What made Palou’s IndyCar championship charge so special

In 2021, Alex Palou became the first driver for 17 years to capture a US open-wheel title in only his second season. His race engineer Julian Robertson explains what made Palou’s title run so impressive

What made Palou’s IndyCar championship charge so special

A year ago, after running Palou as a rookie in IndyCar, Dale Coyne predicted his former charge would go on to shine at Chip Ganassi Racing. Palou had taken a podium for DCR at Road America – only his third IndyCar start and second on a US road course – and had also qualified five times in the top eight. Given how reduced the track time was in 2020 – two-day race weekends, fewer practice sessions, minimal testing – it had been the toughest season for newbies for as long as anyone could remember.

Asked to critique his departing driver, Coyne told Autosport: “I think there’s more things he needs to work on in his racecraft, things we could have worked on in testing in a normal year. In-laps on worn out tyres and low fuel, out-laps on cold tyres and heavy fuel load – stuff that kind of comes automatically to the really experienced guys.

“But that comes down to comfort and confidence which you only get with experience. That’s the other thing – these tight schedules meant you didn’t want drivers tearing up cars because the next session might be just a few hours later, especially on double-header weekends. So in that situation, a rookie especially is going to give himself a bit of a margin.

“Alex will be strong at Ganassi. His feedback was real good, too, considering he didn’t really know what he could or couldn’t ask for because he had nothing to compare it with. Now with a season under his belt, he understands the car and he’s only going to get better.”

And he demonstrated that immediately by winning the season-opening race. By September, Chip Ganassi Racing was celebrating its 14th drivers’ championship title, delivered by this quiet, modest, thoroughly likeable 24-year-old from Sant Antoni de Vilamajor in Spain.

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Palou drove like a canny veteran, putting together a title-winning season as meticulously as one of his predecessors in the #10 Ganassi, Dario Franchitti, who is of course now Ganassi driver advisor. Similar flair, similar speed, similar judgment, similar big-picture thinking.

With top-three finishes in half the events, in an era when we thought it was near-impossible to achieve such consistency, Palou has surely set the template for how to win an IndyCar championship in the modern era.

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Yes, of course, in his favour was the fact that he was driving for the most successful team of the last three decades, the Honda was marginally the better engine over the 16 rounds, and he could learn directly from one of the best ever in Scott Dixon. But Palou also had to fit in to his new environment, learn tracks that were new to him due to cancelled races in 2020, deal with the pressure of being in the championship battle and remain composed in a brief period where it seemed fate was trying to knock him. And it’s not as if Dixon’s preferred set-up tweaks, or Ganassi’s generic set-ups, were necessarily the best for Palou’s driving style.

His Ganassi race engineer Julian Robertson told Autosport: “There are fundamental set-ups we run at various tracks, but they get tweaked a bit as per each driver’s preferences. What Alex had driven before at Dale Coyne’s team was probably quite different to what our car felt like when he first got in it. But rather than replicate what he had driven before, he’s quite mouldable, and he was willing to fit in with how we normally run the car and start learning from there. Then we just started tweaking things.

“We’re always bouncing ideas off the other drivers and engineers, because we all work well together, and we take it from there. Fundamentally our drivers run similar cars but with some differences specific to their driving style.”

Julian Robertson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Julian Robertson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

Back in Ganassi’s Dixon/Franchitti era – particularly with the old lawn-dart Dallara IR09s from 2009-’11 – both drivers found it amazing they wanted their car set-ups near identical, considering they then drove them so very differently. Robertson suggests the disparity in driving styles between Dixon and Palou requires more divergent car set-ups.

“Every driver is different,” Robertson said. “So will Scott ever driver like Alex? No. Will Alex ever drive like Scott? No. But they tend to go toward each other in certain areas. There’s things you can get away with on the #10 car due to Alex’s style and there’s things that Scott wants that Alex doesn’t want. And then Marcus [Ericsson] has another style.

“But we bounce those ideas around quite a bit and they can see each other’s traces, and when we see something particularly good in someone’s style at a certain corner, or a certain sequence, we try to encourage the others to do the same. And if we know that there’s significant differences between the cars, each driver will try each other’s settings occasionally just to double-check what’s the setting we really need. That’s especially true on test days – we try and get a consensus from all four drivers that this change is fundamentally the best option. That said, there’ll still be subtle differences between the cars.”

