NTT IndyCar Series: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey Preview

Alex Palou races to victory at Road America. [John Wiedemann Photo]

Alex Palou takes the NTT IndyCar Series point lead to the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway-Laguna Seca. [John Wiedemann Photo]

by Paul Gohde

Alex Palou vaulted past Pato O’Ward with his win at Portland last week to take the NTT IndyCar Series point’s lead by 25 points as the series heads south to California this week for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway-Laguna Seca.

With just two races remaining on the schedule, the list of possible challengers for the 2021 NTT championship has tightened with Josef Newgarden (-34), Scott Dixon (-49) and Marcus Ericsson (-75) each hoping for something magical to happen at the former dry lake, site of Sunday’s next- to-last chance to make a serious move to overtake Palou for the crown.

Race Facts: This week’s race will be the 24th Indy car appearance at the 11-turn, 2.239-mile circuit that opened in 1957 as a sports car/motorcycle venue on property at the U.S. Army’s Fort Ord. Sunday’s IndyCar chase will cover 90-laps (212.61 miles). The track, located near Monterey, features a 300-ft. elevation change with the famous “Corkscrew” at turns 8 and 8A, waiting for the daring who attempt a pass there (think Alex Zanardi’s now famous pass of Bryan Herta on the inside of the Corkscrew for a last lap win in 1996). CART opened the track’s open-wheel race chapter in 1983 with Teo Fabi holding off Mario Andretti and (of all people) Chip Ganassi for the initial win. CART raced there 21 times (1983-2003), followed by Champ Car (2004) and the inaugural IndyCar Series race (2019) won by Colton Herta. The 2020 race was cancelled due to the Pandemic. Herta holds the IndyCar qualifying mark (114.867mph) and the IndyCar race record1:53:56.984 (105.057mph) both records having been set at the 2019 event.

Recent Race History: IndyCar’s initial race here in 2019 saw Colon Herta win for Harding Steinbrenner (his second of the season). Point’s leader Newgarden wrestled an ill-handling car to eighth place and his second NTT championship; the 16th for Team Penske. With ten laps remaining Herta led Will Power by less than a second. Within a couple laps Scott Dixon, Power and Simon Pagenaud were battling to catch Herta who had the most Push-to-Pass left. Pagenaud made the final charge but fell short giving Herta the win followed by Power, Dixon and Pagenaud. Alexander Rossi was sixth, earning him the Rookie of the Year award. As mentioned, the 2020 running was cancelled due to Covid 19.

2021 Season So Far: Point standings after 14/16 races: 1) Alex Palou, 477 points, 3 wins…2) O’Ward, 452, 2…3) Newgarden, 443, 2…4) Dixon, 428, 1…5) Marcus Ericsson, 402, 2…Other single-race winners: Herta, Power, Rinus VeeKay and Helio Castroneves…Manufacturer’s Standings: Honda, 1210 points/8 wins…Chevrolet, 1115/6.

Entries: Twenty-seven car/driver combinations will attack the “Corkscrew” and other challenges at Monterey. Basically, the same field that ran at Portland will be at Monterey including Callum Ilott and Meyer Shank’s Helio Castroneves.

Notes: TV: Qualifying, Saturday, NBCSN, 11:30 p.m. ET, (Delay)…Race, Sunday, NBC network, 3:00 p.m. ET, (Live)…After competing in Indy Car racing for the first time at Portland (finished 25th), Scuderia Ferrari F1 test driver Callum Ilott will finish the season’s final two races for Juncos Hollinger’s newly formed team as they continue to prepare for 2022…Ryan Hunter-Reay will leave Andretti Autosport after the Long Beach closer to likely be replaced by Romain Grosjean. Dale Coyne is said to be looking for Grosjean’s replacement, though no official announcement from AA has been made. Perhaps at Long Beach…

Our Take: IndyCar must be happy to see full fields and a closely bunched group of five pushing and pulling at each other for the championship with two races remaining. As we said last week, we believe the final two or three races should feature at least one oval, one street race and one natural road course. Monterey and Long Beach fill that hope, but an oval would make the “Final Three” a true championship run. And, as if we knew ahead of time, the first lap incident that took out part of the field and robbed fans of ten laps of racing, needs to be dealt with before IndyCar returns to Portland next season. Too many times in the past a crash in the first turn there has caused delay and elimination of some competitors. A plan needs to be enacted to make the run to the first turn exciting and worthy of an IndyCar track.

Next Race: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach…Sunday, September 26

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