Alex Palou still doesn’t know what exactly Chip Ganassi saw in him when he decided to hire him to drive the team’s No.10 car for the 2021 season, but he rewarded that faith by securing the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series title at Long Beach on Sunday.
“What is impressive for me is that (Ganassi) saw something,” Palou said. “I don’t know what they saw. They trusted me. They gave me the opportunity to drive a championship-winning car. They gave me the opportunity to fight for this championship. That’s what impresses me.
“Now, obviously everybody is super happy. But he saw something. Not only him, but all the crew. They had to do a big investment. They just got somebody that scored a podium, that’s it. I didn’t win any races (as a rookie in 2020, with Dale Coyne Racing). I didn’t score any poles. I didn’t do crazy stuff. I was just driving and doing my best. The impressive thing is what they saw.”
Palou came into the weekend with a significant points built upon a foundation of three wins and five podiums during the season, and his path to the top was made even clearer when main rival Pato O’Ward was wiped out of contention early in the race after being punted by Ed Jones. With O’Ward’s threat blunted, the Spaniard simply needed to avoid trouble and keep Josef Newgarden’s already-slim hopes in check.
“It was not relief. It was just happiness,” he said of crossing the finish line. “Suddenly I was super-happy. Once I knew I didn’t have to do another pit stop, I knew our fuel mileage was good, I knew we were more or less up there, I said, ‘OK, let’s just do 23 more laps,’ and after I’ll talk to myself again. I kept on driving, kept on hitting the brake marks. Once I crossed that checkered flag, I started thinking again. It was a nice feeling.”
The only small regret afterward was that he wasn’t able to settle his season-long battle with O’Ward on the track.
“I was not happy to see him spin from another driver,” he said. “If you make a mistake, that’s your fault. But if there’s another driver that hits somebody that is contending for the title, I don’t think that’s right. Maybe they should take care of the people that is fighting for it. I wanted to fight with him.”
Palou’s title win raised parallels with teammate and mentor Scott Dixon. He is the first driver aged under 25 to win the championship since Dixon in 2003. He plans to follow Dixon’s example in eschewing the No.1 plate on his car next year. And eventually he’d like to try to emulate the six-time champion’s career, although his immediate focus is on rounding out the rough edges to his game.
“I don’t think there’s anybody like Dixon,” he said. “He’s an amazing driver, really complete. He always gives 100 percent and extracts 100 percent from the car. Without him I wouldn’t be here today. That’s 100 percent true. I’ve been learning a lot from him, from how to go faster, to save fuel, save tires, think better while I’m in the car, everything.
“What do I need to improve? Everything. I need to go faster. I’m not the fastest. I need to try and do everything better. There’s not one only thing I’m missing. There’s a lot of things that I can just bring up. With experience it will come next year.
“But that’s the idea, try to follow Scott if I can. It’s not going to be easy. This guy, he’s from another planet. But the idea is to try and be here and win as many championships and races as possible for the Ganassi crew. They do an amazing job. They are going to be tomorrow celebrating a bit. But next week they’ll be back to work to try to be champions next year and win again.
“We start from new in February. I’m not going to be champion any more. So we’ll still share stuff to make the team stronger, and that’s going to give us the best position at the end of the year.”