top of page

IndyCar Drivers’ View: Strategy gambles, caution controversy and end of an era

Written by Archie O’Reilly


Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou mastered Monterey for the second time in three years as he took victory at Laguna Seca on Sunday, preserving his 100 percent podium record at the iconic Californian circuit. The Spaniard took his fifth IndyCar pole on Saturday before overcoming a significant amount of hurdles in the race. 


It was 95 laps that had almost everything and it was not without jeopardy for the victor. Five caution periods - three of which came inside the closing 20 laps - pegged Palou back from possibly running away. But despite this peril, plus the loss of the lead at the start and gambling on an alternate strategy, the driver of the No.10 Honda took his 11th career victory.


It was a splendid performance from Palou, vaulting him to the top of the championship by 23 points ahead of Team Penske’s Will Power. He was joined on the podium by Andretti Global’s Colton Herta and Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi. 


Here is how the drivers reacted…


Palou’s Laguna Seca love affair


Speaking after qualifying, Palou delved into his adoration for Laguna Seca. And given his successes there, it should come as little surprise that it is his favourite track. He again expressed his love for the circuit after taking victory.


“I love it,” he said with a beaming smile. “I love this place. I wish we could race here more often. It was a really tough race. Lots of up and downs. It went down on the first corner when I did a mistake, played it too nice, lost the lead. Then as well on the first pit sequence. At the beginning of the race, I wasn’t really executing. 


“The car was really fast… I couldn’t overtake Kyle. That put us in a bad position. I was not really happy with myself at the beginning. The team had to do a really risky strategy - too risky in my opinion.”


But Palou quickly got into his groove. He collected himself after a poor start, which saw him remarkably running right in the wheel tracks of Kyle Kirkwood’s No.27 Andretti Honda without any seeming drop-off in the first stint. And as risky as an alternate strategy may have then been, he had the speed to execute as the race progressed. 


“We were lucky to have a really big pace advantage this time,” Palou said of why he was able to follow Kirkwood so closely for so long. “Normally it’s bad to be so close. In my opinion, we were running super slow and I was not even pushing too much on the tyres. There’s other races where you need to leave a gap to leave your tires to breathe.


“My car was superior here and I could stay close. It wasn’t good for the tires - at the end I was struggling. But he was struggling a little bit more.”


Palou being so comfortable following another car so closely spoke to how at ease he feels around the Laguna Seca track. He has found the magic formula, albeit without actually quite knowing what said formula is.


“I don’t know,” Palou said of why he excels so much on this particular track, speaking in his typically bubbly tone. “I wish I knew - that way hopefully I could try and analyse and see if I could do the same in other tracks where I’m not as fast. When you love a track so much, I think you get an extra that helps everything. 


“The fact that we had really good cars here helps a lot. You can see on tyre deg that we’re really good. I would say it’s a proper track. You cannot really do any mistakes. It allows you to push really hard. Having these medium-to-high-speed corners, it’s been good for us… I have no idea but I just love this place. It’s the most beautiful place we go to for sure.”


Herta evaluated that Palou’s tyre-saving ability is important at a track like Laguna Seca, while Rossi was keen to point out that this is not an outlier of a track for Palou.


“He’s won at a lot of tracks,” Rossi said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily this one. I think it’s a track where, even with the repave, it’s all about managing a four-wheel slide in a lot of different places. I think he’s quite good at that while still being able to protect tires. That’s, I would imagine, the reason why he’s able to make such a difference here.”


The “risky” winning No.10 strategy


The gamble of a strategy that Palou spoke of was the decision to stay out under the first caution, which came out for a crash for Dale Coyne Racing’s Luca Ghiotto on Lap 36. He had dropped back a few places on the primary tyres at the time and those ahead had opted to come into the pits.


“I didn’t know if the radio was working or not because everybody peeled in and I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “There was no communication. Sometimes we agree to say: ‘If everybody in front of you goes to the pit lane, you follow.’ There was no instruction, so I stayed out.”


Palou had felt he was on a “good strategy” before the caution flew, despite having fallen back a little. It came as a surprise that he didn’t follow suit with the rest of the field. 


“It was like: ‘Okay, this full-course yellow allows us to be all on the same page and I still have the best or the fastest tyre to run while nobody else has,’” he said. “I doubted [staying out] because everybody peeled in and I stayed out. I looked at my mirror and there was nobody until I saw Pato [O’Ward] and [Romain] Grosjean that were a little bit in the back. 


“Obviously I was like: ‘Oh, are we sure?’ As soon as they said that we had to go fast, I understood what we had to do. It was just game on from there.”


