Palou laying the groundwork for IndyCar title defense

Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

Palou laying the groundwork for IndyCar title defense

IndyCar

Palou laying the groundwork for IndyCar title defense

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Of all the things that stood out during the 2021 NTT IndyCar Season, one of the most impressive was how Alex Palou, on only his second attempt, cracked the championship code.

The Spaniard won the title in a manner that was reminiscent of Chip Ganassi Racing legend Dario Franchitti, who used smarts and measured aggression to his advantage at almost every stop on the calendar while some of his closest rivals took more risks and suffered in the final standings.

Franchitti returned to IndyCar with Ganassi in 2009 after a stint in NASCAR and earned three consecutive championships, adding to the one he’d already won in 2007. Palou’s approach to racing is markedly similar to that of the Scot, despite being just 24 years old.

While some of his rivals blitzed at every opportunity and suffered the same peaks and valleys that Franchitti’s opposition once found, Palou deployed his take on Franchitti’s title-winning formula to his benefit by banking points, minimizing risks, chasing podiums, and going for victory whenever possible.

It wasn’t nearly as spectacular as some of those who were chasing the driver of the No. 10 CGR Honda, but with a season-record of eight podiums from 16 races, and a tie with Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta for the most wins with three, Palou used consistent performances to achieve a devastating effect.

Moving into his third season as the new and defending series champion, look for Palou to apply the same cool-headed format to the 17 races on the schedule, but don’t be alarmed if he’s even faster and in contention for a greater number of podiums and wins.

“I think it’s going to be a great year, and I think more than 10 drivers could become the champion, which is great,” Palou told RACER. “But for me, I feel more secure with the with the car and with the team after being together for the first time (last season). We won the championship, but still, there were so many things that I had to learn with a new team and with new tracks. And oval racing, which is not my thing, but I’m starting to get used to it, starting to get confidence in it.

“I still have so much to learn and improve, I guess, like everybody does. But I’ve been to some of these tracks only one time, or maybe twice. So I’m really looking forward to feeling like I can go everywhere, basically, and have less that I need to learn. Having more experience, I think, is going to help me a lot when we get going next year.”

Palou has identified one area where he hopes to make the greatest year-to-year gain when the season launches at St. Petersburg across February 25-27.

“There’s loads of stuff that I could have done better, and I cannot prove it until we are racing again, but I think that the easiest thing for us to improve is qualifying,” said the pole winner at Portland who had three front-row starts in 2021.

“Improving our qualifying pace would be amazing, because if we can always start a bit further up, that’s going to make our races much easier. I think we did a good job there, but some of the other guys had, like, three poles, or maybe they were starting closer to pole than me, so we need to get a bit more there next year.”

The Portland race weekend revealed a side of Palou’s game that hadn’t previously been seen as he stormed to P1 in the opening practice session, held P1 in qualifying, and went on an epic charge in the race after he and the other leaders were sent to the back of the field for bypassing Turn 1 at the start when the traditional crash-fest took place. The aggressive win in Portland and complete dominance of the event was a new wrinkle for Palou, and he knows that if he’s going to keep the IndyCar crown, that driver will need to make more appearances in 2022.

If anything, the next step for Palou is to follow the example set by CGR teammate Scott Dixon. The New Zealander, a two-time IndyCar champion when Franchitti joined him at the team from 2009-2013, took note of Franchitti’s points-first title recipe, inserted it as a complement to his extreme speed, and has added four more championships from 2013-2020. Finding the right balance in that risk/reward formula is where Palou expects to focus his energies.

“I was lucky that I was able to test at Portland a few weeks before the race, and that gave me so much confidence to go out and just like attack and take 100-percent from the car,” he said. “But then some other races where I had no experience with a track, I couldn’t afford to go out in Practice 1 and just make a big mistake and throw the weekend away. So I think next year, I’ll have more confidence, and confidence is powerful for me.

“But I still don’t think I have the right mixture or approach. I don’t want to change it too much, though. Being super-aggressive all the time isn’t the way. I race with the guy that won more championships than any of us, and we know how Scott wins all these championships, and it’s by having an average finishing position of like P4 or P5 during the year. And that’s what we need to do, but keep going more. We’ll try and win all the time, but when we can’t, we will try and always finish on the podium. Those podiums, I’m telling you, they’re like my best friend.”

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