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Erratic and crazy? IndyCar driving standards in the spotlight

by Jack Benyon
9 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Reigning champion Scott Dixon has urged IndyCar race control to take action after what he described as erratic and crazy driving in 2021, while the driver who caused the crash that took Dixon out of this weekend’s Gateway race believes everyone in the series needs to work together to tackle driver behaviour at restarts.

With 200 laps still to go on Saturday night and after a number of drivers had already crashed in earlier incidents, Rinus VeeKay locked up his front wheels heading into Turn 1 and clipped Alex Palou into Dixon, taking all three drivers out of the race.

Palou was leading the championship and Dixon was third, which meant the incident had wider ramifications than just the Gateway race’s lower top 10 battle.

“I feel really bad for myself and Alex,” said Dixon, who also thanked his Ganassi team for the 80 laps of effort – including a differential change – to get his car back on track to pick up a few more points afterwards.

“I don’t really know what VeeKay was trying to do there and obviously he took us both out of the race.

“We’ll have to see if race control do anything about it. We’ve had some pretty erratic and pretty crazy driving this season but it just seems to go unnoticed. We’ll see.”

While Dixon had a wry grin as he processed and delivered his thoughts on the incident, it’s still relatively unusual for him to be so hard-hitting in an interview given he usually plays things cool and stays positive when on mic as opposed to delivering criticism.

His highlighting of driving standards problems could be tied to multiple areas. Restarts – especially on short ovals – have been an issue for IndyCar recently, with a pile-up at the Gateway race the year before a good example. Multiple restart incidents occurred at the recent Nashville round as well.

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While talking to IndyCar radio, Palou claimed that VeeKay admitted to him that he had made a mistake, saying they didn’t have much to talk about when sharing a lift to the medical centre following the crash.

Quotes have emerged elsewhere from VeeKay since that suggest he didn’t feel he was fully to blame for the incident and instead highlighted issues on restarts, while he also tweeted to say he felt he’d done everything he could to avoid contact.

“Everyone’s backing up all the time, even on pace laps,” VeeKay told NBC.

“If it keeps going like this, Iowa 2.0 is going to happen. Nobody wants that, it doesn’t look good for the series.

“We have to sit together – the whole field – and try to fix this. I did my best to avoid anything.”

The Iowa incident VeeKay references comes from last year – on another short oval – when a restart was waved off but Colton Herta didn’t get the message in time and launched over the back of VeeKay’s car in a scary accident.

Pato O’Ward, who finished the Gateway race second behind Josef Newgarden, also threw Alexander Rossi’s name in the mix as one of the reasons the Dixon/Palou/VeeKay shunt happened because Rossi “doesn’t look in his left mirror here”.

O’Ward added: “He just turned in, so I had to slam on the brakes so I didn’t crash. Marcus [Ericsson] had to as well, because we were going three-wide into there.

“I’m assuming that is what caused the check-up behind for sure. For me it was even sudden and pretty aggressive.”

Earlier, O’Ward had criticised a driver he elected not to name, saying: “I think you guys know who. I was alongside him.

“But people know who they can race dirty or not. I had a lot to lose today, and they know that.

“They’re just taking advantage of what position they’re in in terms of the championship because it’s almost finishing.”

Whether drivers will come together as VeeKay wants to fix the issues is yet to be seen. But there was certainly angst among many drivers in the field about driving standards this weekend.

Jb1 3301

It’s a ‘growing pains’ period many championships go through. Formula E is a good example where the racing is so tight between so many manufacturers and top drivers that people get desperate and the quality of the racing suffers.

IndyCar’s recent resurgence and the closeness of the battles on track appear to have had a similar effect whereby drivers are making outrageous moves in desperation, or the margin for error is so fine that mistakes are simple to make.

Often on tracks like Gateway it manifests on the restarts because passing in the middle and at the end of stints is so difficult, so the restarts are the first and only option for drivers.