Those who stopped under the caution were pegged back in traffic, meaning Palou was able to come out behind only Rossi and Herta after finally pitting for a second time given the benefit of clean air. And with the ability to enter ‘game on’ mode and push hard while others had to save fuel, Palou never lost the net lead after a Lap 64 Corkscrew pass on Herta. 


By the time it came to his final stop, which came a few laps after others in the lead battle had pitted, Palou had enough of a buffer to return out on track almost 10 seconds ahead of Herta while again not having to be in any sort of conservation mindset. 


“It was too risky but it worked out so I’m really happy,” Palou said. “Sometimes you need a little bit of luck… it was not luck. We were obviously putting ourselves in danger in case there was a yellow. Glad that it worked out.”


The strategy proved a somewhat unexpected masterstroke and any doubt was unfounded in the end. After all, Palou’s strategist Barry Wanser is one of the very best in the business and a major part of why the No.10 team is such a well-oiled operation. 


“It’s motorsport,” Palou said. “We knew we had the car for P1. I was P4 at that time - finishing P4 today wasn’t a good race. I understand what [Wanser] did. Beginning obviously I was like: ‘Oh man, I’m the only one here.’ Obviously it’s not the preferred strategy. I doubted a little bit at the beginning. At the same time I knew they know a lot more the numbers. 


“They had trust in me going fast. I have a lot of faith. As a driver, you always doubt everything. Just in case it goes wrong, I can say: ‘I knew it.’ When I saw everybody coming in: ‘Are we sure this is a good one?’ If it didn’t go well, I could say: ‘I told you.’ If it went well, I could say: ‘Yeah, you did a good job.’”


Drivers have to put their belief in their team and it was vindicated for Palou. He admitted he usually has no say in strategy calls given the importance of knowing fuel numbers and similar.


“I knew we were going to pull a gap,” he said. “Imagine we have eight seconds ahead, then there’s a caution… we’re done - we have to make an extra pit stop to everybody, we’re going to be in the back of the queue, we’re not going to have any way to overtake 10, 15 cars. That’s why it was a bit risky. For my mind, it was just like: ‘Are we sure this is the right one?’


“When [Wanser] said yes, I was like: ‘Alright, let’s go fast.’ So that’s what we did. As a driver you cannot really doubt all the time what they are doing, especially with the past I had with Barry and everybody calling the strategies. They’ve been calling 99.9 percent - every time it’s been amazing.”


When all is said and done, if he was to run the race again, would Palou do the same again?


“Yes” - his answer.


Herta gets back on track


Two-time Laguna Seca winner Herta kicked off his year with back-to-back podiums but has been caught up in some issues both within his control and outside of his control in the last four races. 


He was punted off-track by teammate Marcus Ericsson early in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis after a fuelling issue in qualifying, sparking a recovery drive. Similar applied en-route to finishing sixth at Road America prior to Laguna Seca amid two early incidents involving contact with other drivers. 


He also had one of the fastest cars in the Indianapolis 500 but crashed in the race and also had made an error that put him out of contention after starting on pole in Detroit. A return to the podium - his third of the year after only one last season - and a smooth weekend after this rocky period is a relief.


“It’s a good result for us, something to build off of,” Herta said. “Obviously it’s frustrating not to win here being from California and whatnot. The Gainbridge Honda was fast - we showed it saved fuel fast and it could run flat out fast. I’m happy with the podium.”


There was a hint of frustration from Herta that he was held back by having to save fuel for portions of the race. Though even when pushing harder, he did not really have an answer for Palou’s flat-out pace.


“I don’t think I really could [risk anything],” he said. “I wasn’t as quick as him on the restarts so I never got a good run at it. Beforehand we were limiting our push-to-pass because of how much fuel we were having to save. At the end I was full out, I couldn't get around him.”


Herta ultimately appeared to maximise his result and felt he maximised his strategy - whether the right call or not to pit under the opening caution - and pulled a gap on every other car aside from Palou’s No.10 Honda. 


“I think it’s up to the strategist to know you and know your personality, whether you’re a guy that’s able to save fuel and go fast,” Herta said. “Obviously Rob [Edwards, strategist] thought that we could do that so that’s the decision he made. There’s a lot of factors that go into making that decision. 


“It’s hard for us to know exactly what the right decision is in the car because we don’t have all the data on the screens to look at the fuel numbers, what tyres guys are running on, the last time other people pit. It’s hard to track all that when you’re inside the car. That’s why they’re obviously so important to us.”


Rossi’s return to the rostrum


Rossi made only his third road-and-street Fast Six appearance for Arrow McLaren - his first of the season - at Laguna Seca. He then led the race by almost 10 seconds after the first pit cycle but could not convert his first victory for the team. But he still came home third for his second Arrow McLaren podium since joining the team ahead of the 2023 season.


“Good,” Rossi said in reflection of his day with a smile. “Very good, yes. Much good.”


