until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


How many real contenders are left in 2023 IndyCar title race?

by Jack Benyon
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

With Alex Palou 51 points clear in the lead of the standings before we’ve even reached the mid-point of the season, you might be forgiven for declaring the IndyCar championship over already.

Especially after watching Palou crush the field in Detroit, with multiple red flags and a mistake that required him to shut his car down before a restart being the only scares as he appeared to be able to pull away from whoever was challenging him on whichever tyre at will.

In last year’s Laguna Seca season finale he won by over 30 seconds and at the Indy GP last month he managed a 16-second win.

However, when The Race asked if he could pick out a genuine title rival, he replied with a smile: “Dixon, Ericsson, Power, Newgarden, McLaughlin, Pato. I could keep going.

“I wish I could only name you one, but unfortunately or fortunately, I think that’s the cool thing about our series, there’s more than 10 drivers that I’m looking at.”

As he’s 51 points clear his uncertainty over his position and the number of perceived challengers might seem bonkers, but the season is far from over – with 540 points still available over 10 races.

We take a look at where Palou’s challengers could come from and how their seasons have played out to get to this point.

The ones in the fight

Marcus Ericsson (+51)
Josef Newgarden (+70)
Scott Dixon (+79)
Pato O’Ward (+82)

Marcus Ericsson Ganassi IndyCar

Ganassi team-mate Marcus Ericsson is Palou’s closest challenger in the points. He’s the only other driver apart from Palou to finish in the top 10 every race this year, so he’s an obvious contender if Palou falters.

If there’s any downside to Ericsson’s chances, it’s that he doesn’t appear to have the blistering turn of dominating pace Palou can access so far this year, and on average Palou is starting races over four positions higher.

Josef Newgarden appears to be having a similar season to last year. He’s got two wins – only Palou has matched that – but the consistency elsewhere isn’t there.

A brake fire in St Petersburg was a big blow, and a touch with Felix Rosenqvist at Barber broke his suspension, which led to this year’s most spectacular drive to 15th.

With an Indianapolis 500 win under his belt, Newgarden told The Race IndyCar Podcast he’s even more motivated to win the title after three years finishing in second.

Scott Dixon is having a very Dixon-like year, finishing every race in the top six apart from Long Beach where Pato O’Ward bundled him into a wall and an early retirement.

Scott Dixon Ganassi IndyCar

The big factor for Dixon is that he’s managed a spectacular increase in his qualifying performance, from an average of just over 11 in 2022 to 5.71. If he maintains that – and adds a win or two along the way – he can certainly challenge Palou.

O’Ward had started the year looking like a contender if not the favourite, but a trio of incidents have dropped him down in the points and made you wonder if he has the maturity to seal a title against someone like Palou, Newgarden or Dixon.

He crashed in Long Beach after already shunting Dixon off, tried a very optimistic pass on Ericsson at over 220mph at the Indy 500 which put him in the wall, and crashed in Detroit trying not to be lapped by Palou after his car had lost drive in the pits and had to be wheeled back in, costing him time and what looked like a top-five.

O’Ward said his race was over at that point, but with all the late cautions it’s possible he could have got back on the lead lap and scored decent points, yet it wasn’t to be. At least he had top-five pace.

Out of these drivers it feels like Newgarden is the only one who can produce the raw, dominating pace Palou has shown to take him down, but questions over the consistency of his Penske #2 crew are the drawback. A double-header at Newgarden’s best track at Iowa Speedway certainly plays into his hands.

Ericsson and Dixon have the consistency to challenge, too, if Palou struggles later in the year.

The ones that should be doing better

Scott McLaughlin (+98)
Will Power (+101)
Colton Herta (+124)
Romain Grosjean (+128)

Romain Grosjean Andretti Scott McLaughlin Penske IndyCar

Where to start with Romain Grosjean?

He should have won in St Pete before being dumped out by Scott McLaughlin, and then crashed in dirty air at Texas, which was unfortunate.

He was second at Long Beach, second at Barber, 11th at the Indy GP after traffic in qualifying put him 18th, and then his Indy 500 was effectively over after being harpooned in the pits by Andretti Autosport team-mate Colton Herta (and he crashed on his own shortly afterwards).

