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Winners and Losers: IndyCar Grand Prix of Monterey

Written by Archie O’Reilly & Dan Jones


Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou vaulted himself back into the IndyCar championship lead with his second win of the season in the Grand Prix of Monterey, preserving his all-podium record at Laguna Seca. Andretti Global’s Colton Herta was second and Alexander Rossi third for Arrow McLaren.


It was a race that had a hint of everything, from strategy games and on-track duels to controversy and incidents. DIVEBOMB assesses who comes out with credit and who was left searching…


Winner: Alex Palou and No.10 team


Alex Palou thought his radio was broken when he was not called in for a pit stop under the race’s first caution as other contenders peeled in. The Spaniard was in a good position - even if he had dropped back to fourth on the primary tyres - but was placed onto what appeared a risky alternate strategy.


But the fact this was a gamble was not to matter, such was Palou’s pace. The driver of the No.10 Honda said himself that he had a “superior” car. 


Without five cautions interrupting proceedings - three in the closing 20 laps - Palou could have run away in the manner he did to win by over 30 seconds at Laguna Seca in 2022. But as well as being supremely talented, Palou has a calm and measured head on his shoulders to manage any setbacks. He lost the lead at the start too but did not panic.


The way that Palou followed in Kyle Kirkwood’s wheel tracks, primed to pounce, in the first stint without any drop-off was impressive. The dimension of his race changed as he went onto the different strategy but he focused on the task at hand despite hints of doubt.


When Palou eventually pitted, he came out in third and was able to easily pass Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta, who were in a conservation mode. After his later final stop, he had a 10-second advantage over Herta. 


It proved a masterstroke of a strategy as Palou stopped for a final time later than his rivals, putting him in a position to push on fresher tyres, with no saving and a sizeable lead. He was liable to cautions but they fell fortuitously so as not to ruin Palou’s race, even if he had to manage three late restarts. The execution of the likely unfavoured strategy was spectacular.


It was close to the perfect weekend. Palou peaked at the right time to take pole in qualifying - the fifth of his career and second of the year as he continues to develop his one-lap performance. And he is on track for a third championship as it stands, albeit with tougher tests to come as he searches for his first oval win against more experienced rivals.


But with 11 wins and 28 podiums in less than five complete seasons at only 27 years old, Palou is already emerging as one of IndyCar’s great drivers. The Laguna Seca weekend saw a truly phenomenal performance, with jeopardy and risks but flawless execution.


Archie 


Winner: David Malukas


David Malukas’ return to IndyCar was a long time coming, but it was like he never left. If you had told him at his Arrow McLaren announcement at the season finale last season that his next race would be at the same venue for Meyer Shank Racing, you would have a few puzzled faces, but Malukas showed exactly why the team gathered his services before others started sniffing around.


And despite an understandably rocky practice session, Malukas qualified for the Fast 12 at the very first time of asking, outqualifing the at-the-time championship leader, Will Power, and ironically, Nolan Siegel. He would admittedly finish 12th of 12 in the session, however expectations had already been superseded, as Malukas had continually done in his time at Dale Coyne Racing - the smallest outfit in the field.


And despite major concerns about how Malukas’ wrist would hold up over the course of 95 laps, he continued to impress. He would continually run inside the top ten for the entirety of the race until contact with Pato O’Ward caused the American’s tyre to delaminate and take him out of contention, finishing 16th at the flag.


But with the situation Malukas has been placed into, performance has a much more significant meaning than results. His job will be to wheel the No.66 Car into the Leaders Circle - he’ll do that more than comfortably. Team co-owner, Mike Shank, stated Malukas ‘totally overachieved’ - and it’s hard to disagree.


Laguna Seca is regarded by some as the most difficult venue on the calendar from a physicality standpoint, which bodes well for Malukas, particularly with the plethora of ovals toward the season end, which should put less strain on his left hand. Malukas stated he ‘feels fantastic’ from a physical standpoint, but his performance on his return was certainly a feel-good story.


Dan


Winner: Andretti’s youngsters


Andretti Global’s future is in safe hands.


Finishing second, Colton Herta achieved a much-needed smooth weekend after four races of adversity; self-inflicted or otherwise, he had either been forced into recovery drives or placed out of contention by various issues. It was a case of having pace but not putting this together. But Laguna Seca was without incident and Herta maximised his weekend.


He did not end up on the winning strategy mastered only by Palou in emphatic fashion and was held back by some saving, which was negated somewhat by the late-race cautions. When he was able to attack, Herta did not have the tools to challenge Palou’s spectacular pace and settled in for the best result possible on the day.


He seized the opportunity for his third podium of the year - a marked improvement on only one through all of 2023 after eight races this year. When there is no issue, Herta tends to be right in the ballpark; bar a three-race stretch, he has not qualified lower than fourth either.


Teammate Kyle Kirkwood is also showing major signs of improvement and has been one of the most impressive performers this season. Herta sits fourth in the championship and Kirkwood only seven points back in his second Andretti season. 


