18 Apr 2021
Alex Palou held off a charging Will Power to win the IndyCar season opener at Barber Motorsports Park on his maiden start for Chip Ganassi Racing.
The second year driver made the most of an alternate two-stop strategy to overhaul polesitter Pato O’Ward who stopped three times during the 90-lap contest in the hope that faster stints with minimal fuel saving would pay off.
O’Ward led the opening 17 laps despite contending with a slow puncture, and after he pitted Palou assumed the lead. From there Palou set about laying down a string of fast lap times in the clear air to build up an advantage, no longer held up by the handicapped Arrow McLaren SP driver.
It wasn’t until lap 31 when Palou stopped, but comfortably emerged in seventh, four spots ahead of O’Ward.
However with warmer tyres, and with Palou needing to save fuel to make his two-stop strategy work, O’Ward re-passed Palou by lap 37 and immediately pulled out a gap. The pass was for third, but with Sebatien Bourdais and Rinus VeeKay ahead yet to pit, it was effectively a pass for the race lead.
O’Ward’s second stop came, from the lead, on lap 42, once again handing the point to the Spaniard.
From then on Palou maintained the lead, only briefly surrendering during his final stop on lap 61.
But it was far from a clear cut victory for Palou, who not only had to manage his fuel in the closing stages of the race, but fend off Power who had almost double the amount of Push to Pass left.
The Team Penske driver started alongside Palou in fourth and matched his conservative two stop strategy to leapfrog into a race-contending position, but his own fuel saving measures and a late mistake at turn nine meant he wasn’t able to make the most of his boost advantage to take the win.
It was a similar story for Palou’s team-mate Scott Dixon, who started fifth and finished third after mirroring the strategy.
O’Ward eventually finished fourth, despite utilising his newer tyres in the final five laps to take a second per lap out of the leaders. The fresh rubber and favourable fuel load proved to be of little benefit for him however, with his extra pit stop dropping him back in traffic for the final phase of the race, hampering his charge to the front.
Bourdais, who like O’Ward opted for an aggressive three-stop strategy, finished fifth. The AJ Foyt Racing driver began the race way back in 16th, but was able to capitalise on the lap one pileup to vault through the field.
The incident, caused after Josef Newgarden lost control on the back straight, collected no fewer than six cars, although only two of those – Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay ending up retiring as a direct result of the shunt.
VeeKay, one of those collected in the pileup – which resulted in him pitting four times rather than his planned three – took sixth, ahead of Graham Rahal and Marcus Ericsson, who was in podium contention until he was forced to save fuel in the final few laps after inadvertently not saving enough during his middle stint.
Alexander Rossi, who was in the hunt for the race win up to the first round of pit stops, finished ninth.
Like fellow front row starter O’Ward, Rossi made his first stop early as he looked to utilise a three-stop strategy, but also like O’Ward his plan was undone by Palou’s speed ahead of his own first stop.
Romain Grosjean completed the top 10 on his IndyCar debut, and was the highest-placed rookie ahead of Scott McLaughlin in 14th and Jimmie Johnson, who spun and stalled to bring out the second caution of the race on lap 10, in 19th.
Despite suffering extensive damage in the opening lap crash, Max Chilton, Felix Rosenqvist, and Colton Herta all returned to the track to finish the race, albeit four, 28, and 65 laps adrift of the leader.
1. (3) Alex Palou, Honda, 90, Running
2. (4) Will Power, Chevrolet, 90, Running
3. (5) Scott Dixon, Honda, 90, Running
4. (1) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 90, Running
5. (16) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 90, Running
6. (14) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 90, Running
7. (18) Graham Rahal, Honda, 90, Running
8. (6) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 90, Running
9. (2) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 90, Running
10. (7) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 90, Running
11. (11) Jack Harvey, Honda, 90, Running
12. (15) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 90, Running
13. (19) Takuma Sato, Honda, 90, Running
14. (12) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 90, Running
15. (13) Ed Jones, Honda, 90, Running
16. (10) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 90, Running
17. (24) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 89, Running
18. (23) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 89, Running
19. (21) Jimmie Johnson, Honda, 87, Running
20. (20) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 86, Running
21. (22) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 62, Contact
22. (9) Colton Herta, Honda, 25, Contact
23. (8) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 0, Contact
24. (17) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 0, Contact