Sunday, September 3, 2023

First Impressions: Portland 2023

1. Talk about a championship statement. Entering this weekend, it was inevitable Álex Palou was going to win the 2023 IndyCar Series championship. It felt like Palou could do it in Portland with even an off-day. He didn't need a special performance to pull this one out in the Rose City. A simple day void of bad luck would be enough. Palou smashed the field on his way to clinching the championship with his fifth victory of the season. 

Starting fifth, Palou was set. Fifth would likely be enough. Even if teammate Scott Dixon won the race, Palou would be heading to Laguna Seca just needing to start the finale to win the championship. The best starting driver on the primary tire, Palou laid in wait through the opening stint betting the alternate tire compound would fall off long before the end of the fuel window and the primary tire would remain strong until the tank was on the verge of empty. 

Palou was right. The alternate shod runners pulled out of the way and Palou kept running sub-one minute laps. The likes of Graham Rahal and Scott McLaughlin could not keep up despite having fresher tires, and they also got stuck in traffic. This allowed Palou is runaway from the competition and cap off his championship in style. 

This has been 2023 in a nutshell. Rarely was Palou pressured this season. His worse day this season is eighth. He has five victories. We cannot say nothing went wrong, because Palou was hit in the pit lane during the Indianapolis 500 while leading... and yet Palou still finished fourth in that race. 

It has been a highly executed season from the #10 Chip Ganassi Racing team. No mistakes on the pit lane. No brain fades behind the wheel. No second guessing. Even the things out of the team's control went its way. It avoided an engine expiring or a bolt failing. Palou wasn't caught in someone else's mess on an opening lap. Again, we cannot say untouchable because of Indianapolis, but the #10 team has been mostly avoidable, and even when adversity has tackled this team, Palou and company has shrugged it off and kept running. 

This is two championships in three seasons for Palou. He now has nine victories in 63 career starts. Palou is only 26 years old, turning 27 on April 1, 2024. Let's say Palou sticks around until he is 40 years old. He could win 40-50 races. If he wins that many races, and he is winning the title twice in three years, he could push Scott Dixon's track record. 

Of course, we know Palou's attraction for the allure of Formula One. We are not even sure he will be back next year with Ganassi. Chip Ganassi might say so, but words do not mean much in the world of Álex Palou, and Williams F1 is looking pretty good right now. 

We think Palou will be back for a title defense in 2024. The signs are pointing that way, but deep inside we should all know to appreciate this talent as long as we have him. He could be gone at any moment.

2. Felix Rosenqvist caught a break with the Agustín Canapino caution, gifting the Swede second place as Rosenqvist was on pit lane when the caution came out. Even if that caution does not come, Rosenqvist is likely finishing third or fourth, but it did put him ahead of Scott Dixon, and Rosenqvist was able to hang on for the runner-up finish. It was a strong day for Rosenqvist. He was running with Patricio O'Ward all race. All three Arrow McLaren drivers were around the same zip code in the middle of the top ten for most of this race. This does feel like the story of McLaren's season. It has all three cars on the same page, but that page has never been the very front of the grid. It is a team stuck between fourth and ninth, unable to get over that hump. 

3. Third for Scott Dixon, but I think Dixon's season does not get the recognition it deserves. Dixon has ten top five finishes and 15 top ten finishes. His worst result was Long Beach, where Patricio O'Ward's contact with Dixon put Dixon in the tires and placed the New Zealander in 27th. That was going to be a top ten result for Dixon, possibly a top five. It was easily 20 to 25 points lost. It would not have changed much for the championship because Palou was that good, in fact, it would have changed nothing, but Dixon's season is more impressive than he will ever get credit for thanks to his teammate.

4. See Felix Rosenqvist. The same is true for Patricio O'Ward. Good day, but not good enough. This has been the case for O'Ward in about half the races this season. Outside of the first two events, which were on a platter for O'Ward victories, and Indianapolis, where O'Ward led the most laps, O'Ward has these events where he runs in the top ten but does not challenge for more. It has been odd to watch because we have see O'Ward capable of unleashing that extra bit to pull out of victory, but McLaren just hasn't had it this season. 

5. On lap one, this appeared set as another rough day for Josef Newgarden. Off in the opening corner, and down the order he fell. It looked like Newgarden was in for another hard-knocked result. Instead, Newgarden put his head down and fought from outside the top fifteen to fifth. He didn't benefit from any cautions. Newgarden worked the strategy and got the most out of it. Newgarden needed this day after how the last two races went. It should be a good reset for Newgarden. He was able to pass drivers and make up ground, and he got fifth out of it. The focus is still there and Newgarden is hungry to end on a high note.

6. This was Rinus VeeKay's best weekend of the season. It was likely Ed Carpenter Racing's best weekend of the season as well. It has been over a year since this group looked this racy. VeeKay has been on a good run of form considering he finished 11th in the previous two races. Maybe ECR has found something for next season. Still too soon tell. It was good enough for sixth today, a big move forward. 

7. Sixth to tenth should just be called Marcus Ericsson territory. Today's seventh-place finish for Ericsson was the 50th in his career in 79 career starts. Thirty-four of those have been finishes between sixth and and tenth. That is 68%. It is kind of the greatest weakness in Ericsson's ability. He is good enough to be a top ten finisher, but he isn't in Palou or Dixon territory. It is why Chip Ganassi Racing is moving on. Why should Ganassi pay for a guy who can at best finish sixth in the championship?

8. David Malukas benefitted a little from the Canapino caution, but he had a good run forward from 23rd starting position. It sounds like he is moving to McLaren, one of the least likely moves when the season began. We are going to find out what he really has next year. Malukas has these types of finishes but then has eight races where he is nowhere. McLaren doesn't tolerate that. 

