When Colton Herta won the second round of the 2021 IndyCar season, he kickstarted a host of ‘IndyCar drivers are good enough for Formula 1’ comparisons and rumours.
When Pato O’Ward won at Texas, he actually earned an F1 test courtesy of a bet with McLaren boss Zak Brown. O’Ward has been constantly praised for his aggressive, entertaining and endearing style drawing comparisons with Juan Pablo Montoya from Brown, who hinted he could have an F1 future recently.
So why has the driver who leads the IndyCar championship past the halfway point, with less experience in IndyCar than both Herta and O’Ward, not been getting the credit he deserves?
Alex Palou has won two races – like O’Ward – and is currently beating six-time champion Scott Dixon in the same machinery. We’ve not seen a challenge like this to Dixon from within Chip Ganassi Racing since Dario Franchitti was his team-mate from 2009-13.
So where is the hype about Palou?
I have a theory.
Off the track, Palou is as lovely a driver as you could care to work with. He’s not brash, arrogant or self-indulgent. He’s competitive but fun-loving and always smiling.
On the track, his style is polished to a point that it often looks like his car is on rails. In a world of oversteering behemoths going sideways seemingly for fun, perhaps Palou has yet to inspire IndyCar fans in the same way his fellow juniors have.
However, his style has only been to his gain. At the Indianapolis 500 – bigger than the IndyCar championship to many – he was only narrowly beaten to victory by Helio Castroneves, the man who ended an almost 30-year wait for a new four-time winner 500 winner.
After his most recent win at the tricky and treacherous Road America, The Race asked Palou if he was frustrated or annoyed by the attention someone like O’Ward gets, while Palou remains under the radar to a certain extent.
“No, I’m not that kind of guy,” said Palou, before diverting to his wicked sense of humour.
“I’m actually happy that they talk so good about Pato and about Colton going to Formula 1. I’m like, yeah, just take them to Formula 1 and leave me here alone!
“I’m happy to see that, and I’m really calm here and I’m super happy to be here [in IndyCar]. If they go I’ll be super happy!”
There is very little ego involved with Palou. While his driving style is different, his self-confidence but not arrogance, and his consistency on track, is similar to Dixon in many ways.
It seems obvious that a young driver would mould themselves around Dixon’s strongest qualities given his years of success, but few have been able to match Dixon in these ways before. It was part of his pre-season plan, but going up against Dixon on the inside has given Palou a clear look at what makes the Kiwi special, and how to replicate it.
“I think the beauty of IndyCar is that you can drive it in different ways and still be super fast,” Palou told this week’s episode of The Race IndyCar Podcast in an exclusive interview.
“There’s some drivers that drive it crazy aggressive, that you see the rear coming out on the entry all the time and fighting but they get it done, like every time.
“Scott is a super-aggressive driver where he has the car on the limit all the time. We actually drive the same car but if you look at the onboard it looks like totally different cars.
“So I knew that the secret – which is not a secret – the magic that Scott has is that he’s able to win when he has the opportunity because that’s very important in IndyCar but to take a second or a fifth or a ninth when you don’t have the car or the day or the strategy or the pitstop or whatever.
“He’s able to do that.
“He showed that at Road America, he started 13th and he ended up fourth so that’s what he does. He captures as many points as possible. And he does that every weekend.
“So it’s hard to do it in IndyCar, I can tell you it’s not been easy – like we saw in Detroit, I was struggling a lot on race one, but we were able to get back on the podium in race two.
“We’ve got to keep it going, keep on working because this is tough and that’s the secret of IndyCar, you’ve got to score as many wins as possible when you can but score as many points as possible when you have a bad weekend.
“It’s so close that you don’t have to have a bad weekend to finish [only] in the top 15. You have to have something that goes normal-ish to be in P15. It’s a really close field for sure.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that if Palou was sideways every corner and wheel-banging with other drivers then he’d have a bit more hype around him at this stage.
But his approach is a winning one. Dixon has proved it. Few however have been able to actually replicate that approach, as simple as it sounds. Until now.
It’s time to give Alex Palou the credit he deserves. He’s likely to be a champion and 500 winner in the future, and we’re watching this story from the first chapter. Lucky us.