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IndyCar Drivers’ View: May momentum, happy disappointment and the NXT generation

Written by Archie O’Reilly

Alex Palou has kicked off his Month of May with victory on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) road course for the second year in succession. Will Power and Christian Lundgaard completed the podium after a condensed two-day weekend featuring a Saturday race given that Indianapolis 500 practice is scheduled to commence on Tuesday.

From the future generation starring in Indy NXT by Firestone, to Palou’s near-perfection to find himself atop the championship in the premier NTT IndyCar Series, DIVEBOMB presents some of the drivers’ stories from the opening track action of May…

Palou’s Month of May momentum

Momentum is so often spoken about given the jam-packed nature of May from the moment practice commences on the road course at IMS. And Palou is a believer that it “always helps” to have it on your side, as shown as he went to take Indy 500 pole just over one week on from his road course success in 2022.

“Mentally if you are on the fence of doing a good overtake or a bad overtake, you’re probably going to do a good one,” he said on the importance of momentum. “And the same goes for laps when it comes down to really high-pressure moments.”

It was not a straightforward Grand Prix of Indianapolis for the two-time and defending series champion. Starting on pole, he admitted to a mistake as he ran deep and found himself overtaken by Lundgaard. A further place was lost to Power following the opening pit cycle but the Spaniard overcut the pair in the second pit cycle and controlled the race from there.

“Everything must be perfect,” Palou said. “There’s so many moving parts that as soon as something goes wrong, you’re out. Our race wasn’t perfect, starting with my mistake on lap one. But from that point, it was as good as it could have been. Nowadays in IndyCar, with the competition you have, you need to be 99 percent perfect.”

Palou handed “all the kudos” to his team for their part in his 10th IndyCar win. He went as far as saying he is “just a passenger sometimes” when sitting in the car, such is the level of equipment at his disposal. He also felt the balance of playing an aggressive strategy but not overstepping the mark was perfect.

“I don’t think that there are huge differences in terms of performance,” he added. “But there are really big differences in terms of executing. And my team is the best at executing and getting 100 percent or sometimes 101 percent of what we have every single weekend.”

It was victory in last year’s Indy GP that kickstarted Palou’s “special” championship run, with Indy 500 pole following and three successive wins ensuing post-500. There is a feeling that similar momentum is being found, even before heading to IMS.

“Obviously I would prefer to be P1 by like 100 points but I don’t think there’s enough races yet,” Palou joked pre-event on Thursday. “But it’s been good. The car has been really fast. The team has been performing really well. Maybe we’ve been lacking a little bit more speed - at the beginning in St. Pete.

“From there, I think we’ve been able to fight for the win every single race week but there were just cars and drivers and teams that did a better job than us. So far we improved or matched every single result from last year. We’re looking good.”

Palou and Ganassi’s 500 bid

Chip Ganassi Racing has picked up the last three Indy 500 pole positions and their confidence has by no means diminished this year. And so, with Palou taking pole (incidentally only the fifth of his IndyCar career) and the win (by contrast his 10th) on the IMS road course, talk is already turning to whether he could sweep the entirety of May.

“We know we have a fast car,” he said after his Indy GP win. “Obviously we got the pole here last year. But the competition is tight. They never give you anything. The focus now is on qualifying, trying to get the pole. But we want to win the Indy 500. In a couple of hours I’ll switch to Indy 500 mode… It would mean everything.”

Palou traded the lead with Rinus VeeKay in the early parts of the 2023 Indy 500 before the Dutchman spun into him in the pit lane, forcing him to the back of the pack. But as Palou noted to the media, he made his way back from 28th to fourth, which he remains “proud” of and believes is the maximum they could have achieved. 

“You need to go through so many days of ups and downs,” he said of May. “It just makes you love or hate this place. I fully love it so far.”

Palou was joined in the top five of this weekend’s road course event by teammates Scott Dixon and Marcus Armstrong - the latter’s fifth-place finish the best of his IndyCar career to date. Armstrong, along with teammates Linus Lundqvist and Kyffin Simpson, will be making his Indy 500 debut this month.

“He’s been working very hard and been knocking on that door,” Palou said of Armstrong. “He still hasn’t had the perfect weekend where everything fits for him but he’s been really fast. Even last year here in August, he qualified seventh and unfortunately I took him out on the first lap. But he’s been really good.. I’m sure that he will have a couple of wins this year.”

Armstrong’s countryman Dixon, who he pressured late in Saturday’s race, is bidding to add to his 2008 success and make it three Indy 500 poles in four years this month. But there remains pressure for the six-time series champion.

