There are two ways you can look at the ending of the Indycar race at Road America Sunday:
Can you believe the good fortune of Alex Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing?
Can you believe the bad luck Josef Newgarden and Team Penske have been running into?
Whichever way you prefer to look at it, the restart of the race on lap 53 of 55 is likely to reverberate through the rest of this 2021 Indycar season. So let’s deal with a few choice questions:
What happened on lap 53?
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) had controlled the race and led by up to 9 seconds at points during the first third of the race. Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) was right on Newgarden’s gearbox for the second half of the race. He started the race in fifth place and it took him several laps to get past Will Power (Penske-Chevy), Jack Harvey (Meyer-Shank-Honda), and Colton Herta (Andretti-Honda). He assumed second place behind Newgarden on lap 10, but only caught up to the leader after a caution on lap 16 closed up the field. From that point until lap 53, the two were inseparable. Palou was the only car that could hang with Newgarden.
On the restart, everyone was using push to pass, and Palou got a run on Newgarden going into turn one. Before they got to the corner, Newgarden’s transmission refused to shift into sixth gear. As the field passed, the car first would not shift out of fifth gear, and then would only downshift. Newgarden fell from first place to the end of the lead lap, finishing 21st in a 25-car field. The repercussions of that failed transmission will be felt throughout the season standings.
How did the incident affect the manufacturer points?
Going into the race, Chevy led by nine points, 652-643. Without the lap 53 Incident, Chevy would have expanded that lead slightly with cars finishing first and third (Newgarden and Power) to Honda’s second and fourth (Palou and Herta). Chevy would have led by 26 points. Instead, Honda now leads by 28 points, because the race became a Honda 1-2 finish (the first of the season). And while Power finished third, the next Chevy to score manufacturer’s points was Pato O’Ward (Arrow-McLaren-Chevy) in ninth place. This one mechanical failure caused a 54-point swing.
How did the incident affect the driver points?
Going into Road America, O’Ward led Palou by 1 point. Without the transmission failure, Palou still would have taken the lead, but by a smaller margin. More important, if Newgarden wins the race, he is back in the thick of the driver’s race, pulling almost even with third place driver Scott Dixon and within 40 points of points leader Palou. Most importantly, four drivers would have been in the thick of the race: Palou, O’Ward, Dixon, and Newgarden. Because of the failure, Newgarden is 88 points back and the only way Newgarden crawls back into contention is with failures on the part of the three leaders: especially Palou.
Palou’s winning the race combined with Newgarden’s disaster effectively makes the driver points competition a 3-person race: Palou in first with 349, O’Ward 28 points behind, and Dixon hanging on 53 points back. Newgarden is still in fourth, but he is 88 points behind Palou and 35 behind Dixon.
There are only seven races left (more on that below), and this year the final race is NOT worth double points, as has been the case in the past.
The mix of races also favors Palou and Dixon. There are four remaining on natural terrain road courses (Mid-Ohio, Indy Road Course, Portland, and Laguna Seca) which should favor the Ganassi teammates. There are two street courses (Nashville and Long Beach) and one oval (Gateway), all of which should be more or less wide open. Palou in particular has been less consistent on streets and ovals than he has on natural terrain courses. O’Ward has done well on the Gateway oval, and won a street race at Detroit last week.
Can you believe what’s happened to Team Penske?
The last three Indycar races have seen Team Penske run into an incredible streak of bad luck (at least I think it is bad luck, and not something more serious or sinister).
June 12, Detroit Race 1: Will Power worked his way into the lead of the Race, when a crash caused a Red Flag. All the Cars line up in the pit lane for about 15 minutes. When the race was to be restarted, Will Power’s Car would not start. Later it was revealed that the power management unit caused the Engine Control Unit to fail. Replacing both got Power’s car back into the race, but he was a lap down. Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda) was second at the time. He inherited the lead and went on to win the race, his first Indycar race.
June 13, Detroit Race 2: Josef Newgarden utterly dominated the race, leading the first 67 laps of the 70-lap race. A late caution closes down the lead with Newgarden on badly worn tires. The race re-starts on lap 63. Pato O’ward handles the worn tires better than anyone else, and passes Newgarden on lap 68, winning the race. Newgarden finishes second and Palou third, limiting the driver’s championship damage.
June 20, Road America: We know this sad story for Team Penske.
So, now Penske has gone nine races into the 2021 Indycar season without winning a race. Could it get any worse? Sure. Team Penske could go the whole season without winning a race. But that’s never happened before, right?
Wrong. Team Penske went the entire CART Indycar season of 1999 without winning. 20 Races. That was the last season that the team used a Penske Chassis, paired with Mercedes-Ilmor engines. The package to have in 1999 was Reynard Chassis with Honda engines. That combination won 14 of the 20 races. Penske switched to a Honda-Reynard package for 2000 and 2001. Penske’s Gil de Ferran won the driver’s title with the Reynard-Honda package in 2000 and 2001 before the team switched to the IRL in 2002.
What happened to Jack Harvey at Road America?
Harvey started the race third behind Newgarden and Herta, but ended up 17th. This requires some explanation:
By lap 34, Harvey had fallen to sixth in the field. A full-course caution came out on lap 35, which required all of the runners to make a decision: Pit now under caution, or around lap 40, likely under green flag conditions? There was no chance that someone who pit on lap 36, when the pits opened, was going to finish the race on fuel without some kind of help: either a long caution or rain. Harvey, Oliver Askew (Carpenter-Chevy), Conor Daly (Carpenter-Chevy) and Simon Pagenaud (Penske Chevy), all decided to risk it. Takuma Sato (Rahal-Honda) and Max Chilton (Carlin-Chevy) were also effectively on the same strategy, because they pitted on laps 33 and 34 for other reasons.
When the rest of the field pitted on laps 39 and 40, those six cars cycled to the front of the field, waiting for a caution or for rain. Neither came in time to help any of them. Sato and Chilton were at the front of the pack, and they pushed very hard from the start of the stint. They stopped on Lap 48 and came home eighth and 10th.
Harvey decided to save fuel in case the rain didn’t come. He made it to the end of the race, but dropped like a stone through the field as he lapped slower and slower. His car ran out of fuel less than halfway around the track on the cool down lap, coasting to a stop on the service road behind turn five.
If he would have stopped with the field, Harvey would have finished around fifth. If he would have given up on the fuel save strategy when he started to get passed, he would have finished between Sato and Chilton, in the top 10. Instead, he becomes the “What happened to …” guy.
I was at the track and when I saw Harvey pitting on lap 36, I looked at my weather app and said to my companions: “Nothing good will come of this.” It did rain, but after the race was over.
How is Indycar going to replace Toronto?
They aren’t. The series is cutting the season back to 16 races. This probably favors Honda slightly vs. Chevy and Palou a little more vs. O’Ward. Any number of scenarios could have been worse.
Who’s going to win the manufacturer and driver’s titles?
You are going to have to wait until next week’s bloc for that! My plan is to apply some analytics from finishes over 2020 and 2021 to help predict that.
The series is off this weekend. Racing resumes July 4th weekend at Mid-Ohio.