Alex Palou sealed the 2021 IndyCar championship with a measured and controlled race finishing in fourth for the final round at Long Beach, California which was won by Colton Herta. The Andretti Autosport driver finished the season in style with his third win of the season from 14th on the grid.
Josef Newgarden started on pole position ahead of Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves. Herta, who had been on the pace all weekend collided with the wall in qualifying meaning he started down in 14th, but it didn’t take long for the American to carve through the field – within a few laps he was already up to sixth with some incredible late-braking maneuvers on Romain Grosjean and Alex Palou.
Alex Palou started tenth and drove a tentative first half of the race as a Top 12 would be enough to seal the Spaniards first IndyCar title in his sophomore year. He made up a few places but largely remained in the upper half of the Top Ten.
The championship saw a dramatic turn as Palou’s primary rival, Patricio O’Ward was spun by Ed Jones and immediately fell to the rear of the field. However, he suffered further damage to the driveshaft and was forced to retire from the race effectively ending his title hopes to the delight of Alex Palou.
At this point, Newgarden was the only other contender, albeit a win and for Palou to retire would be the only perceivable permutation that would see the American seal his third championship – a long shot!
However, a long shot was all that Newgarden needed and he led the race up until shortly after the second caution of the race, brought out by the Chip Ganassi of Marcus Ericsson, who crashed into the wall after failing to pull off a move on Alexander Rossi. On the restart, Herta set about clearing Dixon and eventually passed Josef Newgarden for the net lead around Lap 35.
After clearing Newgarden, Herta pulled out almost a seven-second lead and putting the Penske driver effectively out of championship contention.
With O’Ward and Newgarden falling short, Palou was in fifth and didn’t need to make up any more places in the race. But despite that, he continued pushing forward and putting the pressure on Hinchcliffe in front around Lap 37.
Alex Palou tried to take Hinchcliffe into Turn 1 but it was the Canadian who was later on the brakes to win out that fight, the Spaniard deciding to live to fight another day. In fact, soon after the second pit stop cycles got underway where Palou was able to jump Hinchcliffe in the pits.
Meanwhile, Romain Grosjean was in a title fight of his own, hunting down the prestigious ‘Rookie of the Year’ award. By Lap 37 he was up to seventh having gotten past Alexander Rossi around the outside of the fountain section. The Swiss-Frenchman only needed another 12 points to eclipse Scott McLaughlin.
Unfortunately, he would retire soon after with a rear-left suspension failure essentially gifting the ‘Rookie of the Year’ title to McLaughlin.
After the second set of pit stops, the overall situation at the front had not changed that much. A late caution brought out by a collision between Oliver Askew and Conor Daly threatened to shake things up with around 20 laps remaining.
On the restart, Colton Herta got a fantastic launch and was able to hold Newgarden off by just over a second ahead of Dixon, Palou, and Pagenaud. However, with five laps remaining Newgarden brought the gap down to less than half a second a put a great deal of pressure on Herta.
In the end, it was Herta who crossed the line to take his seventh career win ahead of Newgarden, Dixon, Palou, and Pagenaud. O’Ward briefly attempted to return to the track later in the race but fail to rescue any more points.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Alexander Rossi, Jack Harvey, Sebastien Bourdais, Takuma Sato, and Will Power. Helio Castroneves stayed out on a counter-strategy, refusing to pit after the first safety car, he was quickly swallowed up later in the race and finished down in 20th.
Both Rinus VeeKay, Marcus Ericsson, and Callum Ilott were the other three retirements from the race.
Palou, would be the new and deserving champion of IndyCar – the youngest since Scott Dixon at the age of 23 in 2003 finishing 38 points over new second-place man, Newgarden, as O’Ward slipped to third, just ahead of Dixon.
Ericsson’s retirement and Herta’s sixth career victory meant the Andretti Autosport driver moved up to fifth in the championship.