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The factors that fuelled Palou’s 2023 IndyCar domination

Alex Palou stormed to a second IndyCar crown with a race in hand, dominating the season in a way that is not common with the series. With the 2023 campaign now over, here's how the Spaniard took a stranglehold on the competition and made headlines on and off the track

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, podium

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, podium

Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. IndyCar’s USP is the high number of potential race winners in its pack for such a high-level open-wheel racing series. But Alex Palou defied this logic in 2023, making his second title appear routine on track with five victories. Off the track, however, it was an altogether more complicated story.

Palou only remained with Chip Ganassi Racing this season following a courtroom mediation after the veteran team owner sued his own driver in the middle of last summer. Back then, the Catalan wanted out, lured by the potential of a Formula 1 opportunity with McLaren. In a sense, he had his cake and ate it, getting multiple runs in McLaren’s TPC (testing previous cars) programme and an FP1 outing at the United States Grand Prix. And he got to stay with IndyCar’s best team of the moment, adding a 15th title to Ganassi’s glittering trophy cabinet.

While some in the team undoubtedly gave him the cold shoulder, keen to keep their secrets in-house, it’s worth noting that Ganassi himself never let the legal dispute get between their personal relationship. Undoubtedly, the turmoil affected Palou’s form in 2022 – CGR’s main strength is its togetherness, and he became its black sheep – but when it came to deciding his future, and the McLaren U-turn in August that shocked the world once more, the fact that Ganassi remained civil and upfront with him clearly paid off. And several more million dollars likely helped too.

Continuity is also what makes CGR tick, with a management backbone featuring faces who have been around since its first era of glory in the 1990s, the Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi days. For example, Palou’s strategist Barry Wanser was Zanardi’s ‘gearbox guy’ and, along with Chip, managing director Mike Hull, race engineer Julian Robertson and crew chief Ricky Davis, Palou’s #10 team not only has the feel of the spiritual successor to Zanardi or Juan Pablo Montoya or Dario Franchitti… it essentially is that same team of remarkable people.

This was reflected in the outpouring of emotion towards Wanser, who missed Palou’s title moment at Portland (the champion Facetimed him from Victory Lane) as he recovered in hospital from cancer surgery. You wonder whether that emotive connection, and Palou’s revelation that he and wife Esther are expecting their first child, might have swayed him away from chasing that F1 dream. Or perhaps he’s been offered something else in that direction… Time will tell, or maybe he will one day in the book he keeps promising to write!

That Palou plugged in and won at his first attempt with these guys in 2021 was impressive enough. Franchitti, the team’s driver advisor, says that even in his first season with the team he was “already at that point where he knows what he wants, he’s very precise”, while the team’s 30-year veteran Hull says Palou’s mental strength reminds him of Dan Wheldon at his peak. High praise indeed.

Palou secured the title in Portland after previously being compared favourably to Dan Wheldon

Palou secured the title in Portland after previously being compared favourably to Dan Wheldon

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Two years on from his first title with Ganassi, Palou’s 2023 performances were frankly astounding. His worst finishes of the season were a pair of eighth places, coming at St Petersburg and the Iowa Speedway oval, but five wins, nine podiums and two poles sealed this deal with a race to spare. That’s another thing he’s learned from Franchitti and similarly illustrious team-mate Scott Dixon: you’re only as good as your worst results. And he sailed with an even keel even through the headwinds of the off-track dramas.

The true damage was inflicted on his opposition – just as Team Penske’s trio of drivers likewise unleashed last year – via a trio of wins in the post-Indy 500 stretch of Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio. Suddenly his points lead was massive, requiring a similar stretch of dominance from someone, anyone, to catch up.

His rivals were almost bursting with jealousy at Palou’s good fortune. For instance, when Penske’s two-time champion Josef Newgarden got within 80 points of him after his own imperious streak of oval victories by dominating the tricky Iowa double-header, he’d lament his engine failure at St Pete and some poor qualifying performances that truly hampered his campaign. It was encapsulated when Newgarden then expressed his disbelief at Palou scoring a podium in Iowa from 12th on the grid. There’s a belief in that paddock that Palou will never enjoy such a season of fine fortune again, or perhaps they’re all just kidding themselves.

Palou still manages to generate goodwill among the media as he gracefully swerves their questions. He’d make a formidable poker opponent

While many of Palou’s results were richly deserved, it’s true that he did ride his luck on some occasions. A caution at Nashville saved a fuel mileage gamble, just moments after he’d bailed on it, that would likely have meant at least one finish outside the top 10. Race Control turned a blind eye to his front wing hanging by a thread in the closing stages in Toronto, after a clash with Helio Castroneves and the wall. A sturdy clash of wheels with Newgarden at Road America didn’t lead to any adverse effect either.

But it wasn’t totally plain sailing: Rinus VeeKay’s wild pitlane half-spin that put Palou in the wall at the Indianapolis 500 ruined his chances of victory that day, but the comeback drive from last to fourth was quite the achievement in itself. It was also the only moment all season where we heard Palou lose his rag in the car, with a sarcastic “absolute legend” zinger in VeeKay’s direction. It was far more common to hear his excited screams of “let’s go!” at the chequered flag. Besides that, he’s a very cool, calm and collected character in the cockpit, but possesses sharp elbows when he needs to make progress.

