After a promising start, Pato O’Ward’s championship hopes took a big swing in the wrong direction Sunday in the Grand Prix of Portland after pit strategy didn’t go as planned.
A 14th-place finish dropped O’Ward to second in the championship standings, 25 points behind Alex Palou, who won Sunday’s race. Entering the race weekend, O’Ward had a 10-point lead on Palou.
"Today was obviously very tough,” O’Ward said. “It just wasn't our day. We got unlucky with some of the yellows, and this race favored the alternate strategy, which you can see when you look at the results. It just goes to show how exciting of a sport INDYCAR is at every race.
“We gave it everything we had all weekend. The No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP crew was solid on every stop. We are up against some great competitors for the championship, but we will come back the next two races and fight down to the last lap in Long Beach."
O’Ward’s tough finish came only after an impressive start made it appear he could be the one to leave Portland International Raceway with a points’ gain.
The Mexican driver started seventh, but a multi-car incident in Portland’s notoriously tricky Turn 1 through 3 chicane on Lap 1 catapulted him into the lead while his championship contenders were forced to the rear of the field by INDYCAR officials after a review of timing loop data, as many cars left the track in the fracas.
Up front, O’Ward led the first 28 laps in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, relinquishing the lead on Lap 29 for his first pit stop of the day. Graham Rahal, who ran second to O’Ward in the opening stages, put together a similar pit strategy as O’Ward and beat him out in the running order.
When differing pit strategies cycled out, Rahal became the leader over O’Ward, who ran in second. But things went south for O’Ward on Lap 51 when a full-course yellow came out for the stopped cars of Callum Ilott and Dalton Kellett.
O’Ward pitted, assuming several cars would see the coming caution and hit pit road. He ended up being one of the few drivers to enter the pits. When the race resumed on Lap 57, O’Ward was 12th. Under the caution, Arrow McLaren SP team president Taylor Kiel radioed to his driver admitting “this yellow situation right here is not awesome for us.”
O’Ward struggled to pass those in front of him who were in fuel conservation mode or otherwise on a different pit strategy, cementing his spot in the midfield for the remainder of the race.
The rest of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season could be challenging for O’Ward. He has no experience at next weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. However, he has competed once at Long Beach, finishing 12th in 2019. But in small consolation, Palou never has raced at either track.
Strategy Also Bites Rahal
Entering this weekend’s race, Graham Rahal had only completed four laps in the Grand Prix of Portland over two races, finishing 23rd in both outings.
So, on the surface, Rahal’s 10th-place finish after leading a race-high 36 laps looks like a successful day. But knowing what might have been, a top 10 was extremely frustrating for Rahal.
“As you can probably imagine, I’m pretty upset, nothing else if not disappointed,” Rahal said. “Our guys did a good job today, and we played the strategy right. Unfortunately, all the guys that caused the crash at the start are all the guys that won. It’s a shame. I don’t know what else to say.
“Another top 10, but it should have been a win. I can’t help but say it. We played it perfect, but sometimes in racing when the yellows fall and everything else, the balances don’t go your way. Today was one of those days.”
Rahal started a season-best fifth and jumped into second after mayhem in Turn 1 on Lap 1 sent several drivers to the back of the pack or in the garage. Rahal followed Pato O’Ward for the first 28 laps until O’Ward pitted his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet for tires and fuel.
Rahal inherited the lead on Lap 29 in the No. 15 Total Quartz Honda and held it until he pitted on Lap 35.
Rahal became the leading driver of this pit strategy over much of the middle portion of the race, which included drivers like O’Ward, Ed Jones and Jack Harvey. These drivers were on a two-stop strategy race, which is challenging because drivers must save more fuel and protect their tires, preventing them from driving harder throughout the run and gaining track position.
That proved to be a detriment for Rahal, who after pitting for the final time on Lap 74 was running 10th in his No. 15 Total Quartz Honda. Then, a caution on Lap 86 and another on Lap 90 allowed the drivers in front of Rahal to conserve fuel and make it to the finish, ending any potential chance he had of picking his way through the field.
The unpredictability of the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season mixed with the tricky Portland International Raceway and its massively challenging Turn 1-3 chicane complex allows for more than the usual suspects to shine.
Jack Harvey tied his best performance of the season by coming home fourth in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. Harvey played the two-stop pit strategy game alongside Graham Rahal and Ed Jones. Luckily, the Brit didn’t get caught out by cautions and held strong in fourth, where he also finished in the season-opening race in St. Petersburg.
“Obviously we got a little bit of help with all the cars in Turn 1,” Harvey said. “The strategy was great today. If we can combine the best parts of our weekend, I think we got a really competitive team that can run up front in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.”
In what has been a down year for Andretti Autosport, Alexander Rossi scored his best result of the season with a second-place finish in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda. His previous best result of the season was a fourth at the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix on Aug. 14 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Rossi’s performance is more impressive when you look at his rebound. He started second, and the Turn 1 incident forced him off track and to the rear of the field. Still, Rossi hustled his way back to second.
Also having a season-best day was Felix Rosenqvist in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Rosenqvist started fourth, tying his best grid spot of the season. He also was caught in the Lap 1 incident and rallied from the back of the pack to finish sixth.
His previous-best finish this year was eighth at Nashville, his only other top-10 finish in 2021.
Odds and Ends
- It was a record day for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in Portland. The 12 lead changes in Sunday’s race were the most ever in the Grand Prix of Portland. The previous mark was nine lead changes in 1988 and 2018.
- There also were an event-record eight different leaders, up from six different leaders in 1984 and 2018.
- Today’s race ended with an event-record 20 drivers on the lead lap, breaking the record of 18 set in 2018.
- For the third time in as many NTT INDYCAR SERIES races at Portland International Raceway, James Hinchcliffe failed to make it through Turn 1. He was caught up in the Lap 1 mayhem after contact from Romain Grosjean and finished 27th.
- NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Jimmie Johnson continued to show improvement at the Grand Prix of Portland. He finished 20th and on the lead lap. It’s the second time in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career he’s finished on the lead lap, with the first coming in his most recent race, on the IMS road course in August, where he finished 19th.
- Callum Ilott’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut with Juncos Hollinger Racing came to an end on Lap 50 of the Grand Prix of Portland. The British driver suffered a mechanical issue while running 17th, bringing him to a halt in Turn 7. He finished 25th.
- Arrow McLaren SP team president Taylor Kiel is facing more than just stress from his driver Pato O’Ward being locked in a battle for the Astor Challenge Cup. He’s calling strategy for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet while on baby watch. His wife, Katie Kiel, who race fans see and hear through various NTT INDYCAR SERIES and Indy Lights coverage, is expecting the couple’s first child any day. The team has a contingency plan in place for Kiel to leave the track and be there for the birth of their daughter.
- The battle for the Indy Lights championship took an intense turn this weekend in Portland. David Malukas won Race 1 of the doubleheader, while Kyle Kirkwood won Race 2. With just four races left in the season, Malukas holds just a five-point lead over Kirkwood.