LONG BEACH — Colton Herta picked up his second consecutive win, and Alex Palou drove to a workmanlike fourth-place finish to clinch his first NTT IndyCar Series championship in Sunday’s 46th Annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Driving the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda in only his second year driving in the series, Palou, age 24, became the first Spaniard to win an IndyCar championship. He finished the year with three wins and seven podium in 16 starts.
“Oh my God, what a race, what a year, what a season! This team is amazing. I’m super proud to be an IndyCar champion, and I can’t thank everyone enough that made this possible,” an ecstatic Palou said before adding, “Dream completed. I am ready to get another one now.”
It was the 14th championship overall for Team Ganassi as Palou joined previous winners Alex Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and current teammate Scott Dixon, a five-time series champion.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re seeing a young man that’s going to set a lot of records in this business, and he’s already starting. What a great year we’ve had,” commented Ganassi of his young driver. “I’ve got to be honest with you: It has surprised us when he came in the door and the job he’s done. My hat’s off. Congratulations.”
The victory was sweet redemption for Herta who, after setting fast time in all three of the weekend’s practice sessions in his No. 26 Gainbridge Andretti Autosports Honda, clipped the wall in qualifying and was forced to start in well down the grid in the 14th position of the 28-car field for Sunday’s 85-lap race.
Palou entered the race needing only an 11th place finish or better to eliminate Pato O’Ward, his closest challenger to the title, and a 25th place finish or better to knock out Josef Newgarden, the only other driver still in the championship hunt. However, nothing is certain on the treacherous, concrete lined, 11-turn Long Beach temporary street circuit as proved to be the case on the opening lap of the race.
As Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) led the jammed up field from the pole position through the turn 11 hairpin, O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McClaren Chevrolet) was tagged from behind by Ed Jones, causing him to spin around facing the remainder of the pack head-on.
As cars swerved to avoid the stricken car of O’Ward, both Herta and Palou were tagged in the front and rear ends as several cars accordiioned into each other. Amazingly, both were able to continue with Palou’s car somehow escaping undamaged and Herta incurring only a slight front end alignment imbalance.
“It did not really effect the handling at all, but it was a little odd to have to turn the steering wheel slightly to the right to make the car go straight,” Herta explained after the race.
O’Ward was able to spin his car back around and rejoin the race at the back of the filed, but any chance he had at the championship was gone. He would eventually retire in 27th place at midrace with a broken drive shaft.
“I think we’ve had a great season. We came up a little bit short, but we fought all year long. I am proud of my team and proud of myself,” said the disappointed O’Ward. “Obviously it was not a perfect season, but you have to learn from the mistakes and that makes you stronger. I’m looking forward to next year and another chance at the title.”
Herta, meanwhile, combining a fast car with a perfect tire strategy and some well-timed caution flags, steadily worked his way to the front, taking the lead from four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves (No.6 Meyers Shank Honda) on lap 34. After the final round of pit stops, Castroneves faded and Newgarden emerged as his closest pursuer.
Herta, running less downforce on his rear wing than Newgarden, was able to extend his lead on straightaways and Newgarden, taking advantage of more grip, cut that deficit in the corners. Newgarden slowly closed in on Herta over the final 20 laps, but he was never able to get close enough to make a pass for the lead and settled for second place just .5883 of a second behind Herta, who led the race for a total of 43 laps
“Colton did a great job. Congrats to him and his crew,” said Newgarden, a former two-time series champion, who would finish runner-up to Palou in the final points thanks to O’Ward’s misfortune. “He (Herta) was on the right tires at the right time. If there were no yellows, I think we would have been OK today, but that is how things roll. Things don’t always go your way.”
With victories at the Firestone GP of St. Petersburg in April and the Firestone GP of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last weekend, Herta finishes the 2021 season with three wins and six total in his four year IndyCar career.
“It feels amazing. Just a great car and a great team. I’m super happy,” said Herta, a Valencia, Calif. native who considers Long Beach his home course. “This race has been on the bucket list for so long. What a great way to cap off the year.”
Six-time series champion Scott Dixon finished third in the No. 9 PNC Bank Ganassi Honda, 1.3368 seconds ahead of new champion teammate Palou and 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud rounded out the top five in his No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.
Normally held in April, the 2020 Long Beach race was cancelled and this year’s race was pushed back until September due to Covid-19 concerns and restrictions. Next season the longest running street race in North America is scheduled to take place on April 8-10, 2022.