Palou dominates unconventional Thermal Club tire chess match

Alex Palou led from pole to start the opening 10-lap frame of the $1 Million Challenge for Chip Ganassi Racing and had Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin and Meyer Shank Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist close behind him in third as they went into the 10-minute halftime and prepared for the final 10-lap race for the money.

Once the all-star race was over, the same top three stood atop the podium as Palou controlled the non-points race from start to finish, capturing $500,000 for first place. McLaughlin got $350,000 for second, and Rosenqvist delivered $250,000 for his team.

It was a masterful performance by the reigning IndyCar champion who crossed the finish line with 5.7s in hand over McLaughlin and demonstrated his incredible ability to make speed while saving his tires. The opening race of the year at St. Petersburg was all about fuel conservation, and at The Thermal Club, the trick of the day was tire conservation.


“The car was amazing,” Palou said. “Super proud. All weekend it’s been amazing. I was a bit surprised how the competitors treated the first 10 laps with tire conserving.”

At the back of the 12-car field during the initial 10-lap stanza, Colton Herta went into instant tire-saving mode as he completed the first lap a full 12s off Palou’s pace. With drivers required to use a single set of tires for the two-part 20-lap finale, the strategy deployed for the Andretti Global driver—who started last—was to finish last and start the 10-lap closer with the freshest rubber in the field.

He was soon joined in the heavy slow-down by Agustin Canapino in 11th and Alexander Rossi in 10th. The entire Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team—Graham Rahal, Christian Lundgaard, and Pietro Fittipaldi—also added their name to the tire-saving brigade.

Fittipaldi, whose No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda was not fully fueled by his team, was disqualified during halftime for failing to follow IndyCar’s instructions to fill the tank. Teammate Rahal was also out of the race after a sticking throttle—believed to be caused by a faulty throttle position sensor—made driving the car nearly impossible.

The sleep-inducing first-half affair set the stage for a proper fight to see who would claim the dollars on offer for the winner. Would Palou, McLaughlin and Rosenqvist, who maintained a faster pace, pay for using too much of their tires’ life in the part of the event that mattered least? They would not.

Palou led the 10 surviving drivers to the green flag in the single-file start with McLaughlin, Rosenqvist, Marcus Armstrong, Josef Newgarden, and the forward-moving Alexander Rossi. Newgarden actively defended Rossi’s advances and made contact but lost the position to him on lap 11.

The Newgarden/Rossi exchange gifted fifth to Linus Lundqvist and the charging Herta, and on lap 12 Herta took fifth from Lundqvist. Rossi was next to go by, but went off track and ceded the position back to Lundqvist.

Out front, Palou held 2.7s over McLaughlin and Rosenqvist was a full 6.5s arrears in third. Herta and his fresher tires were fifth after passing Lundqvist with a 7.8s deficit to Palou with 13 laps complete. By lap 16, Palou’s remarkable ability to make speed without compromising his tires provided a 4.4s margin of comfort over the retreating McLaughlin as Herta attacked Armstrong for fourth. One lap later, Herta was through.

No significant changes happened afterwards as Palou cruised to victory.


Story originally appeared on Racer