Palou is a deserving winner as IndyCar goes from strength to strength

Indycar Racing News

As a new generation of stars come through the ranks, IndyCar enjoyed a brilliant season that was won by 24 year-old Álex Palou

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Palou was a worthy winner and his success has been a long time coming

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A Spanish blindside with a Japanese twist? No one in the US could have been expected to foresee that. But at 24, Álex Palou is an IndyCar champion, in his second season and his first with Chip Ganassi Racing. Wow. It has all happened so early and so rapidly. But like everything that has come at him this season, a beaming Palou took his success comfortably in stride when he secured the 2021 crown with an unflustered, composed performance at the Long Beach Grand Prix on Sunday. Out of the left-field, a star is born.

Palou’s surprise emergence reminds us just how potent the colourful Japanese racing scene remains, as a fantastic proving ground to prepare young talent for the international stage. It’s not as common for Europeans to look East to further their careers as it used to be – that trend peaked in the 1990s when the likes of Eddie Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Tom Kristensen and the rest used vital experience they gained in Japan as a springboard to careers in Formula 1 and sports car racing.

But Super Formula (what used to be called Formula Nippon) and Super GT remain tough and enriching environments for those who are brave enough to step into an arena populated by quick and experienced locals driving hairy racing cars for well-prepped teams. There’s also the daunting language barrier and a culture that can appear alien to westerners, and as André Lotterer told me recently, Japan is not for everyone. But if drivers do adapt they gain so much.

Like all great champions, good people are behind Palou’s success. Early on he was a protégé of the late Adrian Campos who did so much to champion young talent on the junior ladder. Then having sampled Japanese F3 in 2017, Palou returned to the country in 2019 for a dual Super Formula/Super GT campaign, with ex-Lotus Formula 1 driver Satoru Nakajima’s Honda-powered team in the single-seater series and with McLaren Customer Racing Japan in the GT300 class.

“There’s talk about Michael Andretti expanding his racing empire to include an F1 interest in the future. Might we see Herta line up on a grand prix grid?”

The latter is run by 2005 Le Mans-winning team owner Kazumichi Goh with assistance from Roger Yasukawa, the Japanese-American former IndyCar racer. Together they all saw something in Palou, especially after an impressive Super Formula win at Fuji in the wet, and he was catapulted into a Dale Coyne Racing test at Mid-Ohio where he made such an impression Yasukawa struck a race deal with joint Coyne/Team Goh badging and Honda power for 2020. Palou didn’t win a race or claim a pole position last year – but Chip Ganassi, who has a long record for talent-spotting dating all the way back to Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya, had seen enough. He snapped him up for this season.

The nature of Palou’s maiden IndyCar victory in his first start for Ganassi at the Alabama Motorsports Park season-opener immediately justified that left-field signing in emphatic style. This kid looked born to win IndyCar races and did so again mid-season at Road America. But what really shows your depth is how you respond to adversity and Palou lost his points lead with back-to-back retirements on the Indianapolis road course and the Gateway oval in August, the former because of an engine failure, the latter when he was caught up in a shunt with team-mate Scott Dixon and Rinus VeeKay.

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Herta put on a clinical display to take victory in the final race of the season

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How he bounced back with a vital victory in Portland, then shadowed Colton Herta for the win at Laguna Seca snatched back all the lost momentum churned up by Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP’s equally exciting 22-year-old. The Mexican had jumped to the top of the standings, but in McLaren’s first full season back in IndyCar racing O’Ward didn’t have an answer for Palou’s returning consistency when it counted the most.

How the air fizzled out of the climax at Long Beach was mighty hard on O’Ward. Having qualified eighth, two places ahead of his rival, he found himself being punted into a spin at the hairpin by a hapless Ed Jones on lap two. Zak Brown, who missed Lando Norris’s heartbreak in Sochi to support O’Ward’s title bid in California, described it accurately as “a kind of amateur move” and understandably O’Ward didn’t hold back either. “It’s not the first time (Jones) has hit us,” he said. “And not the first time he’s done something stupid this season. So I just wish he could use his head a little bit more; at least respect the guys that are fighting the championship. I don’t know what else to say.”

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Racing drivers generally stick by an unwritten golden rule: don’t get mixed up with rivals fighting for the title if you are out of the picture. Jones broke that one, probably through clumsiness rather than malice, but it took most of the tension out of what was already a long-shot title battle. At 35 points down coming into the weekend, O’Ward was always up against it and when his right-rear driveshaft broke on lap 18 as a direct consequence of the contact his bid was done.

But Palou still had a job to do. Penske’s Josef Newgarden remained mathematically in contention and had done his best to exert pressure by taking pole position. But in the race he had no answer for an inspired Herta, who came from 14th to pass Newgarden for what was effectively the lead on lap 33 of 85. Behind the lead battle Palou kept out of trouble following an early scare when he thought he’d damaged his nose against Jones in the O’Ward punting incident. He got away with that one, and now shadowed team-mate Dixon to the line for a safe fourth place to become the youngest champion since the Kiwi took the first of his six crowns in 2003 at just 23.

Palou’s remarkable title naturally overshadowed Herta’s victory. But Bryan’s boy was on fire at Long Beach. Using plenty of his push-to-pass powerboost and the softer red-walled Firestones early in the race, Herta had torn through the field to take back-to-back victories in his home state of California. In all he won three races this year, equal to Palou’s tally, and is rated very highly by his Andretti Autosports team. There’s plenty of talk at the moment about Michael Andretti expanding his impressive racing empire that already encompasses Formula E and Extreme E to include an F1 interest in the near future. If that comes to pass, might we see Herta line up on a grand prix grid? Brown has already promised O’Ward a run in a McLaren later this year at the Abu Dhabi tests. Indycar’s bright new generation of striking talent have everything before them.

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O’Ward’s hopes were ended with contact but the 22 year-old has a bright future

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But none of them need a back-of-the-grid F1 shot to improve their professional lives. They’re all probably better off sticking with IndyCar, which is getting back to its best under Roger Penske’s gimlet eye. This had been a fantastic season over in the US, with nine drivers claiming victories in the 16 IndyCar races. VeeKay was another of the new guard to taste success, but 2021 wasn’t just about the youth movement: who can forget Helio Castroneves winning a classic Indy 500 to join AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr and Rick Mears as a four-time Brickyard winner? Or ex-Sauber F1 ace Marcus Ericsson smashing into the back of Sébastien Bourdais at the new Nashville street track, then coming back to take his second win of the season? The old guard are far from spent, Will Power joining team-mate Newgarden as a race winner, during what amounted to a strangely muted campaign for Penske.

And that man Dixon can never be discounted. The reigning champion hit the top step only once this year, at the Texas Motor Speedway, but he still plugged away to finish fourth in the points. And he surely played a role in Palou’s success. The new champion is a bright lad and knows he has the best example of a top IndyCar driver to learn from and he’s paying attention to everything Dixon does, both on and off the track. Now having hit the top at such a precocious age, there’s every reason to believe Palou has it in him to match and even surpass Dixon’s records – although with such a depth of talent in IndyCar right now it’s hard to believe any single driver will ‘do a Michael Schumacher or a Lewis Hamilton’. A new golden age of American single-seater racing is upon us.