When fans look back at the results of the 2021 Indycar Portland Grand Prix they would think it was a ho-hum affair: The top three from qualifying finished 1-2-3 in the race. What could have happened?
A lot, actually. Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda), Alexander Rossi (Andretti-Honda) and Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) all missed the first corner due to Felix Rosenqvist (McLaren-Chevy) locking up his brakes and making contact with Palou and Dixon. Just by doing that, the four would have lost several places. But since there was a bigger pileup behind them causing a yellow flag, Indycar decided to re-order the entire field based on what I will call Indycar’s Misguided Rules of Order:
_Anyone who followed the intended path of the race would maintain their relative positions.
Anyone who did not follow the course is put to the back of the pack, whether they had anything to do with the accident or not._
The first car that ran through the normal course successfully was Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy) who started the race seventh. So he inherited the lead and it looked like he might inherit the driver’s title with it. Palou was moved back to 17th, Dixon to 18th and Rossi to 22nd.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With nothing to lose, Palou, Dixon, and Rossi (along with five of their closest friends) pitted before the restart on lap 11 to top-off their fuel tanks. The Hondas in the group were then able to finish the race on two more stops, while all the cars ahead of them were going to have to stop at least three times. By the time the cars in the first 15 places realized that, it was too late for them to do anything about it. The cars that were re-ordered to the back cycled to the front on every pit stop sequence and ended up at the front of the field at the end of the race.
Honda ended up with a sweep of the top four places, with Jack Harvey (Meyer-Shank-Honda) finishing fourth taking just two stops after starting 20th. The best Chevy was Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy), who also made a two-stop strategy work.
Honda extended its lead over Chevy to 95 points with two races remaining. That makes Honda winning the title close to a mathematical certainty. Chevy would need to sweep the top five positions in both the Laguna Seca race and the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. While top five sweeps are not unheard of, conditions at Laguna Seca and Long Beach are not favorable for Chevy.
Honda dominated qualifying and the race at Portland, largely due to the slippery yet abrasive characteristics of the old, polished track surface. The teams are likely to run into the same sort of conditions at Laguna Seca, which has a very old, polished track surface which seems to favor Honda, and Palou in particular.
By winning his third race of the season (most of any driver), Palou took over the points lead by 25 points over Pato O’Ward. It was Palou’s second win of the season at a track he had not raced on before (the first was Barber). Everyone other driver in the top five is further behind the leader (now Palou) than they were before the Portland race. Also, everyone outside the top 5 has been mathematically eliminated. This is where we stand with two races to go.
Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) 477
Pato O’Ward (Arrow-McLaren-Chevy) -25
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) -34
Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) -49
Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda) -75
The most any driver can gain on any other driver is 49 points.
Looking at the remaining races, you have to like Palou’s chances. Palou’s average finish in road course races is 2.5. And this includes his
at the Indy Road Course. Next best in the final five is Dixon with an average finish of 5th. Palou is last with an average finish of 14th.
Also weirdly working in favor of Palou, Laguna Seca is another one of those tracks he has never raced. Of course, he won both races this season on tracks he had never raced: Barber and Portland. So who am I to bet against a possible hat-trick?
What it comes down to is this: Can Palou finish the race at Laguna? If he does, odds are he’s in real good shape in the championship. The only things that have slowed him down this season are blown engines and innocent-bystander crashes. And Laguna looks like Alex’s kind of track.
The Dark Cloud
Two Honda drivers suffered engine failures at Portland: Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato. The really ominous fact is both those engines were installed fresh before the event. As we wrote last week, several other drivers took new engines before the Portland event started:
Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi)
Scott Dixon (Ganassi)
Graham Rahal (Rahal)
Ed Jones (Coyne)
James Hinchcliffe (Andretti)
Alexander Rossi (Andretti)
Colton Herta (Andretti)
Romain Grosjean (Coyne)
Does the fact that two Hondas from the same batch failed mean that these are more likely to fail? I am not sure. But it is worth noting that in Indycar the teams are responsible for procuring and maintaining installation hardware, and the teams install the engines. This includes connecting all the liquid plumbing (oil, coolant) and for connections with turbo and exhaust. Honda said that the failures were not related which would tend to point to the installation pieces and process.
The other factor to note is that the engine in Palou’s car is at least a month older (it was changed before Gateway), so there’s a good chance it is not from the same “batch”.
Andretti Autosport announced that Ryan Hunter-Reay will not be back with the team in 2022. This would make way for the announcement that Romain Grosjean is replacing him, if that is the case. As I mentioned in earlier blogs, the fact that Andretti is clearly not looking for a driver, combined with the fact that Grosjean is not rumored to be driving anywhere else, leads one to believe that Grosjean will be driving the 28 for Andretti next season.
The Indycar schedule should be announced soon. The City Council of St. Petersburg is to vote on a date change to the Grand Prix of St. Pete. Expect that race to move up to late February or early March. And expect the Texas race to move into St. Pete’s March slot which will make a lot of Indycar teams and drivers that also compete at the 12 hours of Sebring more than a little upset. Word is there is a lot of minor date tweaking going on.
The remaining 2021 schedule
Laguna Seca — September 19 at 3pm Eastern
Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach — September 26 at 3pm Eastern