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Palou's Million Dollar Drive: Thermal Club Race Report

Written by Katie Gregory


Credit: Chris Owens

Always innovative and ever enthusiastic to provide the finest entertainment, this weekend the NTT IndyCar Series travelled to the Californian desert for the $1 Million Challenge. Hosted at The Thermal Club, a location synonymous with luxury, it is no surprise drivers were competing for a cash sum instead of championship points. The winning driver would secure $500,000, with the other $1.2 million to be split among the other highest-finishing drivers.


This was no easy feat, however, and the Thermal Weekend format is action-packed like no other. The 27 drivers were split randomly into two groups, and Saturday's qualifying session saw Alex Palou and Felix Rosenqvist earn pole positions in their respective groups. This set the grid for the two heat races, each 20 minutes or ten laps long.


The fastest six from each heat race would then all be in the final race to the purse. Despite a strong weekend from Rosenqvist, it would be Palou who put his money where his mouth was.

The first heat was filled with big names with an even bigger motivation. The start saw Rosenqvist shoot off, but Scott McLaughlin had money on his mind and wouldn't let the Meyer Shank Racing driver off that easily. Turn one saw trouble further back in the pack as Scott Dixon went into the back of Romain Grosjean, who spun and took out Rinus VeeKay.


None of the three would leave the altercation unharmed, with Grosjean and VeeKay retiring immediately - and Dixon facing a drive-through penalty that ruined his chances of reaching the top six.


Credit: INDYCAR

The heat went under caution as the stranded machines of VeeKay and Grosjean were recovered by the AMR Safety Team. Any laps under caution would not count towards the total, but every driver was aware the clock would continue to tick towards the 20-minute total.

Rosenqvist led the pack from green, as Scott Dixon visited the pits for his 20-second drive-through penalty. Roseqnvist seemed completely comfortable cruising first place, seemingly unaware of the hungry Scott McLaughlin all over the back of his machine. Agustin Canapino was another driver on the hunt, having moved up three places to fifth-position, and pulling away from Herta. Will Power and Kyle Kirkwood fought cleanly with no contact, with saw Power ultimately coming out on top.

By the fifth lap, it was abundantly clear there would be nowhere close to 10 laps completed, courtesy of the earlier caution. With five minutes on the clock, critical decisions would be made throughout the pack. Race leader Rosenqvist had to balance keeping a healthy pace advantage without punishing his tyres.


Drivers outside the top six had little time for this considered strategy. The longer the clock went on, the less they had to lose - and the more frantic they became.


Credit: INDYCAR

The newest driver, and perhaps most frantic of all, was Nolan Siegel. At his first race, and in his home state, there would be no better story than for Siegel to make it into the top six. He desperately clung onto Herta in sixth and tried any move he could to make it work. Although they can certainly be compelling, Siegel's inability to reach the top six served as a harsh reminder that a powerful narrative will never outweigh hard racing in the world of motorsport.


The clock has no hold on Rosenqvist and he won his heat with ease. As the second heat begun, it was time to focus on the other pole-sitter, Palou. As the race went green, Palou got an amazing launch and led the pack with his teammate Marcus Armstrong following closely behind. It seems every driver in heat two had taken something valuable from the action in the first heat, as turn one was relatively contact-free.


The three Arrow McLaren cars may have looked intimidating in seventh, eighth and ninth place - but the threat to others quickly dissipated as they began to fight among themselves. Alexander Rossi immediately made a bid to overtake Illot in seventh, but couldn't make it work and ended up in the dirt. After a few more attempts, Rossi finally passed Illot on lap three. Waiting in the wings, fellow McLaren driver Pato O'Ward also fancied his chances with Illot and overtook him as well.


Now the lead McLaren driver, Rossi closed the gap to Tom Blomqvist and the pair began to battle. As Rossi attempted to pass, Blomqvist defended hard and almost ran Rossi off the track. Laying down the law, Rossi switched back and was ruthless upon exiting the turn - leaving Blomqvist absolutely no room. The harsh racing from both drivers made it a level playing field, and neither driver received a penalty for their reactionary moves.


The end of the second heat race was all about O'Ward, for none of the right reasons. He had more push-to-pass than Rossi and did everything he could to take the transfer spot. This unfortunately wasn't enough for the young driver - and Rossi ended up being the only McLaren driver to enter the final race for the purse.


This was a problem purely hypothetical for Chip Ganassi Racing, with Palou winning his heat race and his teammates Armstrong and Linus Lundqvist also advancing.


Credit: Richard Dole/Motorsport Images

Only 12 cars out of the 27 advanced to the final race, which would consist of 20 laps with a 10-minute interval in the middle. Palou was on the pole as he had the best time in qualifying and he once again had a great start. McLaughlin also impressed early and leapt into second position, leaving Rosenqvist in third.


While the frontrunners began to pull away, those at the back did the complete opposite. Hoping that fortune does indeed favour the brave, Colton Herta was one driver willing to take a gamble on his strategy. He hoped to stay as far back as the regulations would allow - saving his tyres for when it really mattered. Canapino seemed to notice the lack of Herta's Honda machine behind him, and realising he was not under attack, also began to slow down.


Lap three saw Pietro Fittipaldi instructed via radio message to fall back and relinquish his eighth-place position. Although it first appeared Fittipaldi was a latecomer to the Herta strategy, it was later revealed that a miscalculation in pit road meant that he did not have enough fuel and so the Brazilian became the only driver in the race having to fuel save.


Fittipaldi's teammate Graham Rahal was not having any better luck, and a throttle problem saw him retire just before the halftime break. Things went from bad to worse for Rahal Letterman Lanigan when Fittipaldi was disqualified in the break for a failure to follow race instructions


The first half had been the calm before the storm, with many drivers opting to save their tyres to maximise their potential in the ten-lap dash for cash. Feeling confident having led the first ten laps, the second half saw Palou immediately pull away as if he was the only car on the track. Further back, Rossi quickly overtook Canapino and set his sights on Josef Newgarden in fifth-place.


As the pair began to battle for position, they made brief contact which sent them both wide. Herta, who was no longer holding back, capitalised on the opportunity and swanned into sixth-place. Back on track, Rossi began to stalk behind Herta, hoping the younger driver would make a mistake. Herta did the opposite, overtaking Lundqvist and Armstrong, eventually ending up in fourth-place.


While desperate moves were made throughout the field, the one consistent aspect of this race was that Palou led. This should be no surprise, as a track that punishes the smallest of errors also has the highest reward for the precision that Palou possesses. He may always be associated with his dominance in the championship, but today Alex Palou won IndyCar's first all-star race since 2008 and also happens to be $500,000 richer.


All-Star Race Result

  1. Alex Palou

  2. Scott McLaughlin

  3. Felix Rosenqvist

  4. Colton Herta

  5. Marcus Armstrong

  6. Linus Lundqvist

  7. Alexander Rossi

  8. Josef Newgarden

  9. Christian Lundgaard

  10. Agustin Canapino

  11. Graham Rahal (Mechanical)

  12. Pietro Fittipaldi (DSQ)

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