Alex Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing flexed a potent combination of speed and strategy to win the GMR Grand Prix on Saturday on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the Spaniard’s first victory of the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.
2021 series champion Palou, who started third, drove his No. 10 The American Legion Honda to a 16.8006-second victory over runner-up Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi finished third in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, his first podium result with the team he joined this season after seven years at Andretti Autosport.
“We honestly knew we had a fast car since P1 (first practice) yesterday,” Palou said. “The car has been amazing all weekend. Once we knew we were starting on reds (Firestone alternate tires), I think we knew we were going to fight for the win.
“Amazing work by these guys. I just had to execute.”
Palou’s last victory came in the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey last September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
NTT P1 Award winner Christian Lundgaard finished a season-best fourth in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda. Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the top five in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, as his season-best result gave the team three of the top five finishing positions.
Devising the correct tire strategy for the 85-lap race caused considerable head-scratching for strategists and engineers up and down the pit lane Friday evening and Saturday, reflected in the reality that six of the top 10 starters began the race on Firestone primary “black” tires and four started on Firestone alternate “red” tires. INDYCAR rules require each driver to use both tire compounds during road and street course races.
Palou signaled his intent and showed his speed on Lap 1 when he jumped from third to first on alternate tires, taking the top spot in Turn 13 from pole sitter Lundgaard, who was on primary tires.
For the next 65 laps, Palou, Lundgaard, O’Ward, Rosenqvist, Rossi, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Marcus Ericsson swapped the top spot as leaders peeled off the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course to execute their chosen tire and fuel strategies. The constant shuffle kept strategists on their toes, as one wrong move could have proved pivotal if a caution flag fell at the wrong time.
But the race stayed caution-free after an incident on Lap 2 between Dale Coyne Racing teammates David Malukas and Sting Ray Robb, so the outcome came down to a blend of smarts, speed and execution. And nobody did it better than Palou and the Ganassi brain trust.
Palou made his final stop on Lap 60, choosing scuffed Firestone primary tires, which are slower initially than the softer-compound alternates but whose harder compound lasted laps longer than the alternates and proved to be the better choice for consistent lap times.
Rossi took the lead on Lap 62 when teammate O’Ward pitted for a set of sticker alternate tires for his final stint. But Rossi surrendered the lead to Palou when he made his final stop on Lap 65, and then it was checkout time for Palou.
Palou had a 10.5-second lead on O’Ward when he inherited the lead after Rossi’s pit stop. O’Ward hoped to take a chunk out of that lead and perhaps even challenge Palou for victory due to the extra grip and speed of his sticker Firestone alternate tires, but Palou’s pace on both Firestone compounds proved too much. He pulled away over the closing laps, leaving the best jousting on track as the spirited, position-swapping contest for the final podium position between Rossi, Lundgaard and Rosenqvist.
“Hats off to them,” O’Ward said of Palou and the CGR team. “I just think they were extremely strong today. They really were. For us, we’re two, three and five as a team, and that’s pretty frickin’ phenomenal.
“The guys gave us a great race car. We were kind of just running our own race today. We were there fighting with Lundgaard and all of us teammates. Once I got clear, I had to minimize the gap I had to Alex, but I think they were very strong today. We were just hanging on there at the end, trying not to destroy our reds.”
Palou led 52 of the 85 laps, followed by Lundgaard with 13 laps led. Palou will split $10,000 with Chip Ganassi Racing and his chosen charity, The American Legion, for his victory as part of the PeopleReady Force For Good Challenge.
The win also vaulted Palou to the top of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings in the most important month of the series calendar. He leads second-place O’Ward, 174-168, after five races this season. Previous championship leader Ericsson slipped to third, 19 points behind Palou, after finishing eighth in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
The next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race is the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 28 on the 2.5-mile IMS oval. Practice for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” starts Tuesday, May 16, with PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying on Saturday, May 20 and Sunday, May 21.
Recap by Paul Kelly for INDYCAR.com