INDIANAPOLIS — Alex Palou sent an early message by aggressively passing pole-winner Christian Lundgaard on the first lap of the Indianapolis Grand Prix.
He was driving to win — and wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
The Spaniard delivered on his promise, too. After inheriting the lead on Lap 65, he pulled away from the 27-car field and beat Pato O’Ward of Mexico across the yard of bricks by 16.8006 seconds on Saturday.
“We missed a little bit in qualifying, but we knew we had a fast car,” Palou said after producing IndyCar’s widest victory margin since his 30-second season-ending win in 2022. “I knew when we started on the alternates (red tires), we had to go hard. It was right, it was perfect.”
Palou’s Chip Ganassi Racing team got everything right, including the crucial tire strategy — opting to start on reds before switching to new primaries, then scuffed primaries and finally sticker primaries on his final pit stop.
As a result, the 2021 series champ dominated the race, leading 52 of 85 laps to claim his first win of the season and his first in 11 career starts on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s two race courses. He’s also the series’ only driver to complete every lap of this season’s first five races, and Palou now owns five career wins with at least one coming in three straight seasons.
It put Ganassi back in victory lane for the first time since Marcus Ericsson’s season-opening victory in March.
Palou also leapfrogged his teammate, Ericsson, in the season standings. Palou has a six-point lead on O’Ward by six points while Ericsson fell from first to third, 19 points behind.
O’Ward has been the runner-up three times this season but believes Arrow McLaren is poised to make a big move after putting all three of the team’s cars in the top five Saturday. Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champ, was third while Felix Rosenqvist was fifth.
“We’ve been knocking on the door every single week,” O’Ward said. “I’m just really enjoying it. We’re growing massively as a team.”
IndyCar’s first Danish pole-winner, Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, was fourth. Defending race winner Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport wound up ninth after moving from 14th on the starting grid into the top five.
Palou was surprised by others who opted not to start on primary tires.
“For us it was clear. We were struggling a little bit more than some of the guys on used reds in the warmup,” he said. “We knew we didn’t want to use used reds, that’s why we started on new alternates, try to get the lead, try to get a big gap, like two, three, four, seconds, then work on our pace on the black (tires).”
That decision perfectly positioned Palou for his final 20-lap run after Rossi pitted on a warm, mostly sunny day. O’Ward changed to reds on his final pit stop to try something different after Palou and Lundgaard both went with the black tires.
It allowed Palou to keep padding his lead as the laps wound down and his tires started wearing down while the cars behind him vied for track position.
“We’ve been close here, we’ve had a little bit of bad luck,” Palou said. “Super proud. It’s a special place. You can feel that in the car just with the fans that we had already since practice one. There’s something about this place, obviously. Even if it’s not the big one, it’s still special.”
The speedway may have a different feel and look to fans this May.
Speedway president Doug Boles outlined a revamped sustainability plan that includes adding recyclable aluminum cups in hospitality tents and suites, recyclable bags made out of plant-based material at its merchandising stores and new LED lighting in Gasoline Alley.
Behind the scenes, Boles also said the facility will donate prepared, unused food to a local food bank while perishable food will be composted along with grass clippings and wood pallets. Speedway officials also are seeking ways to recycle old LED lights, radios and other electronics.
The series has used 100% renewable fuel from Shell this season and this month will use tires made out of recycled materials.
The fan base
Denmark’s most famous driver, Tom Kristensen, has followed his countryman Lundgaard’s career closely. So when he found out Lundgaard won his first IndyCar pole, the nine-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion wasted no time jumping on the bandwagon.
“Look guys he told me back in the day,” he posted on Instagram. “Now he is the very first Dane on pole position in an IndyCar race. Have a nice day everyone — and a great race today Christian!”
Practice for the Indianapolis 500 begins Tuesday on the track’s historic 2.5-mile oval. Pole qualifying will be held next Saturday with Bump Day set for May 21. IndyCar’s biggest race of the season will be run May 28.