With two Texas Motor Speedway races in the bag, IndyCar’s oval season is half complete after just one event.
This year that Texas double-header, the Indianapolis 500 and the August race at Gateway are the only oval dates on the calendar.
Because of their infrequency, the oval races may not be deemed to be as vital as the rest of the calendar these days, but it did give us a chance to see who has nailed their oval set-ups just as we head into the month of May at Indianapolis – where the 500 pays double points and scores are on offer in qualifying too.
The Race outlines the winners and losers from the two-step Texas weekend.
Stupidly, I feared for Dixon. I wondered if the team’s decision to forego the March Texas test that the other teams did was foolish as it meant Chip Ganassi Racing’s four cars wouldn’t have experience of the altered floor aero and new tyre in Fort Worth.
However, Dixon streaked to victory and Alex Palou set the fastest lap of the second race, even through the races didn’t work out for the team’s other drivers Marcus Ericsson and Tony Kanaan (more on them later).
Dixon led the most laps over the two races and was only trumped late in the second one as his car wasn’t perfect in the higher temperature conditions of Sunday.
Palou lost the championship lead and fell to third in the standings but on pace he was right there, he lost second places in both races in pitstops.
Do you know who leads the championship now? You guessed it. Dixon.
Pit drama and handling issues resulted in a sixth-place start yielding 19th for Pato O’Ward in St Petersburg, after he lost a Barber race he qualified on pole for with the wrong strategy.
It might have felt to some people that O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP’s day in the sun may never come, but the pairing was phenomenal in the second race at Texas having taken third in the opener.
A double overtake in Turn 1 at Sunday’s final restart was a particular highlight, and not only did the partnership claim a first IndyCar win, O’Ward gets an F1 test later in the year. Winning doesn’t get much better.
Rahal is fifth in the points and you could argue he should be higher after a rollercoaster start to the season.
Like O’Ward, he was quiet but consistent in race one (fifth) before coming alive in the warmer conditions on Sunday.
He may have won had it not been for getting loose in the last stint, after he had passed race-long pacesetter Dixon exiting the pits on the last stops.
He may have gone under the radar as a title contender for 2021 and some may doubt if he can do it anymore. Texas proved Rahal is still sharp and a first win since 2017 could well be on the horizon.
Sure, epic strategy played a role in Scott McLaughlin’s rise from 15th to second in the first race at Texas. But his robotic drive made him look like a veteran.
In fact, McLaughlin’s built for oval racing: he prepares well, absorbs advice like a sponge; has a great team around him and rarely makes big errors.
Above all else though, he’s patient.
There were all sorts of hurdles thrown at him as you may expect, but he took everything his stride and now sits eighth in the points after his first four races in IndyCar.
Jack Harvey, Meyer Shank Racing
Harvey took a track he’d finished 16th at last year and turned it into seventh with a feisty drive in the first race.
It was the kind of drive that said ‘we’re here, we’re serious and we’re not going to give in because you’re a big team or a famous driver’.
He upset Rahal and Alexander Rossi to a certain extent with dicey defensive moves, but all parties felt the matter was resolved after race one and overall Harvey continued in the same impressive way in race two, before he had a right rear bearing blow up.
While that hurt Meyer Shank Racing’s progress, to be 10th in the points after four races is a far cry to last year when it wallowed in bad luck and couldn’t convert its qualifying pace to results.
It may not be in a position to celebrate, but when the ‘big three’ teams have 12 cars between them, being 10th in the points is some achievement for a team ready to punch above its weight.
Now it heads to Indy, where the Texas oval form will be welcome when Helio Castroneves spearheads the team.
Bourdais’ start to the season has rightfully been praised as he’s taken a team known for running at the back in AJ Foyt Enterprises and performed his usual task of helping it evolve into a frontrunner.
But he entered Texas seventh in the standings and 16 points off the leader, and left 14th, 95 points behind.
In the first race Colton Herta slowed to get to pit road and Bourdais followed him, but Josef Newgarden couldn’t slow down enough and clipped Bourdais into a spin and, eventually, the wall.
Bourdais was then involved in the startline crash when he was taken out by Pietro Fittipaldi in race two.
It probably hurts even more because – despite some worries at the recent test – he noted the car felt great in the few laps he had in the first encounter.
Of IndyCar’s so called ‘big three’, Andretti has scored 113 fewer points than Chip Ganassi Racing and 151 points fewer than Team Penske this year. Over just four races.
Herta had a right rear wheel bearing issue which forced him to pit from the top 10 at the end of the first race, but recovered brilliantly with fifth. He’s now contributed 100 of Andretti’s 265 points scored this season over its four cars.
Rossi blamed a lack of qualifying for being caught in a crash at the back of the pack at the start of the second race and was eighth in the first race. He lies 15th and 97 points behind Dixon at the front.
James Hinchcliffe crashed out of the first race and was involved in that start crash in race two, while Ryan Hunter-Reay was 16th and 10th.
All in all, a cross-section of Andretti’s season to date, where it risks slipping back from the ‘big three’ into a strong second tier in the chasing pack.
Perhaps the one redeeming factor so far is that Rossi has still shown flashes of race winning pace, if he and the team can cut out errors
The other Ganassi drivers
As Kanaan’s previous Texas winner, I genuinely thought he would be a top eight contender over the two races as he began his season stepping in for Jimmie Johnson at Ganassi on the ovals. Especially at a track where the team dominated last year.
However, the grid was set on championship points because a rain delay cancelled qualifying, which immediately put Kanaan at the back. He also had a gearing and downshifting issue. Still, he finished 11th.
He took on damage from the race two start crash and could only hold on to 15th, which must have felt like a win given the damage on the car.
Ericsson entered Texas ninth in the points after two top eights to start the season, but it unravelled here again. Last year it was a broken fuel hose, this time it was a right rear wheel that came off as he left his pit box while running sixth. He was 12th in race two and is now 74 points behind Dixon.
The Swede’s tricky start to the season continued at Texas. Coincidentally he was just behind Ericsson in the pits when the latter’s wheel came off and Rosenqvist had to take to the grass to avoid his compatriot, dropping Rosenqvist down to 13th by the end.
Then – again coincidentally – just like Ericsson, Rosenqvist’s right rear came off as he left the pit box while he had been in the top 10 in race two.
A nightmare start to the season continued even if he’s shown flashes of rapid pace. His team-mate O’Ward doesn’t help perceptions of Rosenqvist’s campaign either.
Second in the points entering Texas, a 14th and a 13th stymied Power’s otherwise strong start to the season.
In the first race Power pitted with a wiring loom issue just before a caution and got shuffled way out of the top five.
In the second race he was fighting for the top six when his Penske team-mate Simon Pagenaud moved up the track to allow room for Herta, but Power had to move up the track into the high marbles at Turn 4 in avoidance and he skated into the wall and dropped down the order. Totally out of Power’s hands.
You can’t rule Power out of the championship hunt yet, but if everything felt fine and dandy after St Pete, the ship’s in rocky waters after Texas.