Sunday, September 12, 2021

First Impressions: Portland 2021

1. Álex Palou's third victory of the season could not have been more unconventional for a pole-sitter and it went wrong at the start. After locking up, Palou was one of at least a half-dozen cars to blow the first chicane, as another five cars piled up in the corner. With Palou blowing the corner, he was positioned behind all the cars that had successfully made the corner.

With Palou shuffled in the middle of the pack, and during a lengthy caution to take care of the incident and reposition the cars, Palou along with pretty much every other car that blew the chicane at the start made their first pit stops on lap nine.

This turned into another race where the penalized ended up in an advantageous position just like Marcus Ericsson at Nashville. The long first caution allowed those who cut the chicane to stop and get into a bigger window for three stops. But, as with Ericsson, these guys needed some help and they all got it. The way the cautions fell could not have been better for Palou and company.

Palou went from blowing this race at the start to a strong off-strategy run where he jumped his fellow penalized drivers during the pit cycle. It looked like Palou was going to finish somewhere among third or four of those who missed the chicane at the start, but in the middle of the race Palou was the greatest benefactor from a giant game of leapfrog. After his lap 79 stop, Palou jumped Alexander Rossi, Jack Harvey and Graham Rahal. As the rest of the field stopped, Palou ended up in the lead. The Spaniard never looked back and he is back in control of the championship with two races to go.

When Palou blew the chicane, we were looking at Patricio O'Ward leaving with a 45-point lead. Laguna Seca could have been a coronation ceremony for O'Ward, but an incredible turn of events has Palou exiting Portland with a 25-point lead, a 35-point swing from the start of the weekend.

2. Alexander Rossi was one of the many penalized for missing the chicane at the start. Rossi looked like the best car in the middle of the race and he made up some ground to position himself to possibly cycle to the lead. It felt like it was going to be his day and then Palou emerged from the pit lane ahead of Rossi.

Considering how Rossi's season has been going, he should take second and be happy, but we never got to see the true strength of Rossi today. We didn't really see it for any of the top starters. They all missed the chicane and were sent to the back. They all made it back to the front, but they faced a tremendous number of obstacles to get there.

3. Scott Dixon was tapped from behind at the start when Felix Rosenqvist carried a little too much speed into turn one. Neither driver was significantly damaged, but both blew the chicane. Dixon ran in lockstep with Palou from there onward, and Dixon also almost emerged from the pit lane ahead of Rossi, only for the American to pass Dixon on the exit of the chicane on Dixon's out lap.

It is no surprise Dixon was able to turn that start into a third-place finish. He did lose ground to his teammate in the championship and for the first time since 2011 it feels like Dixon will be second in the Ganassi stable.

This race amazed me. It is incredible that the top three starters finished 1-2-3 after everything that happened at the start. The box score will never tell the true story of this race.

4. Jack Harvey was the best finisher among the cars that made the chicane on lap one, and he jumped from 20th to tenth. Harvey went long on his opening stint, not stopping until lap 41 and that got him into a top five position. He had a strong second stint and was among the leaders.

Fourth is a good result, especially after all the good results Harvey lost this season through poor strategy calls or mechanical issues. It is also fitting because Harvey showed good pace in practice, but did not have it in qualifying. Consider this a market correction for qualifying.

5. Josef Newgarden was not in a good mood after qualifying 18th. He made the chicane at the start, but was still stuck in the middle of the field. He took the same strategy as the leaders and it got him to the front. He never pushed Palou, Rossi or Dixon, but Newgarden's strategy leaped him ahead of many guys who spent the opening half of the race in the top five.

The only thing that makes this result bittersweet is Newgarden lost ground in the championship despite all he accomplished today.

6. Felix Rosenqvist pulled out a sixth-place finish. Rosenqvist took some flak for the Dixon contact at the start, but I don't think he ruined Dixon's race. It wasn't malicious from Rosenqvist. Dixon was always going to blow turn one. Rosenqvist stuck to the same strategy as the other reprimanded drivers. He wasn't quite as good as the top three, but he was a top ten driver today and the result matches his performance.

7. Marcus Ericsson moved up to fourth after the field was realigned before the first restart and for a moment it felt like another bonkers road/street course race was going to end up in Ericsson's favor. He was leading at one point during a pit cycle. He did not repeat his Belle Isle nor Nashville performance, but seventh is a fair day.

8. I wish we could have a do-over on that start because Colton Herta looked competitive and he was behind everyone for what felt like the entire race. Instead of starting sixth, Herta was behind what felt like ten extra guys all race. At one point, I thought he was doomed to a 16th-place finish, but Herta was quick, he showed some aggression and it paid off with an eighth-place finish.

9. Scott McLaughlin continues to cling to his rookie of the year lead ahead of Romain Grosjean and McLaughlin benefited greatly from making the opening corner and Grosjean's accident at the start. McLaughlin went from 15th to sixth once the field was organized after the opening lap. McLaughlin's team kept him at the front, but with the number of cautions and the timing of his stops, McLaughlin had to settle for ninth, a worthy result for how he drove today.

