Palou’s stunning rise from F1 feeder series to IndyCar champion – via Japan

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Romain Grosjean came out of Formula 1 and became a beloved rookie sensation that dominated much of the international coverage of the IndyCar Series. Dazzling performances from youngsters Colton Herta and Patricio O’Ward had them being discussed as potential candidates to step up to F1 out of IndyCar at one point in the season.

But when the chequered flag fell on the last round of the 2021 IndyCar season, it was Álex Palou – a young man who spent six years bouncing across continents, cycling through the junior formula racing ladder, only to go completely overlooked by the F1 paddock for all of his efforts – who became the series’ newest champion.

“What a race, what a year, what a season,” Palou remarked after clinching the title at Long Beach with a fourth place finish. “This team is amazing. I’m super proud to be a part of Chip Ganassi Racing, all our partners. I’m super proud to be a champion and for the opportunity these guys gave me.

After calling his accomplishment a “dream completed,” he then made a clear statement of intent for the future: “Let’s get another one now.”

It’s the culmination of a year that began with Palou’s breakthrough victory at Barber Motorsports Park, saw him come within half a second of winning the Indianapolis 500, pick up a fortuitous late victory at Road America, then rebound from back-to-back retirements to win at Portland and seize the lead in the standings, which he never relinquished over the final three rounds.

Alex Palou, Ganassi, IndyCar, Barber Motorsport Park, 2021
Palou became an IndyCar race-winner at Barber
Eight podiums and twelve top-10 finishes in 16 races were the hallmarks of Palou’s remarkable consistency in such a competitive series as IndyCar, the product of his silky smooth driving style, and his seemingly unwavering confidence and optimism.

And Ganassi, who has brought on some of the most accomplished and respected champions in the history of American open-wheel racing as a team director, was left astonished by the performance of his newest champion driver. “You’re seeing a young man that’s going to set a lot of records in this business, and he’s already starting,” he said. “I’ve got to be honest with you: It has surprised us when he came in the door and the job he’s done”

There were flashes of success over the first five seasons of Palou’s single-seater career. He was a winner in Euroformula Open, Formula V8 3.5, All-Japan Formula 3, and the GP3 Series. He had multiple podiums in European Formula 3 in 2018, and even had a solid cameo in FIA Formula 2 at the end of 2017.

None of this, however, seemed to make any impression on Formula 1 teams or their junior driver academies. Palou’s only such opportunity to be scouted by such a programme came when he got a token audition at the Ferrari Driver Academy in late 2013, which did not lead to a place on the scheme.

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Fast forward to 2019, where Palou made a significant short-term change in his career trajectory, with the ultimate goal of another, long-term future goal: He signed up for dual campaigns in Japan’s two biggest national racing series, Super Formula, and Super GT. In doing so, he made the requisite connections that he needed to make his move towards IndyCar.

In Super GT, he raced in the GT300 class for McLaren Customer Racing Japan – a team managed by Le Mans winning team owner Kazumichi Goh, and also supervised by former driver Roger Yasukawa – a Japanese-American that raced for parts of seven seasons as an IndyCar journeyman. A newcomer to sports cars, Palou brought the team their only podium at Autopolis, and a pole in the last round at Motegi.

Alex Palou, Super Formula
Super Formula taught Palou valuable lessons for IndyCar switch
In Super Formula, Palou had Honda power and a drive at Nakajima Racing, under the wing of team namesake and national F1 hero Satoru Nakajima. In just his fourth start at Fuji Speedway, Palou dominated a wet-weather race, winning from pole, and leading every lap en route to a crushing victory, the first for Nakajima Racing since 2010.

Two weeks after that win, Palou took a flight to America for a test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with Dale Coyne Racing. In two days of running, Palou left such a remarkable impression on Coyne that the long time IndyCar campaigner was determined to bring him on board as soon as possible. After the conclusion of the 2019 Japanese racing season, Dale Coyne Racing made the surprise announcement that they had partnered with Team Goh to field a full-time entry for Palou in 2020, brokered by Palou’s new manager Yasukawa, with Honda engines.

