IndyCar will take to the WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca, California this weekend for Round 15, as we sprint towards the conclusion of the 2021 season.
The penultimate round will run from Friday to Sunday with a maximum of 54 points on offer before we bookend the championship with the final race at Long Beach, California.
This is always an incredibly popular destination, with the famous ‘Corkscrew’ section, and with plenty of fast sweeps and narrow apexes to navigate around the 2.2-mile circuit, as well as a tricky pit lane that could cause some chaos in the race.
The title fight has also taken an interesting turn following the events of Portland with only a handful of contenders still mathematically in contention.
Can Anyone Stop Alex Palou?
The Spaniard went into Portland ten points behind rival Patricio O’Ward and on the first lap, you would be remiss in thinking he may have lost his championship hopes.
However, after falling down the order a fantastic two-stop strategy, helped by a few cautions, allowed him to fight up the order and take his third win of the season.
A 35-point swing in Palou’s favor means he now leads O’Ward by 25 points. Newgarden is third in the standings, 34 points behind Palou. Dixon is 49 points behind in fourth, and Ericsson, now the last driver that is mathematically eligible to win the championship is fifth, and 75 points behind.
But should we really be surprised? He has shown remarkable speed, consistency, and maturity beyond his years, and had it not been for a run of misfortune he would have definitely been out of reach in the points standings.
For example, Palou was set for a Top Five finish at the recent outing at the IMS road course before a frustrating engine failure spelled the end of his race. He has also faced grid penalties due to engine changes resulting in a nine-grid place penalty and starting 21st at Gateway. But after carving through the over 60 Laps the Spaniard would be collecting in a three-car crash out of his control.
If you were to assume he would have finished fifth at IMS, disregard Gateway altogether, and take his average finishing position since Detroit Race Two it would be a remarkable third.
That consistency is what may seal the championship for Palou.
Concern for O’Ward?
The Mexican driver had no explanation for his lack of pace on Sunday, suggesting he lacked three-four mph on the straight as his race deteriorating after he switched on the black primary tyres.
It will be a concern that out of the previous three finishes outside the Top Ten this year, two of them were because of a lack of pace. He has struggled with consistency as of late and has only been able to complete three races in a row that he was happy with. This inconsistency could be the difference between being an IndyCar champion or not.
O’Ward definitely has the ability to pull it out of the bag on his day, evidenced with a series-leading four pole positions. Moreover, he set the pace during the pre-season test at Laguna Seca in March and has previously won here during his Pro Mazda Championship campaign in 2016.
Without a doubt, this is one of O’Ward’s most important races of his career.
Who Else Is In The Mix?
The three contenders that remain include Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, and Marcus Ericsson but realistically the first two are the ones that have a good chance.
Josef Newgarden is always on top form come to the tail end of the season, having had two wins and been inside the Top Ten at every race since Mid Ohio. His race at Portland saw him qualify near the back but was able to run a magnificent counter-strategy to finish inside the Top Five.
Scott Dixon remains without a win at Laguna Seca in his career and will be looking to steal a march on his high-flying teammate. A podium at Portland has rescued what has been a difficult few races for the New Zealander. However, the six-time world champion is accustomed to pressure and will now his objectives going into the final two rounds.
Colton Herta will be another one to watch out for after winning here in 2019 while Rinus VeeKay dominated the circuit during his Indy Lights campaign.