Alex Palou is just 26 and already he’s a two-time IndyCar Champion, but what’s even more impressive is that he added his second title in only his fourth season in IndyCar. Let that sink in…
He took five race wins this year for Chip Ganassi Racing and although it wasn’t until the fifth round at the Indy road course that he tasted victory for the first time in 2023, it was the beginning of the championship challenge that no one could stop.
“I think because we started getting really good results quite early in the season, people were expecting us to be up there to get that championship quite early.”
Finishing in the top ten at every race, the championship fight ended up in a battle with his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Scott Dixon. He managed to hold off the legendary Kiwi to take the title at the penultimate race and did so in style with victory at the Portland Grand Prix.
“It's been an amazing season, much better than I could have dreamed. It’s 17 years in a row the title has been decided on the last round and it's a super competitive series which I think is just getting tougher and tougher. So to be able to get that before the last race of the season, not only the championship for me, but also for Ganassi was amazing. It was quite a relief, obviously.”
With a calendar of 17 races on a mixture of road, circuits and ovals it was the streets of Detroit which made a return downtown since the CART days in 1991 that Alex rated as his favourite weekend in general. It was an incident strewn race which made for some ‘will he, won’t he win’ moments as Alex tried to turn his pole into race victory which he did so by the narrow margin of just over a second.
“It was a crazy race with lots of crashes and restarts, but we were able to get the win so it was like a perfect weekend for us. I would say Detroit was probably the weekend where I was like, “Okay, we have the chance now to get the most of it and try and win this year.”
The Indy 500 is always part of the calendar and it’s the race that drivers want to win; the drive down victory lane, the pouring of the milk are all iconic moments of the famous race we all know and love and Alex etched himself in the history books as the first Spaniard on pole and also took the fastest pole speed with a four-lap average speed of 234.217mph. He was a man on a mission.
This arduous race does rely on a certain amount of luck and sadly his chances this year were scuppered in a pit lane incident, not of his doing.
“When you see how big of an event it is for everybody, but also for all the fans, you want to be part of it and part of history. But at the same time I think there's a lot of stuff that you cannot control for that race. It's only one day, it’s only one race and if you don't have a perfect day, you cannot win.
I want to be part of the Indy 500 winners but I don't want to get frustrated because you need to wait a full year to do it again. It's not like the championship that you have 17 chances of being up there and showing what you're capable of. It's only that one day.
And if you have a bad pit stop or a bad decision on an overtake and you lose momentum, you're done. So yeah, my focus is on there, but I'm not going to get frustrated if it doesn't come soon.”
As if the razzmatazz of the Indy 500 wasn’t enough for the drivers, new to the 2024 calendar is the $1 Million Challenge, a non points scoring exhibition race that will take place on 24th March at The Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California where the teams tested earlier this year.
“I love it, it’s a good addition and I think it's a good move by the series as it’s just good for the fans, the drivers, teams and sponsors. It's a great track in amazing condition and so to have the chance of winning some money for the team, it's amazing.
We'll give it our all, I don't think we're going to race as if there's no points awarded, we're going to race the same way, but just with the added bonus of maybe winning a million dollars.”
Aiming for title number three in 2024, you would think there’s not much that a two-time winner can’t do behind the wheel, but Alex still has something he needs to tick off his list. Ovals.
“We've won two IndyCar championships but I've not won an oval race, I've been second, third, I've been out there leading, I've been close but I've never won so that's a big goal for 2024 to be better on ovals and win a race. I've been already working quite a lot on that and I know it comes more from driving than from the car. We have good cars there and the team has been amazing on the all races, but me, personally, I just need to step it up a little bit and try and get more confidence and more out of the car and the opportunities that we have."
As a part of the team owned by the legendary and successful Chip Ganassi, the Spaniard is back with them again next season in quite an international line up; New Zealander Marcus Armstrong, Barbadian-born Caymanian Kyffin Simpson, the Swede Linus Lundqvist and another New Zealander, six-time IndyCar champion, Scott Dixon.
“He's been in the sport for more than 20 years and is one of the best, if not the best IndyCar racers that we’ve had. But then also everybody that works in the team has the same goal, which is to win. You have people and mechanics that have been around for like 20 years, won more than 10 championships with the team. Just that experience and that love they have for the sport, it just drives everybody so it's a privilege and the best thing is that it's not only the history that marks this team, it's also the present and the work they put in every day.”
Powered by Honda in America, Alex was also powered by the Japanese manufacturer during a season of Super Formula in 2019, when in his rookie season he nearly took the title. Although he came third in the championship he admits that it was a great stepping stone to his later racing exploits.
“It was everything; it changed my career. I was in Japan in Formula 3 but then Honda gave me the opportunity to do a year in Super Formula, which was already like a big car. It's a professional series with big cars, lots of downforce, lots of power and the way you drive is really close to a Formula 1 and IndyCar.
It gave me the opportunity to show what I was capable to do with a big car, it allowed me to learn about refuelling and strategy because it's a big change on the way you drive and the way you have to think about the races. It got me ready to step up to IndyCar in 2020 and it changed my career.”
With a positive attitude, his lovely demeanour and his ‘pinching himself’ moments that he’s doing what he loves makes Alex so likeable and although his career path went on a slightly different trajectory to what is usually the norm in Europe, it’s one that has put him on the road to greatness.
“I always wanted to be a champion. I knew the feeling of winning races and winning championships from go karts but my goal was just to be a professional race car driver and to be able to race around the world for a living. That was a goal, but obviously the dream was to win championships, I never thought that I would be first in IndyCar or to be able to fight for championships and win two in four years.
It's surpassing my dreams, but I love it. Just knowing the opportunity we have, I just love to work every day to try and get more.”