Flat Spot On – Oh, What a Day at Barber!

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 18 2021

Alex Palou raced to the victory in the IndyCar Series opener in Alabama. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

LEEDS, Ala. – It was like watching a couple of lightning bolts searing through the sunshine and greenery of Barber Motorsports Park. One a Spaniard, the other a Mexican, each youngster throwing off enough light to put the usual luminaries of the NTT IndyCar Series into the shade during the second-year drivers’ first appearance at this challenging track.

From the drop of the green, Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward were the primary focus on the fabulous swirls of asphalt just outside little Leeds, Alabama. A somnambulant crossroads town, Leeds is far from the pathways pursued by these two globe-trotting youngsters, who have followed the cutting edge of speed from the time they were teenagers all over the world to prove themselves. On this day, they dictated the terms to all the competitors with their quickness before the strategy of Chip Ganassi Racing and new signee Palou brought home a victory.

As 45-year-old NASCAR veteran Jimmie Johnson discovered in his first IndyCar race for Ganassi, there’s nothing quite like the proving ground of Barber. They talk about blistering pace often in racing and this place saw lap times two seconds quicker after a re-paving in 2019 and the teams’ first return since then, because the pandemic cancelled last year’s race. Most drivers had at least two blisters – one on each hand – at the finish due to the greater downforce on this year’s IndyCars, thanks in no small part to the aeroscreens now mounted on the cockpits.


The weather was perfect all day, except for that rain shower of carbon fiber when two-time champion Josef Newgarden edged into the grass and turned sideways in front of half the field – a screaming, then suddenly crunching herd. It was immediately reminiscent of a collision halfway around the world in Italy earlier in the day during the Formula 1 race at Imola that sent pieces flying – on the same track where an errant suspension piece killed Ayrton Senna 27 years ago. Protection for open cockpit drivers, which includes F1’s halo, once again seems worth the hassle of all that extra weight and aero drag up high.

After the ensuing seven laps of caution to clean up the mess, O’Ward and Palou(pronounced “pa low”) went to work.

Jimmie Johnson is off and running in his career as an IndyCar Series driver.


O’Ward lit up the tires and the announcers in the TV booth with his lurid slides coming up the big, bending hill at the end of the back straight. On the other end of this same spectrum of speed, Palou managed his Firestone tires well enough to sustain his pace without blistering—that word again—to stay out of the pits long enough to make it a two-stop race, which proved decisive along with his pace. “It was unbelievable how fast Alex was in that first stint,” said Will Power, the veteran Penske driver who chased him home to the checkers. “I figured he was doing a three-stop race.”

Nope, that was 21-year-old O’Ward on a three-stopper after his early speed compromised his tires enough to bring him into the pits prior to the 30-lap mark. Thereafter, O’Ward found himself chasing the same rainbow he and his father have long pursued from their home in Monterey, Mexico. A millionaire, the senior Patricio has been expert at cutting deals for his son, who then proved himself behind the wheel, garnering enough attention to keep the wheels spinning in the right career direction. But, as shown at Barber, sometimes going the fastest right out of the box, the hallmark of his style that landed O’Ward his seat at Arrow McLaren, isn’t the right way to go.

“Track position was everything,” he said, referring to a strategic loss where he was extraordinary in recovering to fourth place despite one more stop than all but one of gthe drivers in the Top 10. “I felt like we did everything we were trying to do.”

Palou, 24, came to the IndyCar scene by a more traditional route after a relationship established with Honda – which makes one think he may be a candidate for F1 if he continues to show the pace he had at Barber. After Formula 3 in Europe and Japan, Palou graduated to the Japanese Super Formula Championship, where he had three poles, two fastest laps and one victory in six starts in 2019. From there Palou went to veteran IndyCar team owner Dale Coyne’s “finishing school” in 2020 (where F1 refugee Romain Grosjean is now being nurtured), before the ever-shrewd Chip Ganassi gave him the nod.

