, 15th, 18th and 23rd, they only finished 5th, 9th, 13th and 21st.