A 12 months in the past, after working Palou as a rookie in IndyCar, Dale Coyne predicted his former cost would go on to shine at Chip Ganassi Racing. Palou had taken a podium for DCR at Highway America – solely his third IndyCar begin and second on a US highway course – and had additionally certified 5 occasions within the prime eight. Given how lowered the monitor time was in 2020 – two-day race weekends, fewer observe periods, minimal testing – it had been the hardest season for newbies for so long as anybody might keep in mind.
Requested to critique his departing driver, Coyne instructed Autosport: “I believe there’s extra issues he must work on in his racecraft, issues we might have labored on in testing in a traditional 12 months. In-laps on worn out tyres and low gasoline, out-laps on chilly tyres and heavy gasoline load – stuff that type of comes robotically to the actually skilled guys.
“However that comes right down to consolation and confidence which you solely get with expertise. That’s the opposite factor – these tight schedules meant you didn’t need drivers tearing up automobiles as a result of the subsequent session is perhaps only a few hours later, particularly on double-header weekends. So in that scenario, a rookie particularly goes to offer himself a little bit of a margin.
“Alex shall be robust at Ganassi. His suggestions was actual good, too, contemplating he didn’t actually know what he might or couldn’t ask for as a result of he had nothing to check it with. Now with a season underneath his belt, he understands the automotive and he’s solely going to get higher.”
And he demonstrated that instantly by profitable the season-opening race. By September, Chip Ganassi Racing was celebrating its 14th drivers’ championship title, delivered by this quiet, modest, completely likeable 24-year-old from Sant Antoni de Vilamajor in Spain.
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photograph by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images
Palou drove like a canny veteran, placing collectively a title-winning season as meticulously as certainly one of his predecessors within the #10 Ganassi, Dario Franchitti, who’s in fact now Ganassi driver advisor. Comparable aptitude, related velocity, related judgment, related big-picture considering.
With top-three finishes in half the occasions, in an period once we thought it was near-impossible to realize such consistency, Palou has absolutely set the template for find out how to win an IndyCar championship within the fashionable period.
Sure, in fact, in his favour was the truth that he was driving for probably the most profitable crew of the final three many years, the Honda was marginally the higher engine over the 16 rounds, and he might be taught instantly from among the best ever in Scott Dixon. However Palou additionally had to slot in to his new setting, be taught tracks that had been new to him attributable to cancelled races in 2020, cope with the stress of being within the championship battle and stay composed in a short interval the place it appeared destiny was attempting to knock him. And it’s not as if Dixon’s most well-liked set-up tweaks, or Ganassi’s generic set-ups, had been essentially the very best for Palou’s driving type.
His Ganassi race engineer Julian Robertson instructed Autosport: “There are elementary set-ups we run at varied tracks, however they get tweaked a bit as per every driver’s preferences. What Alex had pushed earlier than at Dale Coyne’s crew was most likely fairly completely different to what our automotive felt like when he first received in it. However quite than replicate what he had pushed earlier than, he’s fairly mouldable, and he was keen to slot in with how we usually run the automotive and begin studying from there. Then we simply began tweaking issues.
“We’re all the time bouncing concepts off the opposite drivers and engineers, as a result of all of us work effectively collectively, and we take it from there. Essentially our drivers run related automobiles however with some variations particular to their driving type.”
Julian Robertson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photograph by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images
Again in Ganassi’s Dixon/Franchitti period – significantly with the outdated lawn-dart Dallara IR09s from 2009-’11 – each drivers discovered it superb they wished their automotive set-ups close to an identical, contemplating they then drove them so very in a different way. Robertson suggests the disparity in driving types between Dixon and Palou requires extra divergent automotive set-ups.
“Each driver is completely different,” Robertson mentioned. “So will Scott ever driver like Alex? No. Will Alex ever drive like Scott? No. However they have an inclination to go towards one another in sure areas. There’s issues you may get away with on the #10 automotive attributable to Alex’s type and there’s issues that Scott needs that Alex doesn’t need. After which Marcus [Ericsson] has one other type.
“However we bounce these concepts round fairly a bit they usually can see one another’s traces, and once we see one thing significantly good in somebody’s type at a sure nook, or a sure sequence, we attempt to encourage the others to do the identical. And if we all know that there’s important variations between the automobiles, every driver will strive one another’s settings sometimes simply to double-check what’s the setting we actually want. That’s very true on check days – we attempt to get a consensus from all 4 drivers that this transformation is essentially the most suitable choice. That mentioned, there’ll nonetheless be refined variations between the automobiles.”
