Palou didn’t quite make a convincing case for himself during his stint in European junior single-seaters, but a change in his career path in 2019 turned around his fortunes in an instant. On his very first weekend in Super Formula, Palou qualified on the front row of the grid, just behind his highly-rated Formula 2 race-winning team-mate Tadasuke Makino.
As the season progressed he only got better and better in qualifying, taking three pole positions in the remaining six races - an impressive feat given no other driver took the top spot in qualifying more than once. There was little to complain about his race pace either, and a lights-to-flag victory in atrocious conditions at Fuji highlighted his capabilities behind the wheel.
Given his form, it wasn’t surprising that he fought for the title against two of the series' established stars in Naoki Yamamoto and Nick Cassidy. In the end, though, it was something as small as a loose intercooler tube that decided his fate, causing him to plunge from the lead in the Suzuka title-decider all the way to last and crushing his dream of becoming Super Formula’s first rookie champion since Ralf Schumacher in 1996.
In Super GT, an unfavourable Balance of Performance and the less-fancied Yokohama tyre meant Palou never had the chance to repeat his Super Formula heroics in the cut-and-thrust of the GT300 class. But by the end of the season, he had put his Team Goh McLaren 720S GT3 on both pole and the podium.
Despite winning races in both GP3 and Formula V8 3.5, Palou could never string together a title challenge before moving to Japan. So how did a change of scenery result in such a stark change in fortunes for the 22-year-old? “I think in Europe there is a very big difference between the teams,” he says. “Some teams are winning teams and if you’re not in a winning team then [you are not winning]. So that is a problem.”
“I think I was very unlucky in Europe to not have a very good team. So then I always had to extract and work a little bit more than some other drivers, which was very hard in Europe.
“But then coming here [to Japan] and having a more equal car, that makes a difference. Because I think I struggled a lot before, but always was working, always tried to learn, tried to make the most of tyre warming, tried to make most of the braking, tried to make the most of going on the throttle.”
Another factor behind Palou’s turnaround is the durable nature of the Yokohama tyres used in Super Formula, which are in stark contrast to the high-degradation Pirellis that dominate the F1 junior single-seater ladder in Europe.
“It's a different world,” he adds. “The Yokohama is a really good tyre, the Pirelli is honestly a shit tyre. You can push one or two sectors, [by the] third sector already the rear tyre is really bad. With Yokohama you can push qualifying fully, you can push in the race every lap. With Pirelli you cannot push, you have to be really gentle. I think for junior series this is not good. When a driver is trying to show potential, if the car is not 100% perfect, the driver cannot show his potential.