Alex Palou won’t be surprised if NTT IndyCar Series fans spend the early stages of the 2020 season asking, ‘Alex who?’
The Spaniard enters his rookie season in the No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda as the least-known driver in the series. But if his reputation in Europe and Japan follows the 22-year-old to America, recognition won’t be a problem by the end of the year.
“His reputation is actually quite impressive for all that he’s done,” said one rival engineer who did not want to be identified. “I’d expect him to be fast and turn some heads.”
An impressive run to third last season on his Japanese Super Formula debut followed years of learning on Formula 1’s open-wheel ladder which, for most European racers, serves as the only destination to pursue. That isn’t the case with Palou, though, who had visions of competing in the U.S.
“My dream was not to go to Formula 1, but just to be a professional racing driver, and that was the only way I had,” he said of departing for Japan to race with Honda and Team Goh in Japanese Super GT. “Then I could be a professional driver. So I was a Honda driver just in Japan, and it was really good last year in Super Formula — it was really good. The fans are really, really good, and it was a dream for me; but I always had in my head to go to IndyCar.
“I think it’s the most difficult championship to win, the most complete (challenge), where you race ovals, street and road courses. It’s really cool. I always push Honda and all my supporters, sponsors and people around me, (that) we could end up here in IndyCar. Just grateful for everything.”
Despite his relatively young age, Palou has raced in 10 different series since 2014. And while the variety has certainly helped him learn to rapidly adapt to new cars and circuits, the lack of consistency could also be a limiting factor in his overall development. Barring two consecutive seasons of GP3 with the semi-competitive Campos Racing team, Palou has done a lot of partial seasons, moving from one series to the next without getting a chance to hone his skills in a steady and progressive fashion.
It means that while Palou’s adaptability will be an invaluable asset as he learns the North American circuits in the No. 55 Honda, developing the finer aspects of open-wheel racing could play a bigger part of his rookie campaign than some of the Road To Indy graduates who’ve honed their craft for years in the same discipline.
“Yeah, for sure it’s not ideal, but the thing is that I only repeated in GP3, and I just did that because, the team…” he said, pointing to the somewhat unrewarding 2015-2016 stretch with Campos. “They had enough passion to try to get me higher, so we committed to two years, and it didn’t work. So I had to wait ’til February to get a call from Japan.
After Japan, I had a really good relationship with Honda to go to Super Formula, but they said that they could not offer me a car for 2018, that I had to wait one year because they were full already with driver signs. So I was like, ‘OK.’ I waited until March, I think, and then I went back to Formula 3 in Europe. The teams were looking for paying drivers, and I had no support at all, so I was just waiting the last minute call, and, yeah, I was lucky enough to find (European) F3 in 2018 and (Super Formula in) ’19.”
Palou proved to be a quick study in Japan. He’ll need to make use of the same skills if he wants to race somewhere other than the back of the grid here in IndyCar.
“It was a bit difficult for me in Super Formula at the beginning because all the Japanese drivers, they just race there, and they only have seven racetracks, so they race in those same seven racetracks since they’re, I don’t know, 12, 13. They know every bump, every curb,” he said.
“I remember the first three practices. Every time, they were already on it at the beginning, on the first stint, and I was still finding my references or getting up to speed, and that was tricky. But I think that also pushed me to improve (quickly).”
Credit Palou’s Super GT team owner Kazumichi Goh for listening to the wishes of his driver and striking a deal with Coyne to co-enter the hot pink No. 55.
“They knew well each other, Mr. Goh and Mr. Coyne, from the past,” he added. “When people asked me questions about where I wanted to go, whether to Super GT or Formula 1, I always said IndyCar. So he was hearing me saying that I wanted to go to US, and I think, at the end, he said, ‘OK, come on, just try to bring that guy to US, and let’s see if he can show something.’ And, yeah, we did it.”
The native of Sant Antoni de Vilamajor, Spain, is also planning to move to America.
“I have to. I want to move to the U.S. I love the culture,” he said. “I’ve not moved yet because I’m waiting for the visa, but I’m going to move really soon — maybe next week. Yeah, I’m really excited.”
Just as Dale Coyne Racing rookie Santino Ferrucci impressed while learning alongside veteran Sebastien Bourdais in 2019, Palou could do the same with his familiar-but-new teammate.
“I know already Santino from karting,” he said. “We were teammates for one year, so I know him quite (well). The team? I know some stuff, not all. But I’m really, really excited to start this new chapter. Hopefully, by working step by step, we will be able to fight for some stuff.”