PORTLAND, Ore — If things could go Alexander Rossi’s way, Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland wouldn’t be his first podium of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. He pit with Pato O’Ward from second place in the season opener at Barber but was doing so by thinking that they were covering O’Ward in pit strategy. Little did they know then, that early stop for the Arrow McLaren SP driver was an unscheduled one as O’Ward had a slow tire leak. It cost him track position and instead grabbing a podium, he finished ninth.
In St. Pete, he and Graham Rahal had contact while running in the top five and he’d finish 21st. Texas was dismal with a first lap crash in the second race of the doubleheader weekend. The Indy 500 saw him with a top five car but the badly timed first caution before he could pit hurt him. He ran out of gas under caution and had to do an emergency stop while the pits were closed. His car wouldn’t refire and he’d fall a lap down as a result.
Belle Isle 1 came another badly timed first caution while having a podium in his grasps. Belle Isle 2 saw him get front wing damage. Nashville saw another badly timed yellow. Gateway saw a crash while running third with 60 to go after his final stop.
At any one of those races, he could have had a podium. Instead, he entered Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland 12th in points. His last win came in 2019 at Road America. His last podium nearly a year ago. He qualified on the front row but he’s been in this position before. What could go wrong he was thinking?
Turn 1 did. A melee broke out again and Rossi had to avoid it. He was penalized which left him fuming. The track position was now gone. How could he make it up?
“Yeah, I mean, I’m glad it all came back to us because we all would have looked pretty silly, I guess,” Rossi said of that opening lap incident. “I thought it was pretty low grip in Turn 1 when Felix (Rosenqvist), I guess — when Scott (Dixon) and Alex (Palou) 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.
“But fortunately it all came around, and as Scott said, it put us on the two-stop, which is ultimately the strategy to be on.
“Yeah, it’s nice to get a result finally. I thought we obviously had a podium going into St. Louis, and I gave that up. It was good to rebound here in Portland.”
Luckily for him, luck finally panned out. The Lap 51 caution flipped the field back and it put Rossi back in position for a podium. He had just pit for the second time on Lap 43, so he didn’t need to pit. On Lap 78, he pit for his final time. He came out ahead of Jack Harvey. If he could get ahead of the Ganassi duo, the win was his.
He did Scott Dixon, but not Alex Palou. Rossi, had to settle in and come away runner-up for his first podium in 14 races run this year and 25th of his career. He says that while he would have liked to win, he had nothing for Palou in the final laps.
“The pace of the car was good all weekend,” Rossi said. “I think we gave it everything we could there on that last stint, and the red tires had a window of time where they were a little bit better, and then it was just tough with dirty air, and Alex didn’t make a mistake. It’s always going to be hard to just go and drive around the pole sitter.
“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. 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. Ultimately it was a good day for the team, good in pit lane, great calls, so yeah, started second, finished second.”
With Palou and Ganassi testing here and the Andretti cars not, how much of a factor did this play?
“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.”
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.
Still two straight podiums now in Portland is a great start to what should be a good end of the season for him. Without anything to lose, the path to a win may be a little bit easier he says.
“I think every — it’s the same every race. You’re just trying to win, and then depending on what happens in the beginning or the middle, you adapt from there,” Rossi said. “For Alex and Scott, they have a championship to look at, and they’re probably counting points a little bit, whereas for me we’re just trying to get results.
“At the end of the day everyone is here to try and win, and that doesn’t change kind of at any point throughout the whole weekend.”