Speaking of fundamentals, one of the talents most valued in a driver by his engineer is the ability to save fuel while still being fast, since being miserly with the juice can open a greater range of strategic possibilities. Coyne is renowned for drilling that skill into the young drivers he takes on, but it takes on greater importance when an ace is fighting for the championship with four or five rivals.

“Alex came to us pretty good at fuel saving, but Scott is probably the best at that – him and Will Power,” Robertson said. “As you would have guessed, there was a lot of comparison going on, a lot of learning from Alex as to how to get it done. Some drivers have a certain style where it’s just very, very hard for them to get the necessary mileage, but Alex and Marcus have been able to learn from Scott and adapt and improve themselves.”

Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing Honda, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Another aspect of IndyCar in which Palou proved a fast study in his sophomore season was oval racing. He had run just six of them in his rookie season, and he’d been taken out of the first (Texas) by another driver, crashed by himself in the second (Indy 500), and found two of them useless this year since IndyCar didn’t run at Iowa. He was left with a lot to learn about the big left turn.

PLUS: Why IndyCar title glory is just the start for Ganassi's new star

This year Palou took fourth and seventh in the Texas double-header, fought Helio Castroneves for the win at Indy – ultimately finishing runner-up – and had rocketed from 21st on the grid into the top 10 in the first 64 laps at Gateway before being sent into the wall by Rinus VeeKay. It appeared that he had reined in his ambition, recognised that this was a type of racing still largely alien to him, and so remained just below the limit in order to maximise his knowledge by finishing the races and avoid taking a hit in the points standings with a crash.

“Particularly when it comes to qualifying, Alex doesn’t have much oval experience to draw on,” Robertson added. “So he won’t know exactly how hard to push it, and he wouldn’t know how to judge what feels right in qualifying and how it will translate to what you want from the car for the race. I think it’s fair to say he was a little bit cautious. As Chip puts it, you don’t learn how to race on ovals by not finishing on ovals: you need the miles under your belt. Alex realised that, probably without being told. And even the crash in Indy qualifying wasn’t really his fault – we just had the car too tweaked up for the track conditions at the time.

“The great thing is, I don’t think it hurt him mentally. He then had a really strong qualifying run in the Fast Nine shootout, and in the race, he was obviously very strong; him and Helio were going pretty hard at it. So although he was very disappointed to come second, I think he realised that it had been a great experience, and that he’d learned a lot. I think that gave him a big boost in confidence on ovals.”

Palou’s mental composure is one of his ace cards, without question. Three times he suffered grid penalties for early engine changes, for instance, yet he never hurt his chances by allowing frustration to cause him to overreach himself with a dumb move on race day. He lost the lead of the championship to Pato O’Ward after the double-whammy of an engine failure in the second race on the Indy road course and VeeKay’s indiscretion at Gateway, yet Palou remained outwardly sanguine.

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

On track he responded with his first earned pole position at Portland (the first time he started from P1 was due to a qualifying rainout in Texas), and then was demoted by race control to the second half of the field for the restart – apparently punished for avoiding an accident by going into the Turn 1 run-off. Again, Palou’s patience was sorely tried but he promptly produced his best drive of the season, his third victory and recaptured the points lead.

“Alex is smart in the car, and smart out of the car, and those tend to be the guys who become champions, like Scott and Dario,” Robertson observed. “They drive to a plan, they’re doing a lot of thinking in the cockpit and then working hard in the debriefs. “That’s the difference between the great drivers and the drivers who occasionally take race wins. So after those two DNFs, we were confident that we had the right guy in the car to get it done, although you always have to acknowledge that other things, circumstances, can hit you hard.

“But that’s why he and I work well together because we’re not looking back; getting frustrated over recent setbacks just leads to mistakes. We’re all about, ‘Hey, these are the cards we’ve been dealt, and let’s make the most of it by knuckling down.’ And it’s that attitude that got us back to the front of the field in Portland.”

