IndyCar rookie Alex Palou, who in Road America’s first race of the weekend finished third in only his third NTT IndyCar Series start, says he’s expecting to keep getting faster as he gains more time and experience.
Palou was a sensation in Japan’s SuperFormula last year, winning Rookie of the Year and almost winning the title until a mechanical problem in the championship decider. But his heart was set on IndyCar racing, and Dale Coyne’s heart was set on Palou after he proved super-fast in a test at Mid-Ohio.
The 23-year-old Spaniard was fast in Spring Training at Circuit of The Americas in February, got taken out by fellow rookie Rinus VeeKay at Texas Motor Speedway, and was surprisingly off the pace at last week’s GMR Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
However, the Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh driver swiftly impressed this weekend at Road America and ended up fifth in free practice despite never having seen the track before. He then sped on pitlane during qualifying, and the drive-through penalty meant he could only set one lap on the soft alternate-compound Firestones, restricting himself to the seventh row of the grid.
Yet from 14th, he slashed his way through to ninth by the end of the first lap and, emulating Team Penske’s Will Power, stopped on Lap 12 to get the undercut on his longer-stinting rivals. That vaulted him forward and he spent the final stint applying the pressure on runner-up Power.
“Yeah, that was an awesome race for us,” he said. “It was a tough day today. My first time here in Road America. Having free practice, qualifying and race the same day was tough.
“We had a really strong car. I could overtake some of the guys on the first two laps. Then we just had a really good pace, enough to be overtaking when we had clean air. During the pit stops we lost, like, two or three places the first two pit stops, but then on the third pit stop, the crew was amazing.”
At the first restart, Palou was fourth, went to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay on the inside, would not be intimidated when the 2012 champion squeezed him over to the grass and grabbed third place. However, a yellow flew for a backmarker stranding himself in a sandtrap, and when the field was re-ordered according to the previous timing line, Palou had to take the next restart behind Hunter-Reay once more.
This time the Andretti Autosport driver committed early and harder to the inside line to protect his position, but Palou simply went around the outside instead, and spent the remainder of the race chasing Power, eventually finishing just 0.6sec behind the 2014 champ.
Palou said that he had no doubts over the potential of Dale Coyne’s team and that further improvements need to come from himself.
“We already knew from the beginning the team was on it,” he said. “All the tests we did, we were top five always. The problem is that then IndyCar throws me into a race just having 75 minutes of practice when I’ve never been in that track! It’s just really tough to learn the tracks.
“[Grand Prix of] Indy, if you look at the result, we were worse than what the potential and the performance of our car was. Just we had really bad luck with strategy and the yellow. But, yeah, it’s been really tough.
“Also this morning was really tough. We did P5 in the free practice because I had a good lap. In qualifying, I had a mistake on pitlane, I had to come in for a penalty. That’s why we started so far in the back.
“I think finishing P3 now, it’s going to be good for me, for my confidence. I know the crew has a lot of confidence in me and the team. I know the car is capable of doing it. I felt really strong, especially at the end of the race I could fight with Will. But I used a lot of ‘push to pass’ at the beginning of the race.”
The elimination of between-race testing and the compressed weekend schedules – both a result of coronavirus-caused restrictions – have not worked in the favor of rookies, especially one such as Palou who started the year with zero experience of any IndyCar track besides Mid-Ohio, unlike his Road To Indy rookie rivals Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay.
Palou said: “I thought, to be honest, if we had enough practices, we would be really good from the first already in [GP of] Indy. The problem, we had no practices! I think this is my fifth or sixth day in the car. We cannot ask for miracles when we have only 75 minutes of practice and I have to learn a track and get the balance of the car to where I want.
“I think we are still not there. Even if we had really good result today, I think everything went really good for us, strategy, the overtakes. But we are getting there. We are getting quicker and hopefully we will be there soon.”
Palou said he was optimistic for both tomorrow’s second race at Road America, and also for Mid-Ohio, which is set for three weeks after next Friday/Saturday’s Iowa rounds.
“As soon as we get to Mid-Ohio, it’s the first track that I know because I did a test last year,” he said. “It went really good. I think we going to be for sure fighting
“The thing is that now we are too far off that we cannot even fight. In IndyCar, it’s so close, as soon as you lose 1/10th, you are 15th, 16th or 17th. Hopefully we will be able to fight always for top 10. That’s the target at the moment…
“We only had 75 minutes [practice at Road America] and it was my first time here. But we did a lot of work in the simulator.
“To be honest it felt easier to drive than Indy. I don’t know if it’s now I’m more comfortable with the car and I know how to brake, I know how to turn. But Indy was weird. Indy I was not able to get up to speed.
“I’m feeling comfortable for tomorrow.”
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