Above all, Kirkwood has cracked the consistency he targeted. He had high peaks with two wins - his only top-five finishes - but struggled for rhythm last year. But in 2024 he maintains the best worst finish in the field (11th) and picked up a third successive top five with fifth at Laguna Seca. He has already matched his seven top 10s from 2023.


In Indy NXT, Andretti’s Louis Foster leads the way after victory at Laguna Seca having won four of the last five races. He has only finished off the podium twice - both due to recovery drives being forced by issues out of his control. At the midpoint, he looks the best set for a step up to IndyCar from the current Indy NXT crop.


Archie 


Winner: The on-track enemies


What do you even describe the Santino Ferrucci-Romain Grosjean rivalry as? Petty? Hilarious? Exaggerated?  Their latest bust-up would be in warm-up after Ferrucci would hold up Grosjean exiting the Corkscrew earning the American a five-minute penalty for his troubles.


Whatever you think of it, and however long this weird rivalry continues, both drivers are quietly having very good seasons, and showed that once again in Laguna Seca.


Romain Grosjean’s fourth-place at Laguna Seca brought home Juncos Hollinger Racing’s best ever result after what has been a turbulent few weeks at the team. It’s particularly notable that Grosjean has as many top ten finishes halfway through this year as he did through his turbulent stint last season at Andretti Autosport.


He was frustrated after being held up by one of the MSR cars in qualifying, leading to bizarre rant, but unlike previous years, Grosjean has managed to put his frustrations behind him and drove excellently throughout, staying clear of the chaos around him, and playing strategy to perfection. It’s starting to feel like the Coyne Grosjean days where he was enjoying it, a lack of pressure delivered good performances - this is the Romain Grosjean everybody wants to see.


As for Ferrucci, another quiet day brought home an excellent result. It’s his fifth top ten of the year - Foyt had none outside of the Indianapolis 500 in 2023. It’s the first time Ferrucci’s done it on a personal standpoint since 2020 - and we’re only halfway through the season. 


He’s quietly going around his business in the championship too, lying 12th, two points of Christian Lundgaard. It’s felt like Ferrucci’s always been a reliable pair of hands, but he is starting to really emphasise that. The Penske alliance has clearly worked wonders on Ferrucci’s side of the garage, but he’s elevated his own performance too. If it wasn’t for his off-track history you’d feel like he’d probably be a major player in the driver market.


Dan


Winner: Arrow McLaren


Arrow McLaren did their talking on-track after a week of some scrutiny following the decision to replace Theo Pourchaire with Nolan Siegel in the No.6 Chevy. 


Alexander Rossi picked up his second podium for the team as he continues to find his feet in papaya and edge towards a new contract. And by qualifying fifth, he made only his third road-or-street Fast Six appearance for the team and his first of the season.


Race pace has not been as much of an issue for Rossi and Laguna Seca showed what can be produced when not starting in recovery mode. He led comfortably after the first pit cycle and, while he could not convert this into a maiden victory with the team amid cautions, fuel saving and Alex Palou’s pace, it was reward for his recent upturn.


Aside from two errant finishes out of his control, Rossi has not finished outside the top 10 this year and has finished inside the top five in three of the last four races. He is also only 10 points behind teammate Pato O’Ward in the standings. 


Siegel’s weekend was positive in the end too. He struggled for pace through practice but continually made progress and put cars behind him to start 23rd. He initially dropped back in the race and brought out the second caution with an unforced error. But his spin did not see damage incurred and he showed maturity to keep calm and recover.


There was attrition that led to Siegel making his way back up through the pack and on-track combat was not a major feature. But he collected himself well, showed fine pace to regain ground and was the race’s biggest mover with a highly creditable 12th-place finish. He did not crumble under the pressure of making his debut for such a prestigious organisation.


O’Ward was quiet but he has at least put a rocky early-season run behind him to notch four successive top-10 finishes.


Archie 


Loser: IndyCar officiating


It seems ludicrous in modern-day motorsport that a car can be left facing backwards on the exit of one of the fastest-corners on the circuit, and the track be left at full-racing speed.


Serious questions need to be asked over this procedure, and yes, it’s long been part of the series, but it would be insane to leave it for any longer.


When Marcus Armstrong collided with Christian Lundgaard on Lap 75, and after the Kiwi had bizarrely decided to spin up his tyres whilst on the gravel, he faced the approaching field on the exit of Turn 4 in a fairly precarious position. The series delayed the yellow to allow the only driver who hadn’t made their final stop, Josef Newgarden, the opportunity to do so.


Claims of Penske favouritism in the series seem far-fetched, and I’d be confident in saying this isn’t, but it is unfair that Newgarden cycled into a race-winning position after an anonymous day because of a rule in the series which shouldn’t exist.


