Those of you who predicted NTT IndyCar Series rookie Alex Palou would finish his first Open Test inside the top 10, and a full 11 positions ahead of his highly-rated sophomore teammate Santino Ferrucci, please raise your hand.
It’s far from a surprise that nobody, including the 22-year-old Spaniard, is raising their hand right now. Frankly, it was hard to know what to expect from the new Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh driver, who was ninth-fastest, 0.0149 seconds behind Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, and directly ahead of Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward and 2019 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist.
Although he was a complete mystery to the IndyCar paddock prior to Spring Training, Palou looked right at home in the No. 55 Honda where he showed front-running speed early on Wednesday in the least friendly wet/dry track conditions, and once more late in the day, when the 20-turn road course was at its best.
In fact, Palou left Circuit of The Americas feeling slightly down about his final lap time after a steady series of red flags ruined his opportunities to post something faster on new Firestone tires.
“I’m a bit disappointed because we were looking stronger [but] we had four red flags in a row, so I’m a bit disappointed to be honest,” Palou told RACER. “Overall, though, it was an awesome, awesome day. It’s a dream to be part of IndyCar, and I think it was a really good start.”
Working with Eric Cowdin, one of the most experienced race engineers in IndyCar, also proved beneficial as the two got to know each other during the test.
“I like that way of working when you connect with somebody; you know that you’re going to have a good relationship,” Palou said. “And that happened with Eric, and I’m glad that happened. The time sheets sometimes lie a bit, but it’s a good indication of what I think we can do together with more laps — especially if you look at the time sheets hour by hour. I think we were always around the top six a lot, which is the target for everybody, right?
“Oh man, just imagine if we didn’t have those four red flags. But working with Eric, the experience that he has, it helped me a lot just because he’s so calm; he just knows everything. I’m like, ‘Oh Eric, we have to go in 10 minutes.’ And he tells me, ‘Relax, don’t rush, we’ll be fine.’ He keeps me calm, he gives me a lot of confidence, and I just have to learn as much as possible from him because he knows a lot. We did our program, just said the good things, the bad things about the setup, learned how to drive this car. I have to say it’s amazing to drive this car.”
Palou also admits to fumbling through some first-day-at-school type of issues in learning his new environment.
“The first time we were going out, I didn’t know how to put it in neutral…” he said with a laugh. “You always study 50 million times the manuals that they give you. But once you’re there, everything goes fast and you need to remember because you are not used to it. You are used to another steering wheel, different buttons … Yeah, it was good to learn these things. And not only set-up stuff, but also the seat, the pedals, how the car works. It was a really nice day that taught me a lot.”
If we didn’t know what to expect from Palou heading into Spring Training, there’s no chance of being caught off guard when the series turns up for its first race of the year a month from now in St. Petersburg.
Will he and Cowdin, along with championship-winning crew chief Todd Phillips and the rest of the No. 55 Honda squad, continue the COTA trend and assert themselves as a top-10 threat? Based off his stunning performance in Austin, Texas, it might be time to raise a few hands.
“I just love the car and I think we have a lot of potential,” Palou said. “The team is really motivated and, yeah, I think we learned a lot — more than I expected — so let’s go racing.”