I will cover Grosjean here as well, just to wrap up the rookies. Grosjean had a rough weekend but didn't do much wrong. He was called for interference in qualifying and that pegged him back. Then he was a little too aggressive at the start. Ok, maybe he did one thing wrong. I think he overestimated what he could get away with. The crew repaired the car, but Grosjean had to settle for 22nd

10. This was a painful result for Graham Rahal because this finally felt like it would be his day. After so many races where the cautions fell against Rahal, this felt like his race. He ended up second at the first restart, Rahal drove longer on the opening stint and jumped ahead of Patricio O'Ward, who led the first 28 laps. Even when the untimely caution fell for Callum Ilott and Dalton Kellett breaking down simultaneously, it didn't hurt Rahal.

But Rahal lost all that ground on his second pit stop. First, Harvey jumped Rahal, then Rossi, then the PNC Bank Ganassi cars of Palou and Dixon. Then McLaughlin and Simon Pagenaud emerged ahead of Rahal and then Pagenaud spun to bring out the final caution. Rahal ended up tenth but this should have been a victory. It is crazy he lost that much ground after appearing to have control of the race. He should have at least been on the podium, but this was truly one race that got away from Rahal.

11. Ed Jones was positioned third after the opening lap mess. Jones was competitive, but not as good as Rahal. He lost more ground than Rahal and earlier on. This could have been better, but 11th is better than most.

12. Takuma Sato went from 26th to 12th. I am unsure how. He wasn't really mentioned.

13. Will Power was in the opening lap accident and he still finished 13th and on the lead lap. I guess there is always going to be one driver who makes it out of a start accident. It was Scott Dixon in 2018 and it was Power this year. I am stunned Power got this finish. After the accident, both ends of Power's car were damaged. I thought he would have to go behind the wall, but he didn't. He fought back and the fact he finished better than his starting position is a victory in itself.

14. I am not sure how this one got away from Patricio O'Ward. It could not have started better. O'Ward went from seventh to first and really only had to pass Graham Rahal in that first half-mile of action. As O'Ward led, all his championship rivals were outside the top ten. It could not have been set up better for him. He led the first 28 laps and then stopped. With this race expanded to 110 laps, it was always going to be a three-stopper, but the windows exploded with the opening caution.

O'Ward stopped early and it backfired. He was stuck in traffic and lost time. Rahal was always going to jump him in the pit cycle. O'Ward was still second and was set to increase his championship lead, but then he stopped just before the Ilott/Kellett caution as those cars were grinding to a halt on circuit but there was a window for pit stops. That proved to be the wrong choice. O'Ward was stuck in the middle of the field again, and he lost spots during that run. He never recovered.

The cars at the front, those reprimanded at the start, made their final stops with about 35 laps to go, and that was early enough to make it to the end. O'Ward was not going to get lucky and pick off a half-dozen spots as cars needed a splash of fuel. He was left in 14th and he is now chasing Palou when at one point O'Ward had a hand on the Astor Cup.

15. Quickly through the rest of the field: Ryan Hunter-Reay was 15th... yeah that is about right. Conor Daly was 16th... same as Hunter-Reay, but Daly was a spot ahead of Rinus VeeKay, who continues to have the summer from hell. Sébastien Bourdais spun Oliver Askew, but was not penalized. It did knock him back a few spots. Max Chilton ended up 19th and he benefited from making the first corner at the start.

16. Jimmie Johnson picked up another top 20 finish! He was 20th! And on the lead lap! Progress!

17. Simon Pagenaud spun on after an desperate passing attempt on Will Power and stalled. It cost Pagenaud a surefire top ten finish. It is the story of his season. We covered Grosjean. Hélio Castroneves was hit in the first corner and it left Castroneves with another poor Portland experience in 23rd. Twenty years later and some things do not change.

18. I feel bad for Oliver Askew. The start was a mess and he was caught in it. He didn't really suffer any damage, but he stalled and lost ground. Later in the race, he was spun. I am surprised Bourdais was not penalized for that contact. Askew didn't get a great chance to show himself. Practice and qualifying were good, but he knows he has to succeed in a race. The good news is he will get two more chances to make an impression.

19. Callum Ilott's debut was all over the place. First, he was hit at the start, but kept going. He was running respectively and then the car broke down just before halfway. Like Askew, Ilott at least gets two more shots this season.

20. Oh Canada. Dalton Kellett 26th. James Hinchcliffe 27th. This was the third Portland race since IndyCar's return in 2018 and it was the third time Hinchcliffe was taken out. He must hate Portland. How could he love it?

21. The start. Oof. There were a few reasons Champ Car was keen on introducing standing starts in 2007. Portland was one of them. I know IndyCar attempted standing starts in 2014. We know how that went, but something has to be done at Portland. If we are avoiding chaos at the starts at Mid-Ohio and Nashville with different starting areas, why not do the same at Portland? I don't know where would be better. Turns ten and 11 at the end of the back straightaway could be just as big of a mess.

We talk about the start every year at Portland and there is an opening corner accident at an alarming rate. Ten of the last 13 Portland races have had an opening lap accident. That is unacceptable. We expect the accident to happen and do nothing to decrease the chances of it happening. I know people love to say it is on the drivers and the drivers need to have more control. That is partially true, but when an accident occurs 76% of the time, we need to consider the course is imperfect and something should be done.

22. Two races remain. Laguna Seca is next. After Portland, what other twist could possibly await us?