Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) was not supposed to win the 2021 Indycar driver’s title. As one of the few people I know who picked Palou to finish in the top three after he won the first race of the season, all I can do is tell you what I saw: Palou was better than Felix Rosenqvist (McLaren-Chevy), who Palou replaced at Ganassi this season. Once I saw at Barber that Palou was a match for Scott Dixon, any doubt that he would challenge for the driver’s title vanished from my mind.
So let’s get on with it: Who are the best drivers, the best teams and why Alex Palou rose to the top of the heap to win the title relatively easily.
The Best Teams
1) Ganassi-Honda: The best team for the last three seasons has been Ganassi. The team won six races of 16, with three different drivers visiting winner’s circle: Palou (3 wins), Marcus Ericsson (2), and Scott Dixon. For Palou and Ericsson, their first wins were their first Indycar wins. The win totals alone show how dominant Ganassi was this season.
But if you want stronger evidence, consider this: There were only 4 races with no Ganassi driver on the podium. Some of the strengths of Ganassi were obvious, others less so. Having a Honda engine is an advantage most places except short ovals. And Honda has a clear fuel mileage advantage that comes into play at many races (including the Indy 500), unless it is neutralized by the way cautions fall.
What Ganassi has that the other teams don’t is a handle on pre-event set-up. Most of the time, Ganassi cars roll-off the truck either in the competitive set-up window or very close to it. So in the limited practice time, the Ganassi drivers are looking for small improvements, not big ones.
Another advantage is being able to stay on top of tire life, especially later in the stint. At several tracks, you could see the Ganassi cars closing down on the cars in front as the tire stint went long. Examples of this include:
- Ericsson closing down on Newgarden at the end of the Mid-Ohio race.
- Ericsson expanding his lead on Colton Herta at the end of the Nashville race
- Palou closing down on Herta at the end of tire stints at Laguna Seca
Finally, the Ganassi cars were decent at all types of tracks: road courses, street courses and ovals.
2) Andretti-Honda: While Andretti was the second best team 2021, they are nowhere near the level of polish Ganassi has. The team’s results are all behind one driver: Colton Herta. If Herta was not doing well, the team was not doing well. And while the team seemed strong at street courses and slippery road courses, they seemed lost everywhere else.
Worse, a team that used to dominate the Indianapolis 500 has been an also ran for the last two seasons in the most important Indycar race of the season despite Honda’s clear advantage the past two seasons.
3) Team Penske: This was a tough choice. Which is the best Chevy team? I chose Penske because the team had two drivers win races, which no other Chevy team did. But their cars seemed to roll off the transporter needing considerable help, and for the second year in a row Penske was nowhere at Indianapolis.
Overall, the Big Three are still the Big Three, but there is much less difference between Andretti, Penske and the rest of the teams. Especially Arrow-McLaren-Chevy.
The five best drivers competing in the Indycar series this season, in order:
1) Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy):
He can drive any car, on any track, any time, and do very well. He rarely makes mistakes. He rarely drops in the order in a race. He nearly always moves forward from where he starts, when he is not on the pole.
2) Colton Herta (Andretti-Honda): The way I look at it, Herta is the most talented driver in the series, and clearly the best of the “frantic cockpit” school that has become so popular with in-car videos. The idea behind this method of driving is that with the current car, “loose is fast”, and the skill is being able to push the boundaries of oversteer until you can’t catch the back end anymore. Herta’s issue is that he makes too many mistakes to win the driver’s title.
3) Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda): Palou is the fastest of the “smooth is fast” drivers. His in-car shots aren’t nearly as exciting as Herta’s (or Pato O’Ward’s) because his corrections don’t come as often, nor are they as violent. He is the best driver in the series on natural-terrain road courses. His street game needs a little work. All that said, he didn’t make any mistakes this season, and is probably among the best at saving tires and conserving fuel.
4) Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy): Pato is another proponent of the “frantic cockpit” style. He has cut down on his mistakes. He may be the best qualifier. If you need the best time out of a car for one lap, he’s not a bad choice. But when the car isn’t right, it’s still hard for Pato to keep from falling in the order during a race. And he has a tendency to out drive the rear tires,
5) Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda). He’s smooth, but he is not as smooth as his new teammate. He used to be the consensus best in the business at conserving tires and fuel. But now I am not so sure. Next year will be really interesting. Was the Palou phenomenon a one-season thing? Or is he permanently the top driver on what used to be Dixon’s Team?
Why Did Palou win?
The simplistic, easy answer is that Palou was the best driver on the best team. And when you look at the season points, it is real easy to point out one race that made the difference: The Indy 500. Palou finished second. Scott Dixon was headed to a top five finish before he ran out of fuel during a caution. While Dixon’s fuel conservation skill failed him, Palou was able to conserve more, avoiding the fate that befell his teammate.
On Newgarden’s side of the ledger, Team Penske was out to lunch at Indy for the second season in a row.
Will it be the same next year? I doubt it. There has been a lot of change already in the off-season, and we’ll cover that in the next installment.