The last race of the 2021 IndyCar season took place in Long Beach. Alex Palou came in 35 points ahead of Pato O’Ward, and the pair were the two main contenders for the title.
The third was Josef Newgarden, who needed to score all the bonus points and win to keep a title hope. And the Penske driver did the right thing on Saturday by taking pole position.
Scott Dixon, Palou’s teammate, qualified second ahead of Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Felix Rosenqvist and Romain Grosjean. O’Ward qualified eighth and Palou tenth, with an intense title fight before the race.
The start was calm, Pagenaud lost pace because he was on hard tires and saw Grosjean and Rosenqvist pass. At the end of the first lap, Ed Jones attempted a suicide attack on James Hinchcliffe but crashed into O’Ward, who spun off.
It was the first big twist for the title, as the McLaren driver left almost last. Only Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was racing his last race with Andretti before he was replaced by Grosjean, was behind O’Ward after suffering a puncture when Colton Herta straddled his left rear wheel in the slowdown caused by Jones.
The race then resumed and Newgarden led ahead of Dixon, while the gaps remained stable at the front of the race. After 15 rather quiet laps, the second rebound again concerned O’Ward who retired after a breakage to the right-back.
This technical problem, certainly following the shock of the start, put a definitive end to the Mexican’s quest for the title. Palou had to finish in the top 24 to be champion, which greatly facilitated his race for the title.
The neutralization to evacuate the McLaren allowed several drivers to stop, including Grosjean who shifted and stopped on the 23rd lap, compared to the leaders who stopped a few laps earlier.
On the restart, Castroneves led in front of several drivers who had not stopped either but had occupied back grid positions at the start of the race. On the restart, Castroneves began to regain the lead in the lead.
But the joy was short-lived as Marcus Ericsson crashed into a wall of tires and caused the safety car to re-enter the track. All the pilots stopped … except Castroneves! After 30 laps out of the 85 planned, Castroneves still hadn’t gone through the pits!
The race was restarted and the Brazilian immediately flew in front of Graham Rahal, who was stuck behind Hunter-Reay, on one lap but positioned second on the track.
Newgarden was third ahead of Herta and Dixon, who touched on the raise. Pagenaud, Grosjean and Bourdais were eighth, tenth and 11th on the restart. Herta passed Newgarden for third place.
Castroneves stopped on lap 35, under the yellow flag, but having delayed his stop as much as possible. He came out at the bottom of the standings in 23rd place, while Herta took the lead, Rahal also having returned.
As often, the race became more complex with many strategies, Herta and Rahal succeeding each other in front of Newgarden and Dixon. Behind, Pagenaud, Grosjean and Bourdais sailed in the top 10 throughout this stint, until the second third of the race.
Grosjean then hit the wall and broke the right-rear wheel, which forced the Frenchman to return to the pits and leave with three laps behind. He certainly hoped for better for the end of the season. But it was a clash between Conor Daly and Oliver Askew that brought a new yellow flag.
The neutralization lasted several laps, and the race was restarted on lap 66 with Herta in the lead ahead of Newgarden, Dixon and Palou. It was largely good for the Spaniard in his title race, who was doing the work to claim his first crown, in his second season in IndyCar.
The end of the race was a status quo in the lead with Herta ahead of Newgarden, separated by just over a second. Dixon and Palou stayed ahead of Pagenaud, who managed to climb back into the top 5 for what will surely be his last race with Penske. Bourdais had a solid race and was in eighth place.
Grosjean and O’Ward dismounted at the end of the race, the two men riding too far in the standings to recover positions. For Grosjean, it was also the end of his first chapter in IndyCar.
Palou was officially champion before the end of the race, with Newgarden not having scored enough bonus points to win the title. Newgarden came back to Herta at the end of the race, however, as Dixon and Palou put pressure on him.
But Herta has done what is necessary and therefore concludes his 2021 season with two victories, after showing very good things throughout the season. He is ahead of Newgarden, Dixon and Palou, who therefore becomes the 2021 IndyCar champion!
Pagenaud finished fifth ahead of Rossi, Harvey and Bourdais, who ended his season well, while he will be in IMSA next year and is hoping for a partial IndyCar program. Sato and Power round out the top 10.
McLaughlin is 11th and wins the title of best rookie ahead of Grosjean, who could still hope for it if he had scored a good result today.