Talking of fundamentals, one of many abilities most valued in a driver by his engineer is the flexibility to avoid wasting gasoline whereas nonetheless being quick, since being miserly with the juice can open a better vary of strategic potentialities. Coyne is famend for drilling that ability into the younger drivers he takes on, however it takes on better significance when an ace is preventing for the championship with 4 or 5 rivals.
“Alex got here to us fairly good at gasoline saving, however Scott might be the very best at that – him and Will Power,” Robertson mentioned. “As you’ll have guessed, there was a number of comparability happening, a number of studying from Alex as to find out how to get it carried out. Some drivers have a sure type the place it’s simply very, very exhausting for them to get the required mileage, however Alex and Marcus have been capable of be taught from Scott and adapt and enhance themselves.”
Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photograph by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
One other side of IndyCar wherein Palou proved a quick research in his sophomore season was oval racing. He had run simply six of them in his rookie season, and he’d been taken out of the primary (Texas) by one other driver, crashed by himself within the second (Indy 500), and located two of them ineffective this 12 months since IndyCar didn’t run at Iowa. He was left with so much to be taught concerning the massive left flip.
This 12 months Palou took fourth and seventh within the Texas double-header, fought Helio Castroneves for the win at Indy – finally ending runner-up – and had rocketed from 21st on the grid into the highest 10 within the first 64 laps at Gateway earlier than being despatched into the wall by Rinus VeeKay. It appeared that he had reined in his ambition, recognised that this was a sort of racing nonetheless largely alien to him, and so remained just under the restrict in an effort to maximise his information by ending the races and keep away from taking successful within the factors standings with a crash.
“Notably with regards to qualifying, Alex doesn’t have a lot oval expertise to attract on,” Robertson added. “So he received’t know precisely how exhausting to push it, and he wouldn’t know find out how to decide what feels proper in qualifying and the way it will translate to what you need from the automotive for the race. I believe it’s honest to say he was slightly bit cautious. As Chip places it, you don’t discover ways to race on ovals by not ending on ovals: you want the miles underneath your belt. Alex realised that, most likely with out being instructed. And even the crash in Indy qualifying wasn’t actually his fault – we simply had the automotive too tweaked up for the monitor circumstances on the time.
“The good factor is, I don’t assume it damage him mentally. He then had a extremely robust qualifying run within the Quick 9 shootout, and within the race, he was clearly very robust; him and Helio had been going fairly exhausting at it. So though he was very disillusioned to return second, I believe he realised that it had been an important expertise, and that he’d discovered so much. I believe that gave him a giant enhance in confidence on ovals.”
Palou’s psychological composure is certainly one of his ace playing cards, with out query. 3 times he suffered grid penalties for early engine modifications, as an example, but he by no means damage his probabilities by permitting frustration to trigger him to overreach himself with a dumb transfer on race day. He misplaced the lead of the championship to Pato O’Ward after the double-whammy of an engine failure within the second race on the Indy highway course and VeeKay’s indiscretion at Gateway, but Palou remained outwardly sanguine.
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photograph by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
On monitor he responded along with his first earned pole place at Portland (the primary time he began from P1 was attributable to a qualifying rainout in Texas), after which was demoted by race management to the second half of the sphere for the restart – apparently punished for avoiding an accident by going into the Flip 1 run-off. Once more, Palou’s persistence was sorely tried however he promptly produced his greatest drive of the season, his third victory and recaptured the factors lead.
“Alex is sensible within the automotive, and sensible out of the automotive, and people are typically the fellows who grow to be champions, like Scott and Dario,” Robertson noticed. “They drive to a plan, they’re doing a number of considering within the cockpit after which working exhausting within the debriefs. “That’s the distinction between the nice drivers and the drivers who sometimes take race wins. So after these two DNFs, we had been assured that we had the fitting man within the automotive to get it carried out, though you all the time must acknowledge that different issues, circumstances, can hit you exhausting.
“However that’s why he and I work effectively collectively as a result of we’re not wanting again; getting annoyed over current setbacks simply results in errors. We’re all about, ‘Hey, these are the playing cards we’ve been dealt, and let’s take advantage of it by knuckling down.’ And it’s that perspective that received us again to the entrance of the sphere in Portland.”