It isn’t just at Gateway this desperation was apparent, as Newgarden – who was in wars of his own with Penske team-mate Simon Pagenaud early on – found out when he started back in the pack on the Indianapolis road course two weekends ago, prompted him to say he “would agree” with Dixon’s summary of driving as erratic and crazy.

“I saw it last week,” he said, “when I started 20th last week, I was just trying to protect my race car.

“First stint of the race, I was getting run into three or four times. Literally was just trying to not wreck while being aggressive and going forward myself.

“I think people are driving aggressively these days, they really are. You almost have to match it to some degree because if you don’t you just get run over.

“You’re sitting there going, why are you running me over? Doesn’t matter who is right or wrong at that point, you still got run over, right?

“I would agree with him [Dixon on erratic, crazy driving in 2021].

“Everyone just drives real aggressive these days. They push the cars to the limits, they push how much they can touch or not touch. With these cars you can touch a lot, generally get away with it. I think people are pushing over the edge of that at times.

“I definitely feel and understand and probably agree with him that people are driving pretty aggressively these days.”

There were further examples during the race.

Ed Jones held the inside of Turn 1 but was a good car’s width high off the apex and he’d carried a lot of speed in. Graham Rahal was on the outside and Jones moved up into Rahal and took both cars out.

The fact that Jones tried to blame the incident on Rahal – who in turn accused Jones of running out of talent – showed these drivers have an ego and things are difficult, especially when you’re having as bad a season as Jones. This might appear like I’m picking on him, but the standard in the series is just so high that errors like this are punished even more.

The Palou incident felt similar. I know the restart was fairly backed up, but VeeKay locked the brakes past the entry to Turn 1 – something I didn’t see any other driver do in the race – and, in my humble opinion, carried way too much speed into the corner when there was no benefit for doing so.

It looked ill-timed at best, amateurish at worst. VeeKay has so much talent but he has to cut out his small and large errors to become a frequent victory and title contender. That may also may be interpreted harshly but it’s because I hold VeeKay to such a high standard based on his raw talent that anything other than him emerging into a top IndyCar driver would be a waste.

Just as Palou lost out massively, VeeKay had come from a nightmare day where he started 23rd and was in the top 10 less than a quarter of the way into the race.

For Palou, it cost him his championship lead, after he had risen into the top 10 from a 21st starting spot caused by an unapproved engine change entering the weekend after a problem with his power unit cost him a top five at Indianapolis.

It means Palou’s championship lead – 42 points before Indianapolis – was eroded to a deficit of 10 points to O’Ward just two races later.

O’Ward is sixth in laps led this year with 90, while Dixon who is now fourth in the points is top with 396 led! It’s been a bonkers season.

Dixon actually only lost nine points to the series leader after his Gateway crash, but he’s been jumped by the only other champion in the top five in Newgarden.

Top five prior to Gateway
1 Alex Palou 415
2 O’Ward -21
3 Dixon -34
4 Newgarden -55
5 Ericsson -62

Top five after Gateway
1 O’Ward 435
2 Palou -10
3 Newgarden -22
4 Dixon -43
5 Ericsson -60

Palou was still smiling after the incident.

“It’s easy when we’re doing our job,” Palou said when asked by NBC how he will reset ahead of the last three rounds now.

“Indy road course we were doing an amazing job I felt, here we did a good job as well.

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“The guys gave us a really good pitstop with two or three [positions gained]. We came from 21st to 10th so we did our job.

“We got hit but that’s racing, there’s still three races to go, we’ll try and get that championship home.”

Even if he doesn’t look like one on the scoreboard at the moment, Palou is acting every bit the champion. If Newgarden and Dixon’s bad luck is over and if O’Ward can stay consistent and in the hunt, it’s going to be difficult for Palou to get back in the swing of things.

But his attitude says ‘champion’ to me. And even the slightest sniff of a street course gives Marcus Ericsson the shot at a victory in the season finale, so none of the top five are out of it yet. Gateway was further proof of the fact that no one is safe no matter the gap.

Let’s hope a return to normal road and street circuits for the remainder of the season encourages better driving standards from the majority of the field, and that none of the title contenders are taken out again.

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