Why Alex Palou is more formidable than ever in 2022INDYCAR
Other INDYCAR drivers have stolen the headlines, but four rounds into the 2022 season, it’s the defending champion Alex Palou who heads the points table. He spoke to David Malsher-Lopez about self-improvement - what he’s done and what still needs work.
Last year, Palou showed all his INDYCAR rivals how to win a championship, with three wins and five other podiums, which meant he finished in the top three in half the races. The #10 Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda driver’s average finish across the 16-race championship was 7.3. Eliminate the two DNFs, neither of which were his fault, and Palou’s average result was fifth.
Some people don’t study those types of stats, but it’s clear Palou’s rivals have, because they know that what he and Ganassi achieved last year was no fluke. In preseason discussions, several drivers and race engineers declared that matching Alex’s consistency was their target for the year ahead.
However, he has raised the bar again: four races into the 2022 season, his average finish is 3.5, with two second places, one third and one seventh. His latest runner-up spot came last Sunday at Barber, finishing within a second of victor Pato O’Ward, and while Team Penske won the first three races of the year, it’s Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda’s reigning champ who has slipped into the lead of the points race.
“It’s not like there’s a big secret to that,” he tells Motorsport.com a couple of days later. “It’s like everything else in racing: when you feel comfortable with the car and with the team, and you have a good mindset and a great team and a great crew, everything seems easier. There’s other times in racing when nothing works, and it seems hard. But at this time, we’re having fun and everything is working for us, and hopefully we can keep that going for a long time.”
Naturally, one of the keys to consistency is avoiding drastic error, and aside from his shunt in qualifying for the Indy 500 last year, and in practice at St. Petersburg this year, it’s hard to think of any significant mistakes from Palou since he joined Ganassi. And surely one of the reasons for that is the serenity he describes above. But what modesty prevents him from saying is that he also seems to possess superb judgment in how to ride the edge of adhesion without overstepping it. Has that always been a hallmark of his or something learned the hard way in junior formulas?
“I’d say both,” he replies. “I’ve always been a guy who takes a bit of time to get to the limit instead of finding it right away and maybe having some crashes... OK sometimes I do accidentally find the limit by going over it, like in practice at St. Pete!
“The approach I had when I was a kid was maybe a bit different from now, because you learn by the mistakes you make. In order to go fast you sometimes will go off the track because you’re pushing the limit in the braking zones, on how quick you turn in, and so on, and you learn that in junior categories. If possible, you shouldn’t do that so much once you reach this level. And with the confidence of now being in my third year of INDYCAR, knowing the cars and the tracks, I feel like I can get to the limit easier, I can find it without having to push beyond it.”
Palou is downplaying his instinctive ‘feel’ for a car; he certainly doesn’t need two seasons to shine. That’s why he damn nearly won the Super Formula title in his rookie season. That’s why Dale Coyne still waxes lyrical about the Spaniard’s pace in his first ever INDYCAR test at Mid-Ohio in 2019, and why Palou was on the podium in only his third INDYCAR start. It’s why he became so quick so rapidly in his first test with Chip Ganassi Racing, despite CGR’s cars having fundamentally different setup philosophies from the Coyne car he raced throughout his rookie season of 2020. Yeah, all the evidence suggests that Palou is far more adept at getting on the pace than he lets on, and his first test in Ganassi’s Cadillac DPi-V.R, ahead of him joining Chip’s IMSA line-up for the Rolex 24, adds credence to this.
“Yes, I was surprised at that,” he says, “because it was the first time for me in a Prototype, so you never know how that’s going to be. But I think also Daytona is a good track to get that first experience - not super complicated and quite a lot of run-off areas - and it’s also helpful when you have fast teammates and you can rely on their data. It would have been more of a struggle if I had been there testing alone, but having Sebastien [Bourdais], Renger [van der Zande] and Scott [Dixon] in my car helped make things easier. So... yeah, I was on the pace.
“Racing at Daytona was a good experience, even though our cars had issues. It was the perfect time to start waking up after a long period since our [INDYCAR] season finished; you get a lot of track time, and a DPi is pretty close to INDYCAR - not the way you drive it but the way it feels in the corners. I think it was helpful and I would do it again, for sure, because test time is very limited in INDYCAR, so doing a couple of IMSA races when I can is good experience.”
If Palou swiftly registers his car’s limits, so too, he knows where to draw the line in the heat of battle, knows which moves are feasible and which ones aren’t, and seems not to allow emotion to overwhelm his judgment. Sure, some of that comes from the rational desire to avoid hobbling a broken car to the pits. But Alex is also notably ethical, which is why you never hear anyone bitching about him. Not for Palou the desperate hot-headed lunge down the inside of another car, nor the cynical widening of his arc on the exit of a corner so that the guy on the outside is run out of road.
So last year at Road America, while dueling for the net lead with Josef Newgarden following a restart, the pair ran through Turns 1, 2 and 3 side by side, Palou on the inside line, but you knew he wasn’t going to run his rival off. And last Sunday at Barber, when he was jumped by Scott McLaughlin at the start and Alexander Rossi on the restart, Palou’s attempts at retaliation into Turn 5 were determined but remained prudent. There are other motorsport stars who simply don’t have this sense of perspective - or only learn it the hard way - and instead treat each passing maneuver as if it’s now or never. Alex is a very clean driver.