Nevertheless nice the attitudes of crew and driver, that Lengthy Seashore finale was nerve-wracking for the #10 strand of the Ganassi crew, which hadn’t received a title for 10 years. Palou began solely 10th, his potential stymied by yellow flags in Spherical 2 of qualifying, and title rival O’Ward – affected equally – was eighth on the grid. Then on the ultimate activate the opening lap, Ed Jones punted O’Ward right into a spin, which doubtless triggered the harm that ultimately pressured the Arrow McLaren SP automotive to retire. Palou, who had grandstand seat for the conflict, was conscious an identical factor might simply have occurred to him within the subsequent congestion…
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photograph by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
“With the factors lead, you don’t need to be super-aggressive within the ultimate race, however on the similar time you may’t take the mentality of, ‘We simply must cruise round and end.’” Robertson mentioned. “We had been all in the identical mash-up on the hairpin. We truly nudged into Jones as a result of he’d come to a cease in entrance of us after hitting O’Ward, after which we received hit from behind… In that type of deal, something can occur – bent wings, punctures, and so forth.
“So after that it was simply making our manner ahead, and Alex as standard stored all of it collectively and received the job carried out with fourth place. It was that manner all 12 months, to be sincere: he was simply actually quick at selecting up what was vital to realize the goal, which was clearly the championship. It helped being alongside a a number of champion like Scott, and Marcus gave a number of good info, too, as a result of he’d already carried out a 12 months with the crew.
“Jimmie [Johnson] was getting on top of things a lot of the 12 months, however I believe Alex talked about a few occasions that Jimmie was helpful in find out how to method a championship battle mentally. Principally, Alex simply learns off different drivers on a regular basis, identical to Scott has carried out, as a result of we’ve all the time sat across the similar desk discussing every thing, being completely open. The purpose is to get the crew pretty much as good as doable, then you definately go battle it out on the monitor. That’s the best way we’ve all the time performed it.”
Palou pursued the IndyCar championship in as near-perfect a way as we are able to anticipate of any driver, not to mention a collection sophomore, and it’s astonishing to seek out one describing him as probably the most full driver of the season. But he has already mentioned there are three or 4 areas the place he intends to enhance for 2022, though unsurprisingly he received’t go into particulars. Robertson pauses earlier than answering a query relating to how his new star would possibly be capable to up his recreation.
“Properly, Alex nonetheless doesn’t have a ton of expertise on ovals,” Robertson mentioned. “However truly that’s not simply right down to him. He and I don’t have a lot expertise working collectively at ovals. I believe that’s undoubtedly an space the place we are able to goal a step ahead. And that turns into extra vital subsequent 12 months with Iowa being thrown again within the combine, and as a double-header: a number of factors accessible there. Iowa is a troublesome monitor, and we as a crew have had our ups and downs there. Conserving in your recreation on any of the ovals is fairly powerful from 12 months to 12 months.”
Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet leads the sphere to the inexperienced flag, Will Energy, Workforce Penske Chevrolet, Romain Grosjean, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda, Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Photograph by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
Qualifying may also be an space of focus for Palou. Nobody’s questioning his velocity, however these tension-filled periods are usually not merely about one-lap tempo, a driver stitching collectively his greatest sectors into one sensible lap. In addition they require him to nail nice laps in Q1 and Q2 with out screwing the life out of the tyres, so he has some rubber left to work with come the pole place shootout.
Requested why it took till the 14th spherical for Palou to nail a pole place this 12 months, Robertson replied: “As a result of they’re fairly exhausting to get!
“Severely although, there’s quite a lot of folks able to getting pole and every thing has to fall completely, not simply when it comes to tempo, but additionally whether or not you’ve received a transparent lap when your tyres are at their absolute peak. There’s days the place you find yourself third or fourth and also you’re left considering, ‘We might have been on pole’, and there’s different days the place you reckon second row might be your greatest hope and then you definately get pole. It’s very, very troublesome to get every thing lined up good.
“However you’re proper to focus on qualifying, as a result of the easiest way to go folks is to be forward of them on the grid! If you wish to beat all of them on the finish of the race, the ‘best’ manner is to begin forward of them by beating all of them in qualifying. However as you see time and time once more, the competitors is hard, the occasions are amazingly shut.
“That’s why we’re not resting on our laurels now that we’ve received the championship. Going again to what we had been simply saying, certain, Alex goes to be even higher as a driver, however so are the others! All the greatest drivers on the market – the fellows his age, those of their 30s and even those of their 40s – they by no means cease studying, even once they’ve been within the recreation 10, 15, 20 years. We don’t low cost anybody; there’s a bunch of quick guys on the market who’re all the time bettering, so nevertheless a lot we enhance, it’s going to be simply as shut subsequent 12 months because it was this 12 months.
“That’s why it’s a must to seize these championship probabilities at any time when they arrive up.”
Champion Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and crew proprietor Chip Ganassi
Photograph by: Chris Owens