What Lame Duck? Alex Palou Wins on Indy Road Course for Chip Ganassi Racing
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Alex Palou wanted to make a statement in Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and boy, did he ever.
The Spanish-born driver earned his fifth career IndyCar win—all on street or road courses—in one of the most dominant fashions the series has seen in a long time.
In his final season with Chip Ganassi Racing before he’ll shift to Arrow McLaren Racing—either staying in IndyCar or moving to Formula 1—Palou looked like anything but a lame duck, as he roared to a nearly 17-second (16.808 seconds, to be precise) win over runner-up Pato O’Ward.
Palou led 52 of the event’s 85 laps and became the fifth different winner in the series’ first five races. He also knocked defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson off the top of the IndyCar driver point standings, taking over the No. 1 spot.
“We honestly knew we had a fast car since P1 (first practice) yesterday,” Palou said. “The car has been amazing all weekend.
“Once we knew we were starting on reds (Firestone alternate tires), I think we knew we were going to fight for the win. Amazing work by these guys. I just had to execute.”
Palou now turns his focus to the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 28. Even though it’s been two years, Palou is still ticked off at finishing second in the 2021 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
It’s the biggest “one that got away” thus far for Palou in his three-year IndyCar career. It’s also the one smudge on his 2021 championship-winning season.
“I know in '21 we had a failure when we were going for the fight for the win at the end,” Palou said. “It was the first race that everything came perfectly, the strategy, the tires, the speed of the car, myself obviously.
“Super proud. It's a special place. You can feel that in the car just with the fans that we had already since practice one. There's something about this place obviously. Even if it's not the big one, it's still special.”
Now it’s time for Palou to win the biggest race in the world – and which could potentially be his last chance to do so if he moves to F1 next season with McLaren Racing.
Palou still thinks he could have beaten eventual winner Helio Castroneves, who became the fourth driver in history to earn four Indy 500s.
Based upon how he performed Saturday, Palou is all the more motivated to win the biggest race in motorsports in the world.
“We're not going to stop here,” Palou said. “We're going to try and keep the championship lead until the end of the championship, and hopefully get the second one.
“I wanted to win at IMS because it's a special place, but it's not like I'm relaxed. I want to win the big one. We've been close. I know that being close is not enough. There's been drivers trying for years and years. It's a tough race to do. 200 laps, five pit stops. You need to have a perfect, perfect day there.
“We'll keep working. We'll keep digging. Hopefully it comes. Yeah, it's the big one that I'm waiting for, obviously without forgetting about the other ones. This means a lot today. I'm only focused on the GMR GP today. When it comes on Monday, I'll be thinking on the Indy 500.”
O'Ward Leads the Charge for Arrow McLaren
As strong as Alex Palou looked in winning Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, credit also has to be given to Arrow McLaren Racing.
Three of its racers finished in the top 5, including podium finishers Pato O’Ward (runner-up) and Alexander Rossi (third place). Felix Rosenqvist, who is hoping to stay with the team for next season, finished fifth.
“Hats off to them,” O’Ward said of Palou and the CGR team. “I just think they were extremely strong today. They really were. For us, we’re two, three and five as a team, and that’s pretty frickin’ phenomenal.
“The guys gave us a great race car. We were kind of just running our own race today. We were there fighting with Lundgaard and all of us teammates. Once I got clear, I had to minimize the gap I had to Alex, but I think they were very strong today. We were just hanging on there at the end, trying not to destroy our reds.”
It was O’Ward’s third podium finish (all runner-up showings) in the first five races, to go along with a fourth-place finish at Birmingham and a disappointing 17th at Long Beach.
“Man, I'm flowing,” O’Ward smiled. “I know my wins will come. I'm chilling."
But arguably the biggest storyline for Arrow McLaren was the performance of third-place finisher Rossi. Arrow McLaren has had high hopes for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, who left Andretti Autosport after seven seasons at the end of last year and moved to the McLaren camp.
Saturday’s finish was his best since joining Arrow McLaren, having finished fourth in the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, then had disappointing back-to-back 22nd-place finishes at both Texas and Long Beach, before bouncing back to an eighth-place finish two weeks ago at Birmingham.
Rossi likes the momentum and confidence not only his own team has, but the overall Arrow McLaren organization.
“The fact that Arrow McLaren got three cars in the top five with this field, it’s a big confidence boost going into the most important race of the year,” Rossi said. “The pace in the car is there. It’s a real lovely race car to drive but we have to learn to extract a little bit more out of it.”
How about a little Danish with your coffee?
There were so many superlatives to talk about from Saturday’s race, but we’d be completely remiss if we didn’t talk about the performance of Christian Lundegaard.
Now in his sophomore season with Rahal Letterman and Lanigan Racing, Lundgaard won his first career pole position for Saturday’s race and looked strong early until Palou took command.
Still, Lundgaard has nothing to be ashamed of by finishing fourth. Ironically, Saturday’s GP was the site one year ago where he earned his best career IndyCar showing, finishing runner-up.
He really hoped Saturday would have given him that elusive first career win, but his performance nonetheless gives him great confidence heading into the 500.
“Right now, I’m satisfied with a 4th,” the 22-year-old Lundgaard said. “It wasn’t as quick today, unfortunately, but there was a place in the race where I didn’t think we’d finish in the top 10. … These are the things we need to learn moving forward, so we’ll try our best.”
Going Back to School on Monday
One of the top questions that emerged from Saturday’s race is how – if at all – what happened in the race can be translated to the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 28.
The answer? Not really a heck of a whole lot.
Sure, it’s big that Palou won Saturday’s race in such convincing fashion, but when all is said and done, we’re talking about two different races on two different tracks.
Saturday’s Grand Prix was an 85-lap event on a 2.439-mile, 14 turn road course (although it did include part of the oval), while the Indy 500 will be a full 200-lap go-round on the legendary 2.5-mile oval.
The mindset drivers and team engineers have is completely different from the road course to the oval. Fuel strategies are the biggest differences, but there’s also technical things to keep in mind such as driving in the draft, whether to go high or low in the corners, where are the best passing zones and how to stay out of trouble, particularly with young and inexperienced drivers around you.
The two biggest times for danger on-track are the first few laps after the green flag drops – particularly when cars head into the first turn – and the last 5 to 10 laps of the race, when everyone is jockeying for that one extra position.
Oftentimes, going for that one extra position winds up being a recipe for disaster and crashing, where a potential fifth- or sixth-place finish winds up being a 25th or worse showing.
“Man, this is a momentum game,” Saturday’s third-place finisher, Alexander Rossi, said. “We talk about it a lot. Performance here doesn't translate the other direction, but it's good mentally for everyone.
“You know you've got the ability to have the results across all three cars. When everyone is relaxed and just doing what they know how to do, the confidence in their abilities is when the performance comes.