“I think it was crucial,” Palou said, of his year in Super Formula. “Super Formula is the only series apart from IndyCar, in single-seaters that you do refuelling. Fuel consumption is super important. That helped me to be here today.”

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The time spent also had a profound impact in the way Palou carries himself as a driver through challenging times. “In Japan I learned a lot, losing the championship there. That made me really, really strong today. About trying to always be positive. I think it’s the only way I can get the best of myself and the best of my people around, right?”

Ganassi celebrates with his latest IndyCar champion
It didn’t take long for Palou to convince IndyCar fans he was a legitimate talent. If the third-place finish in his third start at Road America didn’t do it, then qualifying on the third row for the Indianapolis 500 on his debut outing surely did.

During Indy 500 qualifying, he expressed his interest in driving for Chip Ganassi Racing directly to the man himself. And by October, when IndyCar returned to the Brickyard for a road course double-header, Ganassi had brought him in for a meeting to offer him a full-time drive with one of the series’ premier organisations.

If there is one important figure in the F1 paddock who, through those trying early years, saw the potential in Palou that went overlooked by seemingly every one of his peers – it was the late Adrian Campos Snr. The Campos Racing team founder gave Palou his first drive in Euroformula Open out of karting.

“Campos was the person that got me into single-seaters,” said Palou. “I was going to do another year of go-karting […] I didn’t even think that single-seaters were possible. He gave me that opportunity.” Palou’s mentor passed away in January at the age of 60.

Palou also received his step up to GP3, and his brief F2 cameo thanks to Campos Racing. In fact, when word surfaced of Campos’ final bid to break into F1 as a team principal in 2019, he had Palou on his short list of potential driving candidates. The bond between Palou and the Campos family endures through his friendship with Campos Racing’s current president, Adrian Campos Jnr, who also played an important role in Palou’s early career.

He may not have been an experienced ex-Formula 1 driver like Grosjean, a highly touted ex-F1 prospect like Callum Ilott, or have an F1 test deal in his pocket like his friend and title rival Patricio O’Ward. But Álex Palou is the one that lifted the Astor Challenge Cup aloft in celebration as IndyCar’s newest champion.

As has been said of many IndyCar drivers this year, ‘Formula 1’s loss is IndyCar’s gain’. That is certainly true of Palou, who is no longer slipping under the motorsport radar.

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RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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  • 19 comments on “Palou’s stunning rise from F1 feeder series to IndyCar champion – via Japan”

    1. As has been said of many IndyCar drivers this year, ‘Formula 1’s loss is IndyCar’s gain’.

      Settle down. Indycar champions don’t exactly have a terrific track record of competitiveness when given the chance to compete at the top level.

      Still, good on Alex, and best of luck for his future.

      1. By the same token, not every ex-F1 driver has lit the IndyCar series on fire either. No former F1 driver has won the Indy title since Mansell in nearly three decades. It’s just a different challenge and being good at one thing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be good at the other.

        Reply moderated
        1. *correction
          I forgot Zanardi raced for Lotus before CART, so he would be the most recent to go from F1 to Indy and win the title. Still a long time ago though.

      2. I’d argue that IndyCar is also the top level in a different ecosystem. Calling a singular championship championship the top as a blanket statement is a bit like saying a tiger is the top predator until it meets a shark while swimming but that’s besides the point. Similar to what would happen if you raced an F1 car vs an IndyCar at the Indy 500, against a Hypercar at the 24 Hours of LeMans, or against a Trophy Truck in the Baja 1000 its just a silly statement.

        Plenty of IndyCar champions that went over to F1 after they became champions found plenty of glory during their time there but the point of that statement is obviously that F1 completely overlooked a great talent, not that he should immediately be given a seat in F1.

