Erratic driving upends IndyCar’s championship race

1 Comment

MADISON, Ill. — Alex Palou stood in the darkened infield watching a replay of the crash that had knocked him out of the final oval event of the season and, consequently, swallowed the last of his lead in the IndyCar standings.

The rest of the field roared on without him Saturday night at World Wide Technology Raceway after Palou was caught in a three-car accident triggered by yet another sketchy restart.

Sloppy racing and botched restarts have been a problem all season in IndyCar – remember, eventual race winner Marcus Ericsson drove up and over Sebastien Bourdais even before the field got to the restart line at Nashville earlier this month – and a rash of impatient and overaggressive driving has jumbled the championship fight.

“We’ve had some pretty erratic and some pretty crazy driving this season, but it just seems to go unnoticed,” Scott Dixon, the six-time and reigning IndyCar champion, said after he was collected in the crash with teammate Palou.

Said race winner, Josef Newgarden: “I think people are driving aggressively these days. You almost have to match it to some degree because if you don’t, you just get run over.”

And Palou, helplessly stuck outside the care center as Pato O’Ward cruised past him for the IndyCar points lead, simply wondered why there was so much impatience with nearly 200 laps to go. “It’s so early. I mean, if it’s the last lap of the race, I can understand. But it’s still early.”

The dicey racing has upturned the championship race and put O’Ward, a 22-year-old Mexican with Formula One aspirations, on top of the IndyCar standings. O’Ward in two weeks went from 42 points down to 10 up on Palou, a 24-year-old Spaniard who has led after eight of 13 rounds.

Palou was last bumped from atop the standings six races ago, in June at Detroit, where an O’Ward victory briefly pushed him ahead by a single point. There is no favorite in the championship race headed into a three-week West Coast swing close to the season, and only 60 points separate O’Ward from Ericsson in fifth.

Newgarden’s victory leapfrogged him from fifth to third and only 22 points back, while Dixon lost nine more points to fall 43 behind.

O’Ward, benefactor of the bold – dangerous? – driving, admitted to playing it safe with calculated moves Saturday night. He finished second to Newgarden and was content to follow the better car. O’Ward’s only chance to win would’ve been if Newgarden was slowed by lapped cars “but they were all very respectful. That’s a change.”

And O’Ward seemed to exonerate Rinus VeeKay for his role in crashing Palou and Dixon, noting that the restarts have been a mess this season. In fact, O’Ward believed the blame lay ahead of VeeKay at perhaps Alexander Rossi for creating a nearly three-wide pack heading into the turn.

“I guess he doesn’t look in his left mirror here. He just turned in, so I had to slam on the brakes so I didn’t crash,” O’Ward said. “I’m assuming that is what caused the checkup behind for sure. For me. it was sudden and pretty aggressive, yes.”

He contended some in the field raced dirty because “I had a lot to lose and they know that. They’re just taking advantage of what position they’re in terms of the championship.”

Dixon believes it is time for IndyCar race control to get involved and, well, control the erratic drivers. There’s so much at stake and it seems unfair when careless, sloppy decisions collect drivers trying to race the right way.

Newgarden admitted after Saturday night’s victory it was difficult to bite his tongue and not name-check the worst offenders. But he said it’s up to individual competitors to learn the nuances of their rivals and figure out who it is safe to race around.

“We all have our feelings on who we feel like is not the right person to be around or who we think is aggressive more than others. It’s just part of the learning process, trying to understand your competitors,” he said. “It’s like that in any series. Everyone knows or has an opinion on who they think is probably not safe to be around on the track.”

There’s a purported hierarchy in NASCAR in which the veterans will mercilessly denounce dangerous driving, lack of etiquette and dismissal of the gentleman’s agreement. Newgarden doesn’t think IndyCar has a similar one.

“I don’t think there’s like a pecking order as far as the veterans and who gets a talking to; I don’t think the youth really cares anyways,” he said.

So it comes down to self-policing and figuring out how to race each individual driver, he said.

“You end up causing enough problems in a row, an individual, that’s going to turn into a bad situation,” Newgarden said.