Ever-so-briefly, Palou and O’Ward crossed paths for the first time in 2019 in Japan. O’Ward, as a designated Red Bull driver, was assigned to the Super Formula Championship for three races – shortly after racing in Austria as a member of the energy drink company’s development team. Before scratching out a globe-trotting season with Red Bull, O’Ward’s initial claim to fame was winning nine of 17 Indy Lights races for Andretti Autosport in 2018.

Palou was in Japan as part of his development curve with Honda. The next step for both the Spaniard and Mexican—the latter was the rookie of the year at the Indy 500 last year in a race where Palou crashed—will be to excel on the ovals. Short term, their speed on road circuits will keep them well employed.

An ecstatic Palou seemed unsurprised by a victory in his first appearance at Barber, an honor he now shares with Michael Andretti and Dan Wheldon. It all came down do his incredible opening stint on the softer rubber of the Firestone reds, which all the front runners were riding. “It was one of those days where everything went well. We had good fuel mileage and good tire wear.”

The book on the Spaniard, according to his manager Roger Yasukawa, a former IndyCar competitor, is that Palou remains calm behind the wheel and is mature for his age. That calm was sorely tested during the final 10 laps, when Palou was sandwiched between Connor Daly, struggling to stay on the lead lap, and the fast closing Power. Where most drivers might have tried to force a pass on Daly – using up his tires and push-to-pass allotment – Palou maintained the gap to Daly and from Power. Perhaps he realized the same aero barrier keeping him behind Daly was the same hurdle the trailing Power was up against in trying to catch him.

Make no mistake, the day’s leading lights are simultaneously mature and young talents. (Johnson joked about Palou letting him know that he is older than Palou’s father.)

In “old man” Johnson’s first IndyCar race – let alone his first trip to Barber under some diabolical conditions (see two-time series champion Newgarden), the seven-time Cup champion finished three laps down, two positions ahead of his starting place and had two hands on the edge of blistering. “I had two scary moments,” he said, referring to the Big One on the first lap that looked more like a last lap at the nearby Talladega Superspeedway and a spin that left him in a precarious location. Johnson also cited picking up a “ton of learning experience.”

In a year with three already famous rookies, including Johnson, Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin of Australian Supercar fame, everyone was aware of Palou and O’Ward due to their pace as rookies last year and the status of their respective teams. But did anyone expect them to dominate? Scott Dixon, seeking his seventh IndyCar title, is a teammate of Palou and could only manage third – just ahead of the rapidly closing O’Ward.

In that sense, the season opener was a learning experience for those who follow IndyCar. That following spreads far beyond the nearby confines of Leeds. A journalist who hails from Argentina, for example, was calling in his story via Skype after the race as the sun began to settle behind a cluster of fleecy white and gray clouds above the rolling green expanse of springtime in central Alabama that rivaled anything painted by Michelangelo.

“Palou” he said into the receiver, before repeating it. “Palou – Alex Palou.” It’s a name the racing world will be hearing regularly for some time to come.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the new release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning in Reverse.” Ingram’s current book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” includes a comprehensive account of Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Results Sunday of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst NTT INDYCAR SERIES event on the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

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

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 
110.025 mph
Time of race: 1:52:53.0361
Margin of victory: 0.4016 of a second
Cautions: 2 for 8 laps
Lead changes: 10 among 5 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Pato O’Ward 1-17
Alex Palou 18-30
Will Power 31-33
Sebastien Bourdais 34-36
O’Ward 37-41
Palou 42-60
Power 61
Bourdais 62
Rinus VeeKay 63
O’Ward 64-66
Palou 67-90

NTT INDYCAR SERIES point standings: Palou 53, Power 41, Dixon 35, O’Ward 34, Bourdais 31, VeeKay 29, Rahal 26, Ericsson 24, Rossi 22, Grosjean 20.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 18 2021
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