However great the attitudes of team and driver, that Long Beach finale was nerve-wracking for the #10 strand of the Ganassi team, which hadn’t won a title for 10 years. Palou started only 10th, his potential stymied by yellow flags in Round 2 of qualifying, and title rival O’Ward – affected similarly – was eighth on the grid. Then at the final turn on the opening lap, Ed Jones punted O’Ward into a spin, which likely caused the damage that eventually forced the Arrow McLaren SP car to retire. Palou, who had grandstand seat for the clash, was aware a similar thing could easily have happened to him in the subsequent congestion…

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

“With the points lead, you don’t want to be super-aggressive in the final race, but at the same time you can’t take the mentality of, ‘We just need to cruise around and finish.’” Robertson said. “We were all in the same mash-up at the hairpin. We actually nudged into Jones because he’d come to a stop in front of us after hitting O’Ward, and then we got hit from behind… In that kind of deal, anything can happen – bent wings, punctures, and so on.

“So after that it was just making our way forward, and Alex as usual kept it all together and got the job done with fourth place. It was that way all year, to be honest: he was just really fast at picking up what was necessary to achieve the target, which was obviously the championship. It helped being alongside a multiple champion like Scott, and Marcus gave a lot of good information, too, because he’d already done a year with the team.

“Jimmie [Johnson] was getting up to speed most of the year, but I think Alex mentioned a couple of times that Jimmie was useful in how to approach a championship battle mentally. Basically, Alex just learns off other drivers all the time, just like Scott has done, because we’ve always sat around the same table discussing everything, being totally open. The goal is to get the team as good as possible, then you go battle it out on the track. That’s the way we’ve always played it.”

PLUS: Ranking the top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2021

Palou pursued the IndyCar championship in as near-perfect a manner as we can expect of any driver, let alone a series sophomore, and it’s astonishing to find one describing him as the most complete driver of the season. Yet he has already said there are three or four areas where he intends to improve for 2022, although unsurprisingly he won’t go into details. Robertson pauses before answering a question regarding how his new star might be able to up his game.

“Well, Alex still doesn’t have a ton of experience on ovals,” Robertson said. “But actually that’s not just down to him. He and I don’t have much experience working together at ovals. I think that’s definitely an area where we can target a step forward. And that becomes more important next year with Iowa being thrown back in the mix, and as a double-header: a lot of points available there. Iowa is a tough track, and we as a team have had our ups and downs there. Keeping on your game on any of the ovals is pretty tough from year to year.”

Patricio O'Ward, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet leads the field to the green flag, Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Romain Grosjean, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda, Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Patricio O'Ward, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet leads the field to the green flag, Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Romain Grosjean, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda, Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

Qualifying might also be an area of focus for Palou. No one’s questioning his speed, but those tension-filled sessions are not simply about one-lap pace, a driver sewing together his best sectors into one brilliant lap. They also require him to nail great laps in Q1 and Q2 without screwing the life out of the tyres, so he has some rubber left to work with come the pole position shootout.

Asked why it took until the 14th round for Palou to nail a pole position this year, Robertson replied: “Because they’re pretty hard to get!

“Seriously though, there’s a number of people capable of getting pole and everything has to fall perfectly, not just in terms of pace, but also whether you’ve got a clear lap when your tyres are at their absolute peak. There’s days where you end up third or fourth and you’re left thinking, ‘We could have been on pole’, and there’s other days where you reckon second row is probably your best hope and then you get pole. It’s very, very difficult to get everything lined up just right.

“But you’re right to highlight qualifying, because the best way to pass people is to be ahead of them on the grid! If you want to beat them all at the end of the race, the ‘easiest’ way is to start ahead of them by beating them all in qualifying. But as you see time and time again, the competition is tough, the times are amazingly close.

“That’s why we’re not resting on our laurels now that we’ve got the championship. Going back to what we were just saying, sure, Alex is going to be even better as a driver, but so are the others! All of the best drivers out there – the guys his age, the ones in their 30s and even the ones in their 40s – they never stop learning, even when they’ve been in the game 10, 15, 20 years. We don’t discount anyone; there’s a bunch of fast guys out there who are always improving, so however much we improve, it’s going to be just as close next year as it was this year.

“That’s why you have to grab these championship chances whenever they come up.”

Champion Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and team owner Chip Ganassi

Champion Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and team owner Chip Ganassi

Photo by: Chris Owens

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