He elaborated to say: “I think we were able to just start strong this weekend. Obviously qualifying was strong for us - we know how important qualifying is to get a good result in this championship. We knew we had a good shot - I was glad we were able to manage the race and have good pace in all phases. It was a welcome change of pace.”


Rossi now sits seventh in the championship and only 10 points adrift of teammate Pato O’Ward having only twice finished outside the top 10 so far this season - both due to issues outside of his control. He has been in the top five in three of the last four races.


“I think our pace out front, pushing, was certainly better than what we could do once it kind of switched to a fuel race,” he said. “Nonetheless, it was a great job by the team all around to manage a difficult race with the strategy flipping back and forth. [It was] kind of wild there with all the restarts at the end.”


There is a sense that Rossi feels there was more potential given the way the race unfolded after he followed suit with those pitting during the early caution. This does at least offer even more hope moving forward, albeit with only two road course races remaining in 2024. 


Similar to Herta, Rossi was in the camp of not knowing whether he ended up on the right strategy. It was unclear whether Palou’s strategy was the right one or whether he simply executed the challenge with his superior pace. 


“Certainly I think we were quicker when we weren’t saving fuel, at least on the No.7 car side,” Rossi said. “That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the right strategy for us. I honestly have no idea what Alex’s pace was in clean air. I mean, he was strong all day. We knew he was the car to beat… was going to be hard to beat.”


The delaying of cautions debate


One of the big talking points from the race was how race control dealt with the caution for Ganassi’s Marcus Armstrong stopping on track after being pushed wide and spinning back across the circuit. He came to a halt facing into traffic on one of the fastest corners on the track. But the caution was not thrown until cars had the chance to pit.


While he would ultimately have two off-track excursions and did not take advantage of the benefits, Josef Newgarden got a free pit stop and was able to cycle out in second place despite having been off-sequence and far from in contention for most of the race. Drivers were dissatisfied by this given the obvious safety issue of Armstrong’s stuck car.


“No, I wasn’t,” Herta said when asked whether he was ‘thrilled’ by the situation after an unimpressed radio message at the time. “But it is what it is.”


Rossi similarly kept fairly quiet when pressed for his opinion. But the silence was telling.


“I don’t have an opinion anymore,” he said. “ I mean, I do. But I don’t vocalise it anymore.”


The decision to keep the pits open and delay the caution is something that has been seen before. But that does not mean drivers necessarily agree; in trying not to disadvantage drivers, they are sometimes actually being given a fortuitous advantage.


“I think whatever it is, it has to be consistent,” Herta added. “That’s the biggest thing. At the end of the day if somebody hits the wall, you have to throw the yellow just to see if they’re okay most of the time. I know they try to help as much as they can when they’re allowed to. 


“When they don’t have to throw the yellow, they try not to. They did it here last year, only for Alex [Palou], but they did it here last year. They’ve done it before so it’s not like something brand new.”


At this point, Palou had just arrived in the media centre and sat between Rossi and Herta. The quip from Herta was greeted by outstretched arms from Palou, along with a slight grin and quiet utterance of: “Yes.”


The end of an IndyCar era


As the chequered flag fell at Laguna Seca, the fact that an era had come to an end was on the minds of drivers. Next time out at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the series’ long-awaited hybrid era will commence.


“Glad to get the last win of this era,” Palou said, unprompted. 


Rossi later added that it is a “whole new wild, crazy, unknown era” that awaits the series. There has been a rigorous test programme in the last year and reliability has been built up to an impressive position. But there will be a lot to learn and there is lots to be clarified.


“I don’t know how much of a difference it will make,” Herta said, weighing up what may change as IndyCar’s new era commences. “It’s a short burst of energy. If you have a run going, it might give you the edge to pass somebody. 


“I don’t think it will create the opportunity to pass. I think it’s going to be more of a factor of how much push-to-pass you have. If you don’t have the battery fully charged on a restart, you probably deserve to be passed.”


Rossi said the performance will be elevated by “a good amount” with the extra horsepower and newfound ability to regenerate and redeploy energy in addition to the existing push-to-pass system. But he also feels that it may not necessarily “be a difference-maker” as Herta appeared to suggest.


Excitement still remains though, albeit with a mix of emotions as a new dawn awaits.


“I’m sad because it’s the end of an era,” Rossi said. “We grew up falling in love with this sport with the framework of what it is now. At the same time, if you look at where the world is going, where manufacturers are going, you’ve got to evolve. 


It’s an exciting time for the series to take that step towards the future. It’s something that’s important to all of us and the partners involved. It’s happy and sad. It’s cool to be able to introduce new technology into the cars but also it’s sad that this phase of motorsports is coming to an end.”

Comments


bottom of page