Things were going so well for Alex Palou at the second Indycar Road Race at Indianapolis. Although he had only been able to run his Honda engine in lean mode for most of the race, he had run up from starting sixth to fourth place, ahead of both of his immediate pursuers for the driver’s title. But on Lap 67, his Honda expired and the driver’s title race tightened up, a lot.
With Will Power (Penske-Chevy) going on to finish the race ahead of Romain Grosjean (Coyne/Ware-Honda) and Colton Herta (Andretti-Honda), the manufacturer’s race tightened a little bit, as well.
The Driver’s Championship
The big story was the consequences of Palou’s fourth engine failure of the season. For the record the four were: pre-season testing, the Indy 500 practice crash, testing last month at Portland, and at Nashville.
Palou (Ganassi-Honda), who finished 27th of 28 cars after his engine expired, is still leading the driver’s points race. But that lead has been sliced in half, with Palou leading Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy) by 21 points. Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) is third 34 points back by virtue of his 17th-place finish Saturday. The standings after Saturday’s race with four races to go:
1. Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) 415
2. Pato O’Ward (Arrow-McLaren-Chevy) -21
3. Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) -34
4. Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) -55
5. Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda) -62
If Palou went on to finish fourth instead of 27 Saturday, he would have a 48-point lead. But things get worse from there. In addition to finishing next to last, Palou will get a six-place grid penalty for the final oval race of the year Saturday at the track formerly known as Gateway in suburban St. Louis. The penalty is due to Palou having to use a sixth engine when drivers are only allowed four over the course of the season.
The fact that Palou has the penalty at an oval could be something of a positive, as it is easier to pass, generally speaking. The bad news is that Pato O’Ward has won at Gateway before, and our updated data-driven driver’s title projector would predict that Palou would finish behind both O’Ward and Dixon, but not by a lot. I project the result of Gateway based on average of the finishes at the two Gateway races in 2021.
It is also possible that the engine situation will help Palou. He gets to start the run of four final races with a brand new engine, which I am sure HPD will breathe on as heavily as they can. His Chevy competitors are not in great shape. O’Ward and Newgarden both have to use the engines they used for the Indy Road Course race for the rest of the season. Any change for either of them would result in a six-spot penalty, on a road/street course. Palou’s teammates still have a “free” change because they both have used only three engines this season. So, Dixon or Ericsson can (and almost certainly will) pull a new engine with impunity, something Newgarden and O’Ward cannot.
After Chevy went 1-5 and Honda went 2-3-4, Chevy gained 9 points on Honda. Honda leads by 67 points with four races left. If Chevy gains 9 points in each of the four remaining races, Chevy will still fall short. What Chevy needs is four races where it finishes 1-2, with pole and most laps led (that has happened for Chevy twice this season, the second Texas race and the second Belle Isle race) or at least three 1-2s which still may not be enough. If Honda has a 1-2 somewhere along the way, Honda wins its fourth engine manufacturer’s title in a row.
Not only is Romain Grosjean’s employment for 2022 up in the air, but he spent the month of July roaming the US midwest in an RV with his family. While the family left for Europe after the Nashville race, word is Mr. and Mrs. Grosjean are researching French schools in the US for next year. And after they find one, a house.
The location would more than likely be Indianapolis, but that does not necessarily mean Grosjean is set to drive next year for an Indy-based team, like Andretti. Indy makes sense even if he is driving for a team like Coyne, which is based in Chicago. Or a team like Meyer-Shank, which is based in Ohio. The Honda simulator (which simulates Indycar and IMSA cars) is in Indy, and many drivers like to sleep at home during the long run-up to the Indy 500 in May. And if the rumors are true that Grosjean will be doing some IMSA driving for Acura/ HPD . One of the two “factory” teams (Wayne Taylor Racing), is based in Indy as well.
And if Grosjean is going to be driving in Indycar full time with some forays into
, he is going to be spending a lot of time in the Honda simulator. For Indycar, he will have four new tracks to learn (Texas, Iowa, the Indy Oval, Toronto) and at least Daytona and Sebring for
, possibly Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta.
As for the team he drives with next season, it was assumed that he would be driving the 28 car for Andretti, but apparently that has hit a speed bump. It appears that long-time Coyne engineer Olivier Buosson is part of the deal, or at least Grosjean would like him to be part of the deal. And that is stickier with some teams than it sounds. Andretti would probably have to use Bousson to replace an existing engineer. One logical solution is to bring in the two Frenchmen and assign the #28 car’s existing engineer to the Meyer-Shank #06 (Meyer-Shank will continue it’s engineering partnership with Andretti into at least 2022).
So, it is possible that Grosjean stays with Dale Coyne with Rick Ware racing for 2022. For those of you who think that Coyne does not have the financial resources of Andretti, remember that Rick Ware is a veteran NASCAR team owner and has vast experience raising money for his cars. It takes a lot more money to run a NASCAR program than an Indycar Program.
I still think Grosjean ends up with Andretti, mainly because I have not heard or read of any other driver for Ryan Hunter-Reay’s seat. Michael Andretti’s habit is to get things squared away as soon as possible. Certainly by Labor Day. All this tell me that Andretti isn’t looking too hard for a driver for the #28, and that while the deal may not be signed, negotiations are down to details. So unless he really does not like his first oval race this Saturday at Gateway, I expect Grosjean to do all the Indycar races in 2022 and at least two IMSA endurance races for a Honda/Acura team.
Are we discounting the possibility that Grosjean drives for a Chevy team? Yes, we are. First, the only Chevy team that could reasonably pay him would be Penske. Could Grosjean replaces Pagenaud at Penske? Extremely unlikely at this point. Why? If he were going to drive for Penske, the deal would be signed by now. Penske likes to get deals done even earlier than Andretti. And if Grosjean had signed a Penske-Chevy deal, HPD would not have had him star in the HPD video about using the simulator in preparation for Nashville. In my mind, it’s down to which Honda team, not if it will be a Honda team.
One less musical chair?
Word about where Simon Pagenaud will drive in 2022 has gone quiet, as has speculation about who will drive the Meyer-Shank #60 Honda. Taken together, this likely means that contracts have been signed but nothing can be announced until after the season, unless Roger Penske changes his mind.
The next race is at World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway Motorsports Park) on August 21st.