Palou Claims Maiden IndyCar Victory in Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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(Photo Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar)

It’s well known in the motorsports world that Chip Ganassi likes winners, and he has yet another in the form of 24-year-old Alex Palou, who dominated the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama to win his first career NTT IndyCar Series race in his debut for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Palou did an incredible job saving his red-walled Firestone option tyres in the first stint as others struggled, and hit all of the fuel numbers he needed to hit to make the two-stop strategy a success. He now becomes the second Spaniard to win an IndyCar event after Oriol Servia, and joins Michael Andretti and the late Dan Wheldon as drivers to win for CGR on their debut.

Arrow McLaren SP‘s Patricio O’Ward and Andretti Autosport‘s Alexander Rossi led the field to green, and before a full lap was run the caution waved for a spectacular crash going towards turn 5. Three-time winner at Barber Motorsports Park Josef Newgarden got loose going up over the hill on the straightaway out of turn 4, hit the grass and spun back in front of the field. Andretti teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Colton Herta both clobbered Newgarden with nowhere to go, while Felix Rosenqvist of Arrow McLaren SP collided with Carlin‘s Max Chilton, sending the Swede airborne for a moment.

Although many laps down, Rosenqvist, Chilton and eventually Herta were all able to repair their cars and turn laps to try and gain valuable points. Rookie Jimmie Johnson watched the wreck unfold right in front of him, navigating the mess much like his NASCAR races at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway. He made minor contact with James Hinchcliffe, but the tough Dallara chassis showed no signs of wear and he was able to continue on.

The race re-started on lap 8, but two laps later another caution came out as Johnson got caught in dirty air coming over the crest of turn 13 and spun out. He was able to keep the car off the wall and continue, completing his goal of finishing the race.

The race would go caution free to the end after the lap 13 restart, and O’Ward, Rossi and Palou immediately pulled away from the pack. O’Ward was incredibly loose at full speed, and the 21-year-old complained heavily about the state of his option tyres, specifically the left rear. On lap 18 he would pit for the preferred black-walled Firestone primary tyre to begin a three-stop strategy, with Rossi following him in to cover him off. All of the other leaders continued on, saving their option tyres much better than Palou and Rossi, setting fastest laps in the process.

Palou finally pit from the lead on lap 31, completing his massive overcut on O’Ward, but the net lead would not last as O’Ward on warm tyres passed Palou for the lead on the exit of turn 5 on lap 35. The young Mexican driver held the lead until his second pit stop on lap 42, where he relinquished the lead once again to Palou. O’Ward ran into trouble two laps after making his stop as Sebastien Bourdais of A.J. Foyt Enterprises dived deep to his inside and made contact to force his way through to take his position. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing‘s Graham Rahal also snuck past, dropping O’Ward down two spots.

Patricio O’Ward in action during the Honda IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama. (Photo Credit: Chris Owens / IMS Photo / Courtesy of IndyCar)

Drivers on the two stop strategy began making their final pit stop on lap 60, as Marcus Ericsson was the first of the leaders to pit for primary tyres from fourth place. His teammates Palou and Scott Dixon pit the next lap from first and third respectively, while Team Penske‘s Will Power stayed out one more lap to lap 62.

After the cycle, Palou would inherit the net lead once again while Power’s overcut was enough to gain him second place. Dixon, like Palou, would keep his position of third, same for Ericsson and fourth place. After his final pit stop on lap 66, O’Ward slotted into fifth place. With 17 laps to go, O’Ward made quick work of Ericsson in turn 5. The Swede was very tight on fuel to the end of the race, unable to fight O’Ward as he went by.

From this point on, it was Palou’s race to lose. Power slowly began to close the gap with plenty of push to pass boost on his side if he needed it. Palou began to hit lap traffic in the form of Conor Daly with seven laps to go, allowing Power, Dixon and O’Ward to all apply pressure to the young Spaniard. With two laps to go, the gap was closed to about one second, and Power was given the OK to use the remaining 90 seconds of push to pass he had at his disposal. However, there was not enough time left and Palou did not crack under the pressure, and won his first career race at Barber in an IndyCar.

Power finished the race in second place, and was the only Penske car inside the top ten. Defending series champion Dixon rounded out the podium with a third place finish, the second CGR car on the podium. Despite the disappointing strategy, O’Ward was still incredibly fast and able to come home with a respectable fourth place finish.

Bourdais, Rinus Veekay and Rahal all took advantage of the early caution to make pit stops, putting them on the same pit strategy as the drivers making two stops. Veekay, driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, survived a spin in the lap 1 crash without damage, while Rahal would use the confidence gained from being fastest in the Sunday warm-up session to pull his way back up the field for an impressive finish. The trio would finish fifth, sixth and seventh respectively after all started outside the top ten.

Despite running in the top 5 for a good portion of the race, Ericsson was hindered by how much fuel saving he needed to do, but was able to still salvage a very respectable eighth place finish before running out of fuel just after crossing the start/finish line.

Rossi struggled for grip on his second and third stints, falling from a front row start to finish in ninth place. With his eyes firmly on winning the championship this year, the 29-year-old American will not be happy with that finish.

The best finish of the highly-touted 2021 rookie class went to Dale Coyne Racing w/ Rick Ware Racing driver Romain Grosjean, who will be very pleased with his tenth place finish in his debut race. Fellow rookies Scott McLaughlin and Johnson finished in fourteenth and nineteenth place respectively.

After an exciting start to the season, the young star Palou now sits at the top of the points standings. Next, the series will travel to the Streets of St. Petersburg for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg next weekend on Sunday 25 April.

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Final Results

110Alex PalouESPChip Ganassi Racing01:52:53.036
212Will PowerAUSTeam Penske+ 0.401 sec
39Scott DixonNZLChip Ganassi Racing+ 2.988 sec
45Pato O’WardMEXArrow McLaren SP+ 3.974 sec
514Sebastien BourdaisFRAA.J. Foyt Enterprises+ 10.696 sec
621Rinus VeeKayNEDEd Carpenter Racing+ 13.875 sec
715Graham RahalUSARahal Letterman Lanigan Racing+ 18.738 sec
88Marcus EricssonSWEChip Ganassi Racing+ 20.070 sec
927Alexander RossiUSAAndretti Autosport+ 20.560 sec
1051Romain Grosjean (R)SUIDale Coyne Racing w/ Rick Ware Racing+ 45.080 sec
1160Jack HarveyENGMeyer Shank Racing+ 50.078 sec
1222Simon PagenaudFRATeam Penske+ 59.052 sec
1330Takuma SatoJPNRahal Letterman Lanigan Racing+ 1:05.588 sec
143Scott McLaughlin (R)NZLTeam Penske+ 1:06.056 sec
1518Ed JonesUAEDale Coyne Racing w/ Vasser-Sullivan+ 1:08.409 sec
1620Conor DalyUSAEd Carpenter Racing+ 1:09.107 sec
1729James HinchcliffeCANAndretti Steinbrenner Autosport+ 1 lap
184Dalton KellettCANA.J. Foyt Enterprises+ 1 lap
1948Jimmie Johnson (R)USAChip Ganassi Racing+ 3 laps
2059Max ChiltonENGCarlin+ 4 laps
217Felix RosenqvistSWEArrow McLaren SP+ 28 laps
2226Colton HertaUSAAndretti Autosport+ 65 laps
232Josef NewgardenUSATeam PenskeCrash
2428Ryan Hunter-ReayUSAAndretti AutosportCrash
(R) = Rookie
317 posts

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Lifelong sports junkie, currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Hofstra University. Lead writer for Indycar at The Checkered Flag.
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