“There’s always pressure no matter what race it is because everybody wants to do well,” he said. “It’s what you put on yourself. But I’m excited. Every year you get the possibility, and especially when you come with a team like this, you get a great opportunity to come back and try and win it. I know all five cars are going to be strong.”

A trio of seconds for Power

Power has not held back on the fact that it is starting to weigh a little that he has not won a race since his sole victory in his second championship-winning campaign in 2022. He feels he is doing everything he needs, including qualifying inside the top three in three successive races, but has had to settle for three second-place finishes in four races.

“It’s got to be a perfect day,” he said. “The day I won the 500 was a perfect day on strategy, pit stops, everything - no mistakes. There weren’t really any mistakes today. It was just circumstance. Qualifying, a little mistake puts you on the back foot. If you keep working hard, it just falls together for you at some point.”

Power had looked the best bet to take pole on Friday, topping both of the opening rounds, before a slide on his final lap meant he had to settle for third after consecutive second-place starts. He felt his race day was “solid” and maximised against a nigh on unbeatable Palou across 85 laps.

“Only thing we’re lacking is a win,” Power - second in the standings - said. “That would have made it a better start to the season. But we’re there every week. We're there every week. It’s there to be taken if we do everything perfectly. I just wish I was a bit more like Dixon where some of them just fall into place for you. 

“It doesn’t seem to flow like that for me. I don't know why. Every win I get it's just the hardest fought win. I’ll take an easy one at some point. The next race, if I got absolutely lucky I would be very proud of that - like the dude that should not have won, he wasn’t the quickest, but he did. I’m taking it.”

Still, Power could admit “it’s a good day” whenever you finish on the podium, especially considering the consistency required to win a championship. He has been outspoken about the level of competition in the series.

“It’s tougher this year than ever,” he said. “I love the competition - that’s what I thrive in. It’s the toughest series in the world. I don’t think you see qualifying sessions as tight as this anywhere in the world. More people need to know about it. I hope the series keeps pushing forward to let people know how great this series really is.”

Power’s third P2 finish of the season is made even more impressive by the fact suspensions in the wake of the Team Penske push-to-pass saga saw him lose strategist Ron Ruzewski, plus data engineer Robbie Atkinson. Race engineer David Faustino successfully completed double duty by dabbling in strategy, which Power expects to continue for the Indy 500.

“It has run very well,” Power said. “Everyone has got their head down. Disappointed all that played out. But focusing forward, not even thinking about sort of the penalties. It was a mistake and it happened. When you’re a top team like Penske, people certainly like to really blow everything up and make a big deal of it. It was actually a mistake.”

Looking ahead to the next fortnight, Power continues to believe Penske “should be right there” and in the fight for pole after an off-season of improvement.

Lundgaard “happy to be disappointed”

Lundgaard’s third-place finish means he has now finished once on each step of the rostrum - his second-place finish also coming on the IMS road course in the second race in 2022. With a front row start in the 2024 event, he has qualified inside the top two in the last three visits, including with his maiden pole position last May. He has never started lower than eighth.

But on one of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL)’s strongest tracks - and the place where Lundgaard himself qualified fourth and finished 12th on his IndyCar debut - there are mixed feelings about a third-place finish. There was a feeling a second career win could have been on the table after victory on the streets of Toronto last year.

“Happy to be disappointed,” Lundgaard said post-race. “That’s becoming an expression in the RLL engineering truck. Sometimes we’re just happy to be disappointed. I’m proud of the team… There was a minimum, which was a podium. We got it but I wanted it to be a win.”

He suffered an early puncture in St. Petersburg and finished 18th after managing to qualify 12th - impressively his lowest start of the season - despite the team’s struggle for pace in the season opener. He then went backwards from seventh to 23rd, owing partially to strategy, in Long Beach before a third-place start became sixth at Barber Motorsports Park. 

The 22-year-old was not too happy with his start to the season, with strong qualifying results not necessarily being converted into matching race results. A podium is a good return from the Indy GP, even if not the win the team was chasing after leading in the opening two stints of the race.

“We really did the best job that I think we could on the first two stints,” Lundgaard, who took the lead from Palou at the start, said. “I think we were a little bold trying to put on another sticker set of primes for the third stint but the alternative was a very used alternate tyre that we had to put a long way in the race. I preferred the primary tyres there.”

Next up, RLL are looking to put their wretched 2023 Indy 500 campaign behind them. They have put in lots of hard work to ensure there is no repeat of having all three of their full-time drivers in Last Chance Qualifying, which saw Graham Rahal bumped from the race.

