Alex Palou stomps field to win GMR Grand Prix with aggressive tire strategy


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou and his team chose to begin the GMR Grand Prix on offense, and the rest of the NTT IndyCar Series field paid the price.

Taking advantage of an aggressive strategy by starting on the faster alternate tire, Palou went from third to first on the opening lap with an overtake of pole-sitter Christian Lundgaard in Turn 12 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was in control from there, leading the final 21 laps for his first victory of the season and the fifth of his IndyCar career (all on road courses). Palou, who led a race-high 51 laps, romped to a victory by 16.8006 seconds over Pato O’Ward.

RESULTS: Where everyone finished in the GMR Grand Prix

POINTS, FULL STATS PACKAGE: A full rundown of the GMR Grand Prix

Of the top seven on the starting grid, Palou’s No. 10 Dallara-Honda was the only car to opt for beginning the 85-lap race on the softer alternate red tires that are faster but wear out more quickly.

“What an amazing job by the 10 crew,” Palou, who entered the race as the top-ranked driver in NBC Sports’ IndyCar power rankings, told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “Super happy. We honestly knew we had a fast car since (practice) yesterday. Once we knew we were starting on reds, we were going to fight for a win. Amazing work by these guys. I just had to execute.”

Palou said he was surprised more drivers elected to start on the primary black tires (which last longer but have less pace). His team initially considered starting on used reds before trying new alternates.

“For us, it was clear,” Palou said. “We were struggling a little bit more than some of the guys on used reds in the warmup. That’s why we started on new alternates, try to get the lead, try to get a big gap, like 2 to 4 seconds, then work on our pace on blacks.

“Once I saw the starting grid with the tires, we were like, ‘OK, we’re in a good place. Still you have to do it. If you get stuck behind Lundgaard on reds, your race is over, because then you’re always stuck in traffic on the same strategy as his. We knew we were on the right strategy for the 10 car, but you still had to do it on track.

“We knew that since practice, honestly, that we wanted to start on reds. I was surprised that not other people at the front started on reds. But it worked for us, so yeah.”

The 2021 IndyCar Series champion also took the lead of the title standings for the first time in a year, leading by six points over O’Ward entering the 107th Indianapolis 500.

Arrow McLaren placed its three Dallara-Chevrolets in the top five with Palou and teammates Alexander Rossi (third) and Felix Rosenqvist (fifth).

It was Palou’s first victory since the 2022 season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where he won by 30.381 seconds

“Man, hats off to (Palou and his team), they were just extremely strong today,” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee after his third runner-up finish this year.

“Congrats to Alex and Chip Ganassi. For us, (finishing) two three and five as a team is pretty fricking phenomenal. The guys gave us a great race car.”

Rossi and Rosenqvist earned their best finishes of 2023.

“That’s a huge testament to the organization and a big confidence boost and good momentum into the most important race of the year,” Rossi told Lee. “We haven’t quite executed completely. The pace in the car is there. It’s a lovely race car to drive. We just have to find a way to extract a little more performance for optimal lap time on the 7 car.”

Lundgaard led 13 laps and finished a season-best fourth from his first career pole position, coming up short in his bid to become the second first-time winner this season.

“I’m satisfied with a fourth,” the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver told Snider. “(The car) wasn’t as quick today. There was a point I felt we weren’t going to finish in the top 10, to end up fourth is a win right now. We need to look at the perspective  of how great performance-wise we’ve been.”

Palou became the fifth winner in five IndyCar races this season, joining Marcus Ericsson (St. Pete), Josef Newgarden (Texas), Kyle Kirkwood (Long Beach) and Scott McLaughlin (Barber) in the parade to victory lane.

The focus now turns to the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will open Tuesday for four days of practice leading into two days of qualifying for the Indy 500.

The 107th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will be held May 28 (coverage will begin at 9 a.m. ET on Peacock, moving to NBC at 11 a.m.), and the podium of Sunday’s race has many reasons to be confident.

Rossi won the 500-Mile Race at the Brickyard in 2016, and O’Ward finished second last year when McLaren had the strongest Chevys.

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Palou finished runner-up to Helio Castroneves in 2021 and was in contention to win in ’22 before being caught out on fuel by an ill-timed caution flag.

“We had an amazing test,” Palou said of the April 27 session on the IMS oval. “It can not be a better start than what we’ve had so far. We had the car the last three years. We’ve just been close. We’ll keep digging, and hopefully it’ll be our day.”

Said O’Ward: “Historically this hasn’t been the best of tracks for us. So this is awesome to see just the massive step forward we’ve taken here in race pace. Super happy to see that.

“Rolling with some great momentum into our Super Bowl. Indy is different. We’re not really going to know what we’ve got up until we put all the fast bits on the car, we see where we stack up.

“Obviously last year the Ganassis were the different benchmark. They’re the ones that we’re chasing. We’ve been putting so much hard work. I know the engineers have spent endless hours of just time in all the different ways that we can find lap time for Indy.

“I’m just so excited to see what we can do. We’ve continuously put ourselves into good positions the past few years. I think I can do it again for all of us. Hopefully, we get that opportunity and go that one more step that we want to do.”

Rossi said Arrow McLaren’s performance was important from a mental aspect.

“Man, this is a momentum game,” he said. “We talk about it a lot. Performance here doesn’t translate (to the oval), but you know you’ve got the ability to have the results across all three cars. When everyone is relaxed and just doing what they know how to do, the confidence in their abilities is when the performance comes.”

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and six red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500