Colton Herta (Andretti-Honda) dominated the race and Honda’s top four lockout secured the manufacturer’s title Sept 19 at Laguna Seca. But there was a show and some drama inside the race.
The show was Romain Grosjean (Coyne-Honda) who was seventh when he exited the pits on lap 73, passed his way to third place by lap 84, and then closed down eight of the 10 seconds he was behind second-place Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) before finishing in third place on lap 95.
Grosjean was able to pass all those cars for two reasons:
- He’s a talented badass behind the wheel
- He stopped later than everyone else and had tires that were about 7 laps fresher on a track that eats tires.
He was the show in a race that had settled into a rhythm. The drama was how many points Alex Palou would be ahead of Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy) in the race for the form the driver’s championship. O’Ward finished fifth, leaving him 35 points behind Palou. We’ll talk about what that means below.
The Driver’s Title
Following the Laguna Seca race the top five are:
Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) 517
Pato O’Ward (Arrow-McLaren-Chevy) -35
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) -48 (nearly eliminated)
Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) -72 (eliminated)
Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda) -87 (eliminated)
For all intents and purposes it is down to Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward. Josef Newgarden can only win if he gets pole position, wins the race and leads the most laps AND Palou and O’Ward both have to be among the first drivers eliminated from the race. So let’s cross that bridge sometime later.
Here are the main scenarios where Palou wins:
A: If O’Ward does finish first or second in the race, Palou wins the title.
B: If Palou finishes 11th or better in the race, he wins the title no matter what anyone else does.
C: If O’Ward wins the race but does not get the pole or lead the most laps, Palou wins if he finishes 14th or better.
D: If O’Ward wins the pole, leads the most laps in the race and finishes second, Palou wins the title if he finishes 22nd or better.
In the end, the likelihood of O’Ward winning the title depends heavily on the chance of him winning or finishing second in the race. How likely is that? Not very.
There are at least four drivers more likely than O’Ward to win the race, even though O’Ward won at Detroit earlier this season. In order:
1) Alexander Rossi (Andretti-Honda), who has won the last two races at Long Beach
2) Colton Herta (Andretti-Honda), who demolished the field at St. Pete earlier this season.
3) Will Power (Penske-Chevy, who should have won a street race in Detroit earlier this year.
4) Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda), who won the race that Power should have won, as well as the street race in Nashville.
5) Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy), who won in St. Petersburg last season.
6) Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda), because he’s Scott Dixon and Long Beach has been a Honda circuit for a while.
If you go to the numbers this season, it’s clear that O’Ward has done better on street races than Palou. O’Ward’s average finish in street races is sixth. Palou’s is ninth. But in the four street races so far this season, O’Ward has only finished ahead of Palou twice. And he has never scored 36 points more than Palou.
Of course, statistics only tell you what is likely to happen. Still, I am not going to start worrying until either O’Ward wins the pole or Palou runs into some misfortune during the race. Because even if Palou finishes last do to some unfortunate event, the odds against O’Ward winning the race or finishing second are long.
It will take some kind of perfect storm for Palou to lose the title.
The 2021 Manufacturer’s Title clinched at Laguna Seca is the 10th for Honda in American open wheel racing over 25 seasons. It is the fourth in a row.
Going into Long Beach, Honda has won 9 of the 15 races and is favored to make it 10 at Long Beach. There is a simple pattern to this:
- Honda has a clear power advantage for the Indy 500.
- Honda has an advantage when conditions get slippery. This includes street races (Honda has won 3 of 4) and natural terrain road courses with old pavement. This includes Road America, Portland, and Laguna Seca; Honda won all of those. The track where Honda won that does not fit the pattern in Barber.
- Chevy has an advantage on ovals other than Indianapolis and on road courses with decent grip, such as the Indy Road Course and Mid-Ohio.
The explanation usually given for this is Honda’s superior drivability, including overall smoothness throughout the rev band, as well as more torque in the low end of the operating range.
The reason Honda has won four Manufacturer’s Titles in a row is simpler: Honda has Ganassi. One Team. Six races this year. More on this next week. Sure Andretti helps. But clearly the best team in Indycar the last three seasons is Ganassi.
The remaining 2021 schedule
Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach — September 26 at 3 p.m. Eastern.
If you have a chance, watch the coverage of qualifying Saturday, followed by the IMSA pre-race. Should be entertaining.