        1. Plenty of IndyCar champions that went over to F1 after they became champions found plenty of glory during their time there

          “Plenty” being 2 and a half, in 70 years:

          Mario Andretti
          Jacques Villeneuve
          Juan-Pablo Montoya*

          *CART champion

          1. CART IRL USAC its all considered IndyCar today. Plus that’s not an exhaustive list just what I can remember off the top of my head. if you look at it in percentage terms its a huge success just not many get the chance to move over in that direction into competitive machinery.

            But if you wanted to get properly pedantic no IndyCar champion has ever gone over to compete in F1, thus basing your statement on pure BS.

            1. That is the exhaustive list. 2 1/2 drivers fitting your description. In 70 years.

              Plenty.

          2. Tbf I’d include Cristiano da Matta and Sebastian Bourdais in the list of champions too (yes, I know it was CART/champ cars)…

      3. “Indycar champions don’t exactly have a terrific track record of competitiveness when given the chance to compete at the top level.”

        Please remind me which IndyCar champions were given a chance to COMPETE in Formula 1. I mean “A CHANCE TO COMPETE”, not just to participate.
        I remember one – Jacques Villeneuve – a pole position in his debut, he beat Schumacher to a championship.
        Andretti – wasn’t given a chance to compete, he had to drive a garbage McLaren that was 100% designed to Senna’s liking.
        Bourdais – wasn’t a proper IndyCar champion, but a split era ChampCar champion (weaker competition), he drove a poor Toro Rosso with the later 4-time-champ Vettel as his team-mate. Vettel beat him. Sebastian notably outqualified Vettel at Spa and in Monaco. I don’t think a Button would do better against a 4-time IndyCar champion team mate.

        Give those guys a 1992-1993 Williams-Renault, a 2002 Ferrari or a 2016-2021 Mercedes, and make this comment.

      4. If you define “chance to compete” realistically, as in being in a seat that has any chance to win, then you basically have no meaningful data. Too many variables on too little crossover.

        The problem is that F1 is a series with really only 2-6 good seats at any given time, which massively skews any signal that there even is. And F1 politics is worse (yes, Indy has that too, but much much less than F1), including thumbs on scales.

    2. I was rooting for Palou pretty much from his first qualifying session. There was something about his driving that really showed a spark of brilliance. By the time the Indy 500 rolled around and he put down his 4 laps I was totally on the Palou bandwagon. I am really happy for him!

    3. I’m very happy for my fellow spaniard Alex Palou. He’s a finesse driver and very intelligent, a bit like Alain Prost. He knows what battles to fight and when to give up to win enough points while being only 24.

      It’s a shame that Alex, an Indy champion, doesn´t have a chance to race in F1 (and he knows it) while Stroll and Mazepin will have a long career.

      Indycar is a very competitive series and it’s really hard winning against very experienced drivers in his second season.

    4. “…step UP to F1…” LOL What arrogance! He means “step DOWN to F1-dimensional aka Indycar-Light”!

      Reply moderated
    5. Not to be too negative, but realistically, how much of this is lucking out with the endless full-course cautions and whatnot?

      1. Watch the races. As a something supposed to be a real racing spectator product, Indy arguably beats F1. (Of course, MotoGP spanks both in that department).

        Yes, sometimes yellows ruin it. But not as much as you think if you go and watch a season. Indy is “good” at a much higher screen time rate than F1, but F1 has an edge in pomp and circumstance (which does matter as a spectator).

        For me though…the more top tier racing the better. If it takes 2 or more series to get all the elite drivers on my screen racing each other, fine by me. I don’t have to choose F1 or Indy. I can choose both.

        Reply moderated
        1. I’ll assert here that DRS is a real problem. Always has been. It undermines the purity of what we watch drivers do.

          Indy has tunnels instead, and thankfully F1 is switching back to that too. Finally.

    6. someone or something
      28th September 2021, 13:03

      Not that much. Individual races can be farcical a lot of the time, but he’s been on it all season long, consistently qualifying and racing high up the order. You’d be hard pressed to find any examples of races where he lucked in.
      It’s a valid reproach concerning the way IndyCar races are run in general, but not concerning Palou in particular.

    7. He’s the real deal, and will be a force for a long time.

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