“We are definitely going to be better than we have been the past two years,” Lundgaard, who never looked under threat on Bump Day, said. “The last two years were the last two years. We are moving forward and we’ve forgotten about that and we have made improvements. The question is how much better is it going to be.”

Abel leads the way in Indy NXT

Jacob Abel maintained his all-top-two record in Indy NXT so far this year with a victory and second-place finish, building on his first win in the category at Barber. He took pole position for both races of the IMS road course doubleheader and leads Nolan Siegel by 25 points in the championship after four races.

“We hit the jackpot a little bit in qualifying,” Abel said after his opening race win. “Had a good start and just put my head down and was able to open up a little bit of a gap there in the first few laps and managed things from there, preparing for a late-race restart, which we ended up getting two of. Was able to still have plenty of tyre left, plenty of push-to-pass left.”

Siegel had to settle for a weekend of second and fifth-place finishes - the second seeing him pegged back by contact with Jamie Chadwick - after qualifying fifth for both races. He now gears up for an Indy 500 campaign with Dale Coyne Racing as part of a four-event IndyCar programme before his Indy NXT championship bid continues. 

The second race saw Abel lose a position to double-front-row starter Caio Collet at the start. A further place was lost to eventual fast-charging winner Louis Foster but Collet fell back to third as the race progressed. Abel was able to manage his race and learn from his experience leading on Friday to ensure he was able to finish ahead of the Brazilian rookie.

“I understood the limits of the tires and I saw Caio [and] how hard he was pushing the first few laps,” Abel said. “I figured there was no way he could hold up that pace…It would have been easy to get sucked into pushing really hard and trying to catch him and trying to get him back but was able to just manage it. I just tried to be patient and save everything I had.”

Abel knows, in a championship bid, you will be “judged on your bad days” and, so far, his worst day being a second-place finish marks a good start to the season. He doesn’t want the second race “to overshadow what we were able to accomplish” across the weekend as a whole. 

“I’m really putting everything, every ounce of effort I can into this, and it seems to be paying off so far,” he said. “I understand what it takes to get to that next level, and if I’m not having those results, I’m not going to deserve to be there. I’m going to do whatever I can.”

Foster bounces back from Barber

Foster has had a rocky start to his sophomore championship bid in Indy NXT. He finished third in St. Pete but had next to no running at Barber due to a weekend riddled by electronic issues, curtailing any practice running and preventing him from qualifying. But it allowed a sublime recovery drive from 21st to fifth.

“If I can’t do anything about it, I don’t get worried about it,” he said. “I’m not going to get all flustered and upset about it because I can’t change it… Hopefully a few team owners of IndyCar teams have been able to watch that and see what I can do there. It’s not great for the championship but it’s not the worst race in the world.”

That sort of race can define championships, though. Abel noted that that sort of performance can “be almost as important” by the end of seasons. And despite qualifying fourth for both IMS road course races, Foster was forced into a similar recovery performance in the opening race due to front wing damage.

“It was a bit of unfortunate contact between me and Caio,” he said. “A bit of a racing incident - I didn’t know there was a penalty coming his way for blocking. I took that one on the chin, probably could have waited a bit longer.”

Foster was able to show the car’s pace in the second race on Saturday, driving through from fourth to the lead with others unable to match him and a third Indy NXT win a reward. He said it was “needed” to simply gain points after “a rough few rounds”. He is now third and 47 points back from Abel.

“I managed tyres a lot better than the other drivers,” he said. “That really helped me with Caio, getting past him. I was watching him burn up his whileI was just looking after mine. Then that allowed me to use less push-to-pass and eventually get past him.”

Foster is now targeting an improvement in qualifying, with fourth-place starts for the three races he has participated in qualifying for. He picked up four poles and qualified no lower than sixth in his rookie season.

First-time podium-sitters 

Chadwick and Collet both stepped on the podium for the first time in Indy NXT with third-place finishes. Chadwick made up three places in the first race, while Collet held onto a top-three finish in the second after failing to convert from the first of two second-place starts in Friday’s race.

“I was really happy to come to the US,” Collet, who is a three-time FIA Formula 3 race-winner, said. “I’m finding it really fun. It’s a little bit different - the format of the weekend and also tyres especially. I think the car itself to drive is not that different but just the push-to-pass and also racing here, the moves you can do, cannot do is a little bit different.”

Three-time W Series champion Chadwick, meanwhile, spoke of how gratifying it was to step on the podium for the first time after “a tough year and tough transition” in 2023. She had struggled to convert top-10 pace in the opening two rounds of 2024 but managed to put everything together on Friday.


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