Alex Palou told The Race last year that the “only negative” in moving to Chip Ganassi Racing for his second IndyCar season would be that he’d be up against a six-time series champion in Scott Dixon. But the positives were being able to work with him and see how the master operates from the inside.
Now, on Sunday evening, dreaming of the fried chicken he would eat in celebration, he was an IndyCar winner and successful in his plan to beat the almighty team-mate few have done in the past.
It’s a fairytale story well-trodden on the virtual pages of The Race. Palou plied his trade in junior single-seater formula but gave up on his goal of F1 to move to Super Formula where he dreamed of eventually finding the right backing to move into IndyCar.
After winning in Super Formula he persuaded Le Mans-winning team owner Kazumichi Goh, Honda and Dale Coyne that he was ready following a successful test at Mid-Ohio that provided the springboard for a rollercoaster rookie season.
He showed flashes of brilliance but he struggled for consistency with just three top-10 finishes across 14 races. However, those flashes were enough to persuade Chip Ganassi that Palou was worth a shot.
Palou would get the #10 car – his first karting number – vacated by Felix Rosenqvist, and he jumped at the chance given it had been a dream in his younger years to drive for Ganassi when he saw a documentary involving the team years before he hatched his plan to work for a career Stateside.
It wasn’t only Chip who saw brilliance, though.
In 2020, Dixon began the year with a new engineer in Mike Cannon, signed from Dale Coyne. Cannon had been at DCR when Palou was testing in 2019 and had kept an eye on him in his first season. Word is that Cannon lobbied Ganassi to sign him, or at least spoke positively of the proposal, although Palou – who has a cafe back in Girona – joked when addressing the rumour that “maybe the coffee I did for him paid off!”
Eric Cowdin – signed by Ganassi to engineer Jimmie Johnson this year – also worked with Palou at Coyne and is a fan.
Ultimately, the point I’m getting at is, although Palou only bagged a single podium last year, the Ganassi team was all-in on getting him up to speed, having him on board and believing in him to do the job. He was immediately an accepted member of the team and they knew what he could offer.
That’s been huge for his adaptation.
“He’s actually one of those really nice guys,” says Dixon. “There has to be some underlying thing going on there somewhere….! None of us have found it yet!
“But no, he’s a really nice person. His family, I’ve met his dad a few times now. Everyone is just super nice.
“It’s great to see somebody that’s easy to work with. Some drivers that we all get to work with can be somewhat difficult, but he also is extremely willing and wanting to learn, asks a lot of questions, sends a lot of text messages to try and just do a better job.”
The quick adaptation aside, there’s still a big gap between Chip taking a chance on Palou and him winning his first race.
He’s had to settle in and adapt to a team where his driving style is alien to that of Dixon and Ericsson. That poses fears in an IndyCar team because if a set-up direction prevails, will it suit Palou? Often teams work in groups of two as well, leaving Dixon and Ericsson aligned and Palou and IndyCar rookie Jimmie Johnson in the second group.
It has worked out well though, as Palou did the one thing that can always alleviate such concerns. He went faster than all of his team-mates.
Chip Ganassi himself confirmed that Palou had been the fastest of the team’s drivers in pre-season, and this pace shone through as he was fastest in the first practice session at Barber last weekend.
Despite strategy meaning Palou needed to save fuel and manage the race from the front for the first time in the series, at a track he’d never raced on while being hunted by one of its fastest drivers in Will Power, he delivered.
It just shows there’s not a lot you can throw at Palou that he can’t deal with. He’s every bit up to competing at this level. Pretty much any winner in Super Formula would be.
There was the real worry that adding more programmes at Ganassi would give it more than it could chew, but the team appears to have solved its few areas of weakness last year anyway in that its road course qualifying was much better at Barber, with Palou ahead in third.
Now the question is, can Palou sustain this pace and will his plan outlined to The Race last year to beat Dixon be sustainable and not just a one-hit wonder?
A big part of that plan was learning from the likes of Dixon and Johnson, and that has continued as he said it would.
“I’m in love with them,” Palou said referring to having Dixon and Johnson around. “But I’m sure if you asked them, they are not going to say the same for me, because every time I see them I’m like, ‘Hey, Scott, um, what did you do today’, or ‘how did you prepare that race or whatever’, or ‘how did you do the 2015 race?’ ”
You have to laugh at Palou’s honesty, and it’s easy to see why fans love him. Some have taken to calling him Kiwi, owing to him eating in the fruit during an iRacing live stream. Now Ganassi has two winning Kiwis…
Asked by The Race if his focus has wandered to the possibility of winning a championship after achieving a goal in winning a race which he felt was possible pre-season, Palou said: “Yeah, it’s achievable. That’s the end target, but that’s not what I’m thinking now.
“I’m thinking about St Pete, free practice, qualifying, and hopefully gets lots of points and hopefully be on the podium and hopefully win the race.
“This championship is so long that you need to take it one race at a time, and yeah, maybe when it’s three races to go we can start talking about what’s really the championship or how is it going.
“But at the moment let’s focus on St. Pete, try to do the best result we can there. If we have a car to finish fifth, try to finish fourth, and that’s what we’re going to try to do all year.”
So no runaway dreams of a championship, just a pragmatic view and it’s all founded in teamwork.
Dixon couldn’t have been more praiseful of the #10 team – he even gave the car’s sponsors regular shout-outs following the race – and even though he has a new challenger capable of taking points away from him, he’s accepted the benefits as well as the positives – exactly as Palou did when joining Ganassi with the threat of Dixon as a team-mate.
“I think it will drive the team forward,” said Dixon on Palou’s emergence.
“It’s great for team morale. It’s great for the 10 car group. Obviously, we expanded a lot in the off-season with additional IndyCar, also the Extreme E and then the Cadillac program.
“It’s definitely been an interesting off-season, but this is huge for the team and hopefully that pumps everybody up.”
Palou’s plan has worked. He’s come in, endeared himself in his usual charming way, beaten the team’s talisman star and been praised for it. He’s had his cake and eaten it, or in this case, his fried chicken.