“I think I know how far I can push it,” he explains. “I must be careful saying this - maybe at the next race I’ll go too hard and end up in the run-off! I think last year you could say there were times when I was too conservative but this year I’m fighting harder. But at Long Beach against Josef, for example, I think I could have gone wheel to wheel and maybe I push him and he ends up going off, but I did not think it was the right thing to do. There are times in motorsport when you need to back off. That’s it. You might not like it, but that’s what you need to do.”
Being one of the true aces, Palou is on a constant quest for self-improvement, and while it would be naïve to use just a four-race sample with a hugely improved average finish as proof that he has upped his game this year, the most complete driver of 2021 does believe he’s better than this time last year; in fact, better even than at the end of last season.
“I think so, yes, but I’m not there yet,” he says. “I’m not super-happy with my performances where I think, ‘Oh yeah, I did everything perfectly’. That’s the thing about auto sports. Every driver, even Scott Dixon who is the best and has been in INDYCAR for more than 20 years, he’s still learning and adapting his style. That’s what drives us all and keeps us so motivated and passionate about this sport. There are always going to be areas where all of us can get better.
“Qualifying is something that maybe I can still improve, because my pace in the race [relative to others] is much quicker than my qualifying pace, I think. We’re getting there, and we’ve had good qualifying so far this year, two Firestone Fast Six sessions - P3 in Long Beach, P3 in Barber - and it’s not like we’re half a second off pole. But we need that last tenth or tenth-and-a-half, so I’m trying to find that in me and in the car.
“And my race in Barber was good but it was not perfect - and I don’t mean, ‘If it was perfect, I would have won’. I mean things like losing a place to the #3 [McLaughlin] at the start and to Rossi on the restart. So this is what I mean; I have areas where I have to improve, because in INDYCAR you cannot afford to lose two places and expect to win the race. Those two things made our chances of winning the race a lot smaller.”
He has a point, of course. But like the Ganassi team as a whole, Palou has a way of turning mud into chocolate, of overcoming missteps. As he sat in fifth and trailed Rossi in that middle stint of last Sunday’s race, the champion saved a lot of fuel and backed off from the tail of the Andretti driver just enough to ensure his tires didn’t degrade from sliding around in dirty air. By the time Rossi ducked into the pits on Lap 60, Palou had conserved enough fuel to give himself three flying laps, hitting the push-to-pass boost button like a lab rat on amphetamines and setting fastest lap before making his own final stop. His efforts, and those of the super-slick #10 Ganassi crew, were rewarded as he vaulted to second place, emerging from pitlane to pop into the growing gap between new leader O’Ward and former leader Rinus VeeKay, both of whom had needed to stop on Lap 61.
Again, great judgment had been rewarded. After spending a stint running at 97 percent of his car’s potential, it’s all too easy for a driver to respond to his race engineer’s command for a couple of flat-out laps by overreaching himself. He’s leaning on tires that are now well past their prime and below their optimal temperature, and using brakes that are also too cool for maximum retardation.
“Actually, I do still find that a struggle - to save fuel for 25 or 30 laps and then suddenly push one second a lap quicker, maybe more,” Palou admits. “If you’ve been braking so easily into the corners - at 400 feet, say - and then suddenly you have to go really hard, it’s challenging. I had a little moment down at Turn 8 when I almost went straight on from pushing too hard. Getting it just right is not easy, and the beauty of INDYCAR is that those little things can make the difference between gaining one place or two places, or maybe losing one or two places.
“And just the saving fuel part is another thing you can always improve as a driver. In my first year with Dale, I was not good at saving fuel while going fast, but being teammates with Scott, who is probably the best at that, has been a big help.”
In his third year in the series, Palou continues to learn from those around him and draw on his own burgeoning experience, so considering he finished a close second to Helio Castroneves in last year’s Indianapolis 500, can we expect an even stronger Palou at IMS this year? Last month’s test at the Speedway saw all five Ganassi cars end up in the Top 10, but such results can be distorted by tow speeds. More importantly for the champ is that he feels more comfortable, more ready to extract the best from what race engineer Julian Robertson and the rest of Chip’s mighty team can give him.
“Yeah, I’m 100 percent more confident,” he says. “Last year, for me, that test at Indy was not good. I could go fast but I could not overtake, and that’s the tough part. You need to be able to pass cars you are fighting with and also be able to get through traffic. This year, I feel really comfortable with the pace and the overtaking. The first couple of runs I struggled to get close to the car in front, but then I got the confidence and I could apply things I felt and learned from last year. So I can’t wait for Indy this year. We have good cars and we have lots of practice beforehand which is good, for me especially. That’s the thing we miss at other ovals, and that’s maybe why I have struggled a bit more.”
Again, Palou is too modest. Last year at Texas Motor Speedway he was slightly cautious but highly competent and took home a fourth and a seventh from the double-header, while at Gateway he was quite amazing, slicing through from 21st and into the Top 10 by Lap 60 of the 260-lap race, until being eliminated by a wayward rival.
Yet that misfortune would also contribute to us all appreciating his mental resilience. Coming just a week after his engine blew on the Indy road course, Alex lost the lead of the championship to O’Ward with just three rounds to go, so it would have been understandable if he’d looked slightly rattled or even a tad desperate next time out. Instead, at Portland, he delivered his first pole, overcame an undeserved early race penalty and won.
Palou has now driven 20 races at Ganassi, and has been on the podium for 11 of them. This year, he's been top three in three out of the four races
“Yeah, I saw that on social media - pretty cool!” he enthuses. “I’m trying to be consistent, improve on last year. It’s working so far.”
And then some.