Suspension failure at Detroit cost him another podium shot.

If that record belonged to Dixon or Newgarden, we’d be focusing on the bad luck and playing up how well they had driven.

Because it’s Grosjean, people tend to dwell on the negatives – many of which aren’t his fault this year – and not on the positives. He should be in the championship mix, although his and Andretti’s specialty street courses are dwindling, with only one left on the calendar.

Will Power’s second in Detroit – where he won last year – seemed to put his title defence back on track.

But, he’s over 100 points behind Palou!

Will Power Penske IndyCar

Even with a perfect second half of the season it would be tough to come back. Brushing the wall at the Indy 500 cost him dearly, as did a drive-through at Texas for a pit miscue.

Herta has in many ways satisfied the pleas to be more consistent this year, bagging four top 10s. One of the results outside that was being dumped into the wall by Power in St Pete, but an unusual lack of pace at Barber and a scruffy Detroit race haven’t helped his position.

Unlike team-mate Power, McLaughlin has a win to his name this year, but his season is reflective of Penske’s struggle to consistently bag top results.

Crashing out of the win fight in St Pete was the worst error, while average Indy road course and Indy 500 results have contributed to his points deficit.

You do get the feeling that McLaughlin is capable of winning anywhere, though.

Grosjean definitely feels like the fastest of this group week in, week out, but Power and Penske’s race weekend execution still probably make the reigning champion the most obvious challenger from this group. McLaughlin’s somewhere between the two and could play his way back into contention with a cleaner second half of the year.

The one doing better than expected

Alexander Rossi (+97)

Alexander Rossi McLaren IndyCar

Alexander Rossi has had three top-fives in as many races with his new team Arrow McLaren. He seems super-relaxed in his new surroundings and is performing well.

He’s sixth in the standings and with great momentum heading into a group of tracks he’s been very good at in the past.

His suspension issue while in the top 10 at Long Beach and a pit crash at Texas are the only blemishes, which contribute to a 97-point deficit.

He’s yet to show the kind of race-winning pace to challenge Palou, but he’s only seven races in with a new team and engine manufacturer.

There’s no doubt he can win a race or two in the second half of the year if this progress continues and is certainly a dark horse to keep an eye on. He’s showing all the consistency he couldn’t in the last three years at Andretti.

The outsiders

Felix Rosenqvist (+125)
Kyle Kirkwood (+131)

Felix Rosenqvist McLaren IndyCar

Felix Rosenqvist has the equal third-best average starting position in the field, which shows his pace, but whether it’s his own errors, team mistakes or bad luck, he’s produced nowhere near the consistency needed to challenge the top dogs.

That’s not to say he’s out of the mix, but he needs a really clean second half of the year and the Detroit podium was a good start. He’ll have to win two or three races to get the points gap down.

Kyle Kirkwood is an interesting one. He looks like one of the fastest drivers in the field at the moment and if you’re Michael Andretti, you have to be extremely excited about your new signing in the long-term from what you’ve seen so far.

Kyle Kirkwood Andretti IndyCar

Kirkwood’s still making the odd error, but the peak performance is certainly there. He just needs to flatten the curve between the two.

If he’d got a top five at the 500 (he was hit by the out-of-control Rosenqvist), avoided the Texas pitlane shunt with Rossi and avoided the Power shunt at the Indy GP, he’d be a lot higher up.

Kirkwood’s pace seems to point to him being the most likely to come from so far back. He’s already won a race and is capable of more.

What about Palou’s situation?

Alex Palou Ganassi IndyCar
Palou is in a situation where he doesn’t need to gamble, and reliability is his main worry for being overtaken in the championship.

His rivals will be hoping question marks over his future spoil his form like they did last year, but he seems so assured and consistent at the moment that it’s hard to see how anyone beats him.

It’s so tough to win one IndyCar race, never mind the two or three it’s going to take to put Palou under serious pressure. And even under pressure, he’s cool as ice.

That being said, the lead of 51 may sound big, but that’s a race win in IndyCar. So if Palou is hit with adversity, things can change extremely quickly.

That’s why, no matter how good Palou is, this IndyCar season is still likely to go down to the wire. It may be hard to imagine a champion other than Palou, but don’t worry just yet about the season being a predictable foregone conclusion.

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