O’Ward thinks its more cut and dry and drivers need to stop playing games.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard to comprehend. Man, just stay in one throttle, then go. It’s so simple,” O’Ward said. “You see the first (car) jump a little bit, let’s go. If not, you just get eaten. They stop, you stop, you’re relying on the guys behind to stop and it just creates chaos.”

After Will Power extension, Marcus Ericsson among IndyCar drivers awaiting new deals

IndyCar free agents
Chris Owens, Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

FORT WORTH, Texas – Defending series champion Will Power’s name is off the board of potential IndyCar free agents, but there’s still much to be settled in the field – starting with the reigning Indy 500 winner.

Marcus Ericsson is waiting on a contract offer to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond the 2023 season (his fourth with the team). The Swede said he’s made it clear to car owner Chip Ganassi that he wants to stay in the No. 8 Dallara-Honda, which has four victories since June 2021.

“Yeah, it’s up to him, basically,” Ericsson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “He needs to give me an offer for ’24 onward. The ball is in his corner. I really enjoy it at Ganassi, and we’ve done a lot of great things together and would love to continue, but the ball is in his corner. He knows very well what I want.”

INDYCAR AT TEXAS: Scheduls, start times, how to watch on NBC, Peacock

Two days before Ericsson won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener March 5, Ganassi sang the praises of the emerging star driver to a small group of reporters.

“I want him here beyond this year,” Ganassi said of Ericsson. “He seems to have gotten more out of winning the Indy 500 than anyone else has of recent time, which is a good thing. He did a good job. He’s been everywhere. It’s been a really positive thing for Marcus, the team, the series. He’s grown with that as well.”

Ericsson didn’t sew up his current deal until late in his breakthrough 2021 season (after a memorable victory in the inaugural Music City Grand Prix). So he isn’t necessarily anxious about it but conceded he “was thinking a bit about it over the winner in the offseason and talking about it

“But now that the season has started, I told my managers and everyone I want to focus on the driving. They focus on those things. Now the season is on, and I want to try to win races, win another 500 and championship. That’s where my focus is. (A new contract) is one of those things that happens when it happens. But I’m happy where I am, and I want to do well.”

IndyCar’s two best teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, tend to be very tight-lipped about their drivers’ contract status.

Power confirmed Friday to journalist Bruce Martin that his new deal was for multiple seasons. That means all three of Penske’s drivers are in multiple-year contracts (unlike Power’s deal, Scott McLaughlin’s extension was announced by the team last year).

But there is more uncertainty at Ganassi’s four cars aside from Ericsson. While Scott Dixon has a ride for as long as he wants (and the six-time champion has given no indication of retiring), Ganassi’s other two other seats have yet to be solidified beyond 2023.

The No. 11 is being split this year by rookie Marcus Armstrong and veteran Takuma Sato this season. In  the No. 10, Alex Palou is believed to be in his final year at Ganassi before heading to Arrow McLaren.

That expected move would cast doubt on the future of Felix Rosenqvist, who returned to Arrow McLaren when the team was unable to bring in Palou (who was embroiled in a contract dispute with Ganassi).

Aside from Penske, virtually every other IndyCar team (including Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, which has Helio Castroneves in a contract year) has seats that potentially could open for next season, and even drivers who appear to be under contract for next year still could be on the move (via buyouts and option years).

Though Juncos Hollinger Racing announced a “long-term, multiyear contract partnership” last July with Callum Ilott, but the second-year driver was cagey Friday when asked about how long the extension ran.

“It’s for whatever I want it to be,” said Ilott, who finished a career-best fifth at St. Petersburg. “I’ll say that.”

Before returning to JHR, Ilott turned enough heads as a rookie to draw interest from several teams, and he indicated Friday that he still would be listening.

“I’d love to talk to some other big teams,” Ilott said. “Nothing stops me from talking. Look, you’ve got to be fair. I agreed to (the deal), but it’s pretty obvious that I’m quite interested as people are interested in me as a driver, but I need to focus on the job I’ve got here.

“I’m confident whether it’s in one year, two years, three years, four years, that if I’m wanted now, I’ll always be wanted. I’m a good enough driver that I don’t need to lack confidence in that side. … I’m not worried.”