9. Strange day for strategies as Scott McLaughlin started on the alternate tire compound and dropped to ninth. It felt like that strategy had potential, but all that time lost early could not be overcome, and it threw those teams off a rhythm for the entire race. McLaughlin was one of many to slide backward.

10. Kyle Kirkwood was sent off at the start after contact with Newgaden, but Kirkwood also was pushed off the road a second time, penalized for blocking Ryan Hunter-Reay and was forced to stretch his fuel to make it on three stops, and Kirkwood pulled out a tenth-place finish out of all of that. It isn't the most spectacular result, but it is a notable result considering how his race started.

11. Christian Lundgaard was 11th with Graham Rahal finishing 12th. Neither Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car made the top ten, but the team had pace. Lundgaard was caught out in qualifying and could not make the second round. Rahal led the first 21 laps from pole position, but perhaps he went a lap too long on the alternate tire compound. Rahal kept losing time and then he was stuck in traffic, allowing Palou to pull away. The frustration grew for Rahal, and he complained about being caught in traffic after each pit stop for the rest of this race.

RLLR has good road course speed. I think if the tire strategy was different Rahal finishes in the top ten. If Lundgaard makes the second round of qualifying, he too likely finishes in the top ten. This is a good 1-2 for the organization. The team should be encouraged heading into next season, though the work remains to be done on the ovals. 

12. Colton Herta started third but was really struggling on the alternate tire. He was one of the first cars to make an opening pit stop, however Herta sped on the pit lane during that stop. He was climbing back up the order and was running eighth until he spun with four laps to go, dropping him to 13th. 

This has been a disappointing season for Herta. These types of days have been numerous. He hasn't been close to victory. Andretti Autosport is rudderless. At least Herta is the highest-paid driver in IndyCar. 

13. Let's blow through the rest of the field. Hélio Castroneves had a good day and finished 14th. This is as good as it can be for Castroneves at the moment. Callum Ilott was knocked around today and still finished 15th. It could have been a little better, but it could have been much worse. Santino Ferrucci kept his nose clean and was 16th. Devlin DeFrancesco did nothing and finished 17th, but at least DeFrancesco was on the lead lap.

14. I am going to cover all the rookies here, because Jüri Vips was 18th on debut. Vips had a long first pit stop, and that effectively trapped him a lap down for the rest of the race. It was a setback, but Vips still ran 109 laps. There have been worse starts to a driver's IndyCar career. 

Vips was the top rookie finisher because Marcus Armstrong did not have the right rear tire secure when he exited his pit box on his final stop. If that is secure, Armstrong is in the top ten. That is not on the driver. That is on the crew. It cost Armstrong today.

The good news for Armstrong is Agustín Canapino had a mechanical failure that caused the Argentine to spin off course, so Armstrong gained ground in the rookie of the year battle, picking up six points and he heads into the finale 26 points ahead in the rookie of the year battle. Armstrong locks up rookie of the year with a finish of sixth or better. He likely will not need that good of a result. 

Benjamin Pedersen was not that much in the way, but he was 22nd. Sting Ray Robb was in the way for a good portion of this race and he was 23rd on his 22nd birthday. 

Tom Blomqvist was able to complete 109 laps in his second IndyCar start. Not bad, but he has work to do ahead of next season.

15. There are four veterans we have not mentioned. Alexander Rossi ran into the back of Marcus Ericsson while battling for seventh and it cost Rossi. That was on Rossi. Ericsson didn't move down the back straightaway. Rossi timed the move wrong and it is an abundance of points lost. 

Do you think Ryan Hunter-Reay regrets filling in the #20 Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing? That car has not been close once this season, whether it is Hunter-Reay or Conor Daly driving it. There must have been a better way for Hunter-Reay to spend his Sunday than finish 21st. 

Will Power just drove over the edge and spun off in the early laps battling with Alexander Rossi. It was a top ten starting position wasted, but at no point did Power show anything encouraging. It was weird to see Power a lap down for practically the entire race. He ended up two laps down in 25th.

16. And that brings us to Romain Grosjean. Grosjean collided with Callum Ilott when Ilott was merging back onto the racetrack after Ilott was forced off on the exit of turn seven. This damaged Grosjean's suspension and effectively ended his race, though he competed 31 laps. This was not on Grosjean, but what a rough run of results this season has been after such a promising start. 

17. For the first time since 2005, no IndyCar championship goes undecided into the finale. IndyCar really sold itself on having the championship always going to the wire at a time when NASCAR kept tweaking its championship format to ensure the championship would not only go until the final race but until the final lap of the season, and Formula One has had only eight drivers' championships go until the final race since 2005. Now IndyCar has a championship claimed early. 

I don't think there is any reason to overreact. 

One, IndyCar was due. The title going to the finale was not normal prior to 2005. Even after, Sébastien Bourdais won the 2006 and 2007 Champ Car titles with a race to spare. In the 12 CART/Champ Car seasons after the Split, the championship was decided early in eight of those season. The year prior to Dan Wheldon clinching the championship early, Tony Kanaan did it. 

Two, Palou has been practically flawless. Scott Dixon has had one bad race and even if you give him 20 points to make up for the Long Beach accident, Palou would have still clinched the championship early. This was as dominant of a season as we have seen in a long time. Dominance should be celebrated.

Three, this is ok. We could be looking at a period of five consecutive year with the championship decided before the finale. Maybe next year it is decided with two races or three races to spare. However, after 17 seasons with the championship going to the finale, including every season since reunification where all the best in American open-wheel racing were competing in the same series, I don't think IndyCar must make some knee-jerk change to try and prevent this from happening again.

Let nature handle itself.

18. One race left. Onto Laguna Seca for a dead rubber.