He also maintained a decorum outside of the car when it came to questions about his future. Bearing in mind his lawyers have briefed him to say “no comment” to any contractual matters, somehow he still manages to generate goodwill among the media as he gracefully swerves their questions. He’d make a formidable poker opponent.

His team-mate, six-time champion Dixon, was runner-up for the third time in his illustrious career and took a long time to rediscover his race-winning form. But when he did, he almost couldn’t stop! Three victories in the final four races left the flame-haired Kiwi wondering what might have been; for him, a grid penalty for an engine change or a first-lap spin are simply an opportunity to shine. For all of Palou’s excellence, he remains the benchmark of this series.

A strong close to the season moved Dixon to second in the drivers' standings

A strong close to the season moved Dixon to second in the drivers' standings

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The Ganassi squad’s 1-2 was the mirror image of Penske’s result last year, and this season ‘The Captain’s’ line was mostly led by Newgarden. He was imperious on ovals, almost sweeping the season from the high banks of Texas Motor Speedway, the cathedral of speed that is Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the relative minnows of Iowa and St Louis. His only failure came at the last-named, where he clipped the wall in a vain attempt to keep up with Dixon’s alternate strategy.

ANALYSIS: Has IndyCar's Texas loss come at the right time?

One of the most misleading stats of the season is laps led, where Newgarden beat everyone by miles (Palou was closest to his 602, with 377!), which served to reflect his oval prowess. And his day of days came on Memorial Weekend Sunday when he swept to his maiden Indy 500 success after a thrilling final-lap pass on last year’s winner Marcus Ericsson.

It’s fair to say that Chevrolet’s top-end grunt played its part in Newgarden’s success on ovals, while Honda’s frugality and driveability meant he struggled to match them on road and street courses. But that was where his team-mate Scott McLaughlin truly excelled to power ahead of the two-time champion in the closing stages of the season to finish third in points.

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After claiming a great win at Barber Motorsports Park by beating Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, with whom he’d driven both into the wall in their duel over the lead in the St Pete season-opener, former Aussie Supercars legend ‘Scotty Mac’ didn’t find Victory Lane again. But top Penske driver in points is a fine bragging right, and one place better than he finished in 2022 when the team was top dog.

The sight of Penske drivers looking frustrated after non-oval qualifying was common. Newgarden took an inherited pole at St Louis, and only featured three times in Fast Six shootout sessions on road and street courses, while Will Power and McLaughlin scored two poles apiece. Their repeated struggles to make it through IndyCar’s qualifying knockout system were a far cry from the nine poles of last season. Was Penske’s focus placed too much on conquering the Indy 500 after a few years in the wilderness? Newgarden’s success there certainly sweetens the pill of the pendulum swinging towards Ganassi.

The only other driver to score multiple wins was Andretti Autosport’s new signing Kyle Kirkwood, who produced two sparkling drives on the streets of Long Beach and Nashville. After his glittering junior career, the 24-year-old clearly has a huge future, although his youthful enthusiasm needs to be curbed – that can be blamed for his finishing outside the top 10 in points.

Christian Lundgaard is two years Kirkwood’s junior, but the Dane produced a veteran’s season in the unfancied Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad. After a turbulent season for the team, highlighted by a wretched Indy 500, his affinity with Indy’s road course shone once more, and it was a surprise that his breakthrough win actually came in Toronto. Lundgaard was imperious that weekend, yet this was his only podium.

Last year's champion Power endured his first winless season in the US since 2006

Last year's champion Power endured his first winless season in the US since 2006

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

The other winner was last year’s Indy 500 victor Ericsson, who lucked into honours at St Petersburg when the plenum chamber of Pato O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren machine hiccupped at a crucial moment in the closing laps, allowing the Swede to scoot past. He didn’t look like winning another, apart from the 500, where he came within half a lap and 0.0974s of going back-to-back.

And what of Power? The Australian veteran, champion in 2022, recorded his first winless season in over a decade and a half. He seemed to be in a funk at times, in stark contrast to his brilliant preceding campaign, and even his amazing qualifying form deserted him everywhere but Iowa – where he added to his amazing all-time record tally – on his way to seventh in the points.

Next year contenders will have the curveball of a new common electrical hybrid system to master. It sounds like something right up Dixon’s street

The series started with five different winners from three different teams, until Palou grabbed the points race by the throat after the Indy 500. It ended with only two more drivers claiming victories (plus one extra squad) and even the improving Arrow McLaren operation was shut out, which was galling after coming so close in the opener and in Texas with O’Ward.

That was way more reflective of IndyCar’s mantle as the most competitive, top-tier open-wheel series on the planet. It should be tough to win here. And next year its contenders will have the curveball of a new common electrical hybrid system to master. It sounds like something right up Dixon’s street.

Palou will enter the 2024 season looking to register back-to-back titles

Palou will enter the 2024 season looking to register back-to-back titles

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

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