Driver safety is paramount. IndyCar has been repeatedly praised for the work of the AMR Safety Team and the robustness of an Indy car. But this leaves an uncomfortable stain on the series. Yes it’s always going to be unlikely that a worse accident will happen, but the fact is it still could happen. How bad would it be if there was a bigger accident? It would make things very uncomfortable indeed - racing drivers will race until they’re told not to.


It’s against the principles of the so-called ‘danger zone,’ where you play the risk of losing out if you haven’t pitted already. This doesn’t exist if the series continually delay yellows in order to let there be a fair spread across the field - but at the end of the day, it wasn’t fair to the 26 people racing Newgarden.


Colton Herta described the situation on the radio as ‘bull****.’ When pressed further Herta said he ‘wasn’t too thrilled.’ Alexander Rossi stated: ‘I don't have an opinion any more. I mean, I do, but I don't vocalize it any more.’ Silence told the whole story.


Herta went on to say: ‘I think whatever it is, it has to be consistent. That's the biggest thing. I don't know what happened. I don't know if Marcus just spun and stalled or if he hit the wall or what the scenario is 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.’


Herta would go onto take a subtle dig at Álex Palou, who benefitted from the same ruling last year.


It’s a rule which feels invalid from a safety and sporting standpoint. The series can’t be leaving cars stranded on the exit of corners, whether they hit a wall or not. If a caution is going to come out, don’t let it wait so it ‘fairs’ it up, because it doesn’t. It’s a situation many don’t want to see again.


Dan


Loser: The former Bus Bros


The Laguna Seca weekend proved a comedown for Team Penske after their podium sweep at Road America. 


Will Power was their best finisher in seventh after an excellent recovery from an early off-track excursion, keeping him only 23 points off the championship lead. But teammates Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin did not fare as well.


Their struggles started in qualifying where, after three successive races of all three cars qualifying in the top eight, both Newgarden (14th) and Power (15th) failed to make the Fast 12. McLaughlin qualified seventh but there was no Penske car in the top six of qualifying for the first time since the second Grand Prix of Indianapolis last year.


Come the race, Power being their best-placed car in seventh was the worst that the team’s best car has finished in any race since the first Indy GP in 2023. And it could have been a lot worse after contact with McLaughlin after a late-race restart as the Kiwi attempted a late inside move at Turn 6.


For McLaughlin - the instigator - the contact was a race-ruiner as he spun in an attempt to get back on power after his initial misjudgement, with damage soon emerging too. It was uncharacteristically rash when on for a comfortable top-10 finish and marks an unusual second unforced error in three races after a solo incident in Detroit.


Newgarden was in recovery mode after being given a drive-through penalty for an improper pit exit on Lap 27. He was given a lucky break after an extended penultimate stint, allowed to pit moments before the race’s third caution flew, coming out in second. But two off-track excursions in the closing 20 laps saw him scupper the fortuitous opportunity and finish 19th.


McLaughlin is now eighth and 97 points back in the championship. Newgarden is ninth and 104 points back after an all-or-nothing season of a win, second-place and fourth-place finish along with five finishes of 16th or lower. Even with the late-season oval swing, the pair are teetering on the edge of being out of contention at the midpoint of the year.


Archie  


Loser: Rahal Letterman Lanigan


2024 really has not felt like Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s year. A team who less than a decade ago were seemingly on the podium week-in week-out have notched just four top ten finishes across three cars in eight races. 


By this point last year that figure stood at 10, the year prior nine - and those were considered some of the most difficult times in RLL’s recent history. And Laguna Seca almost epitomises their woes this year.


2023 really felt like a breakout year for Christian Lundgaard, but 2024 has not been anything like the Christian Lundgaard we saw last season. It’s been uncharacteristically messy. The Dane made it into the Fast Six, but just did not have the pace of his competitors. He was unfortunate to be caught out by an audacious move by Scott McLaughlin, which forced him off at Turn 9, with a brake marker stuck in his front wing, before he collided with Marcus Armstrong mid-way.


His day would be compounded by getting into a mess into the Corkscrew on a late restart, quite literally flying down the hill, ending his day in a miserable 15th. For a track that he has gone so strongly at in the last few seasons - this seems like a missed opportunity to get his season back on track. 


Pietro Fittipaldi felt like he was having one of his better days in 2024, but will rue a mistake on pit exit where he failed to trigger the blend line giving him a drive-through penalty on Lap 49. He would be finish 14th at the flag which is still one of the Brazilian’s better results this season, but it’s not what he had envisioned.


And Graham Rahal’s miserable season just goes from bad to worse. It was unfortunate, being caught up in Kyffin Simpson’s collision with Agustín Canapino, having absolutely nowhere to go apart from straight into the Chip Ganassi car. Thankfully, Rahal walked away seemingly unscathed, but once again it felt like one of those weekends where they could capitalise on a crazy race.


Something needs to change at RLL, because whatever is happening, is not the standards the team expects.


Dan

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