Alex Palou spoiled what looked to be Pato O’Ward’s coming out party for Arrow McLaren-Chevy, snatching his first career Indycar victory in a dominating performance that should scare his fellow drivers.
After qualifying on pole for Sunday’s race, O’Ward almost everyone assumed that the 2021 Honda Indy of Alabama was O’Ward’s to lose. True to form, he lost it by wearing out his softer red tires in the first stint. This forced him into a 3-stop strategy, while the top finishers all used a two-stop strategy. People who have followed O’Ward’s career will remember at least two previous incidents where his lack of tire management skills cropped up: last season in the second Road America race, O’Ward dominated until his tires went away in the last 10 laps and Felix Rosenqvist (then driving the car Palou now drives for Ganassi) caught and passed O’Ward and pulled away to win his first race.
So, this is the second race that appeared to be O’Ward’s to lose that he lost to the driver of the Ganassi No. 10 Honda.
The other incident involves Palou in Japan’s SuperFormula in 2019. O’Ward washed out of the series after failing to come to terms with tire management, while Palou won a race and finished third in the championship, catching the eye of Dale Coyne Racing, which brought him to the USA for the 2020 season.
Sunday in Alabama, Alex Palou and his Ganassi-Honda teammates had no trouble with tire wear, and after eight caution laps at the beginning of the race, easily made them last until lap 31, enough to finish the 90-lap race on two stops.
Palou led 56 of the 90 laps, stretching his advantage over second-place Will Power (Penske-Chevy) to 8 seconds on several occasions before he got stuck behind Conor Daily at the end of the race. He finished less than a second ahead of Power, though Palou was never really challenged. Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) finished third.
The top rookie was Romain Grosjean (Coyne-Honda), who finished 10th. Scott McLaughlin (Penske-Chevy) finished 14th and Jimmy Johnson (Ganassi-Honda) finished 19th.
Some highlights of what we learned:
Alex Palou is the real deal
When Ganassi Lost Felix Rosenqvist to Arrow-McLaren-Chevy and replaced him with Palou, I was one of the few who thought Ganassi got the better end of the deal. I still do. Sunday, Palou proved something Rosenqvist often failed to: he can close the deal. Give him a good car and a good position, and he’ll win the race. You were never sure with Rosenqvist. Palou is the first partner for Dixon since Dario Franchitti who looks like he will be able to challenge the Kiwi. He beat Dixon on merit Sunday. It was no fluke.
Does Ganassi know something about the red tires that they are not sharing?
After eight laps of yellow, the first 30-lap stint turned out to be a contest of how long one could run the rear red (soft) tires while turning in competitive lap times. Only Ganassi teammates Palou, Dixon and Marcus Ericsson, plus Will Power made it past lap 30 on reds. That is a worrisome trend for all the other drivers.
Honda gets Better Fuel Mileage
While the main drivers doing two stops at the head of the field were in some form of fuel save mode, it was clear that Will Power, the only Chevy in the group, had to cut back more to make the last 27 laps. The tell-tale sign: he was told not to use “push-to-pass” until the last two laps. If he had used it sooner, he might not have made the distance. The Hondas used theirs, albeit judiciously. Plus, Dixon and Palou ran 28 laps on the last stint.
This means that in many Road/Street races, the Honda’s are more likely to make the race distance on one less stop, without running significantly slower to do so. Of course, that mileage strategy only works in specific instances, and it that only works if you can make the Red tires last on one of those stints. Which is why Team Ganassi looks so good right now.
Could Rossi have another long season?
I was shocked to see Rossi pit with Pato O’ward early in the race. To me that is a sign of being fixated on one strategy and one driver, where the winners of the race reformulated their tactics as the race developed. Is Rossi’s team over-thinking things instead of running the race that is in front of them? I hope not.
The Championship Race:
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy), who won two of the last three driver’s titles and finished second in the other year, caused a crash on the opening lap. The crash also collected Andretti-Honda title Contenders Ryan Hunter-Reay and Colton Herta. Those drivers are in a big hole after the first race.
Additionally, Alexander Rossi finished 9th, which is bad after he publicly raised the importance of the Driver’s Title. He is 19 points behind Will Power, and 13 behind defending driver’s champion Scott Dixon. Not to mention the gulf to Alex Palou.
St. Pete is Sunday, April 25, followed quickly by Two races in Texas, the GP of Indy and the 500. More than one-third of the season will be over by June 1. The pressure is on the title-contending drivers that were taken out early to do well Sunday. It could lead to an especially desperate race.