IndyCar’s big experiment shows promise, with flaws, as Palou bags huge pay-day

The unique Thermal Club weekend format intrigued as the field fought without the worry of losing ground in the championship

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For the first time since 2008 at Surfers Paradise, the NTT IndyCar Series ran a non-championship event with a alternate format and The Thermal Club $1million Challenge produced plenty of conversation.

With two heat races setting the grid for a 12-car, two-part final race for $500,000 the scene was set for the drivers to let loose without the fear of losing ground in the points battle and yet it was a familiar name who bagged the big prize.

Alex Palou won the second heat and by virtue of being faster than Heat 1 winner Felix Rosenqvist in qualifying he started the final from pole, giving him a lead he wold never relinquish.

Scott McLaughlin gave as best he could but when the reigning champion gets his nose in front, he rarely sees the rear of another car again and even the “half time” break in the 20-lap finale couldn’t break his supreme speed and rhythm.

The split final race did see a number of drivers simply coast around the opening 10 laps to preserve their tyres but it left them all with too much to do, Colton Herta being the trendsetter as he moved up to fourth from the back.

There is no doubt that the switch up in format can be a blessing for a one-off and The Thermal Club does seem to be an exciting track but perhaps this idea would have been better suited to an oval much like NASCAR’s flagship non-championship race./

Alex Palou - Thermal $1 Million Challenge | Penske Entertainment: Joe Skibinski
Alex Palou – Thermal $1 Million Challenge | Penske Entertainment: Joe Skibinski

A missed trick

A brand new format is never likely to be perfect from the off and IndyCar should be able to learn from this if they want to host another non-championship race in the coming years.

If you ask Rinus VeeKay and Romain Grosjean, they would probably say a last chance qualifier for a handful of spots would mean that 2 days of testing wouldn’t go to waste in a few hundred yards of the first heat.

With excitement through the roof for the new format, the first collision of race day came within seconds as Scott Dixon misjudged how early the field would begin to brake for the first corner.

The New Zealander hit the back of Grosjean’s car and sent him spinning into the pack, wiping out VeeKay who had qualified up in third and all that hard work was immediately ruined.

A last chance qualifier, which is a regular race in other motorsports with a heat race format, would at least mean those who suffered misfortune in the heats aren’t sent straight back to the shops, especially when it wasn’t the fault of either driver that retired.

IndyCar Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge Results

Pos.NameTeamPrize Money
1Alex PalouChip Ganass Racing$500,000
2Scott McLaughlinTeam Penske$350,000
3Felix RosenqvistMeyer Shank Racing$250,000
4Colton HertaAndretti Global$100,000
5Marcus ArmstrongChip Ganassi Racing$50,000
6Linus LundqvistChip Ganassi Racing$23,000
7Alexander RossiArrow McLaren$23,000
8Josef NewgardenTeam Penske$23,000
9Christian LundgaardRahal Letterman Lanigan$23,000
10Agustin CanapinoJuncos Hollinger Racing$23,000
11Graham RahalRahal Letterman Lanigan$23,000
12Pietro FittipaldiRahal Letterman Lanigan$23,000
Joe Ellis
Joe Ellis is a motorsport journalist with experience working in BTCC. He is the resident IndyCar correspondent for Total-Motorsport.com and a top class F1 writer.
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