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Thursday, December 7, 2023

The components that fuelled Palou’s 2023 IndyCar domination

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It wasn’t speculated to be this simple. IndyCar’s USP is the excessive variety of potential race winners in its pack for such a high-level open-wheel racing sequence. However Alex Palou defied this logic in 2023, making his second title seem routine on monitor with 5 victories. Off the monitor, nonetheless, it was an altogether extra sophisticated story.

Palou solely remained with Chip Ganassi Racing this season following a courtroom mediation after the veteran crew proprietor sued his personal driver in the midst of final summer season. Again then, the Catalan wished out, lured by the potential of a System 1 alternative with McLaren. In a way, he had his cake and ate it, getting a number of runs in McLaren’s TPC (testing earlier automobiles) programme and an FP1 outing at america Grand Prix. And he bought to stick with IndyCar’s finest crew of the second, including a fifteenth title to Ganassi’s glittering trophy cupboard.

Whereas some within the crew undoubtedly gave him the chilly shoulder, eager to maintain their secrets and techniques in-house, it’s price noting that Ganassi himself by no means let the authorized dispute get between their private relationship. Undoubtedly, the turmoil affected Palou’s type in 2022 – CGR’s foremost energy is its togetherness, and he grew to become its black sheep – however when it got here to deciding his future, and the McLaren U-turn in August that shocked the world as soon as extra, the truth that Ganassi remained civil and upfront with him clearly paid off. And several other extra million {dollars} possible helped too.

Continuity can be what makes CGR tick, with a administration spine that includes faces who’ve been round since its first period of glory within the Nineties, the Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi days. For instance, Palou’s strategist Barry Wanser was Zanardi’s ‘gearbox man’ and, together with Chip, managing director Mike Hull, race engineer Julian Robertson and crew chief Ricky Davis, Palou’s #10 crew not solely has the texture of the non secular successor to Zanardi or Juan Pablo Montoya or Dario Franchitti… it basically is that very same crew of exceptional individuals.

This was mirrored within the outpouring of emotion in the direction of Wanser, who missed Palou’s title second at Portland (the champion Facetimed him from Victory Lane) as he recovered in hospital from most cancers surgical procedure. You wonder if that emotive connection, and Palou’s revelation that he and spouse Esther expect their first little one, may need swayed him away from chasing that F1 dream. Or maybe he’s been provided one thing else in that route… Time will inform, or possibly he’ll in the future within the guide he retains promising to put in writing!

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That Palou plugged in and received at his first try with these guys in 2021 was spectacular sufficient. Franchitti, the crew’s driver advisor, says that even in his first season with the crew he was “already at that time the place he is aware of what he needs, he’s very exact”, whereas the crew’s 30-year veteran Hull says Palou’s psychological energy reminds him of Dan Wheldon at his peak. Excessive reward certainly.

Palou secured the title in Portland after beforehand being in contrast favourably to Dan Wheldon

Photograph by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Two years on from his first title with Ganassi, Palou’s 2023 performances have been frankly astounding. His worst finishes of the season have been a pair of eighth locations, coming at St Petersburg and the Iowa Speedway oval, however 5 wins, 9 podiums and two poles sealed this take care of a race to spare. That’s one other factor he’s realized from Franchitti and equally illustrious team-mate Scott Dixon: you’re solely nearly as good as your worst outcomes. And he sailed with a fair keel even by way of the headwinds of the off-track dramas.

The true injury was inflicted on his opposition – simply as Team Penske’s trio of drivers likewise unleashed final yr – by way of a trio of wins within the post-Indy 500 stretch of Detroit, Street America and Mid-Ohio. Out of the blue his factors lead was large, requiring the same stretch of dominance from somebody, anybody, to catch up.

His rivals have been virtually bursting with jealousy at Palou’s success. As an illustration, when Penske’s two-time champion Josef Newgarden bought inside 80 factors of him after his personal imperious streak of oval victories by dominating the tough Iowa double-header, he’d lament his engine failure at St Pete and a few poor qualifying performances that actually hampered his marketing campaign. It was encapsulated when Newgarden then expressed his disbelief at Palou scoring a podium in Iowa from twelfth on the grid. There’s a perception in that paddock that Palou won’t ever get pleasure from such a season of nice fortune once more, or maybe they’re all simply kidding themselves.

Palou nonetheless manages to generate goodwill among the many media as he gracefully swerves their questions. He’d make a formidable poker opponent

Whereas lots of Palou’s outcomes have been hard-earned, it’s true that he did journey his luck on some events. A warning at Nashville saved a gasoline mileage gamble, simply moments after he’d bailed on it, that may possible have meant a minimum of one end exterior the highest 10. Race Management turned a blind eye to his entrance wing hanging by a thread within the closing levels in Toronto, after a conflict with Helio Castroneves and the wall. A sturdy conflict of wheels with Newgarden at Street America didn’t result in any adversarial impact both.

However it wasn’t completely plain crusing: Rinus VeeKay’s wild pitlane half-spin that put Palou within the wall on the Indianapolis 500 ruined his probabilities of victory that day, however the comeback drive from final to fourth was fairly the achievement in itself. It was additionally the one second all season the place we heard Palou lose his rag within the automotive, with a sarcastic “absolute legend” zinger in VeeKay’s route. It was much more frequent to listen to his excited screams of “let’s go!” on the chequered flag. In addition to that, he’s a really cool, calm and picked up character within the cockpit, however possesses sharp elbows when he must make progress.

He additionally maintained a decorum exterior of the automotive when it got here to questions on his future. Making an allowance for his legal professionals have briefed him to say “no remark” to any contractual issues, one way or the other he nonetheless manages to generate goodwill among the many media as he gracefully swerves their questions. He’d make a formidable poker opponent.

His team-mate, six-time champion Dixon, was runner-up for the third time in his illustrious profession and took a very long time to rediscover his race-winning type. However when he did, he virtually couldn’t cease! Three victories within the ultimate 4 races left the flame-haired Kiwi questioning what may need been; for him, a grid penalty for an engine change or a first-lap spin are merely a chance to shine. For all of Palou’s excellence, he stays the benchmark of this sequence.

A strong close to the season moved Dixon to second in the drivers' standings

A robust near the season moved Dixon to second within the drivers’ standings

Photograph by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The Ganassi squad’s 1-2 was the mirror picture of Penske’s consequence final yr, and this season ‘The Captain’s’ line was principally led by Newgarden. He was imperious on ovals, virtually sweeping the season from the excessive banks of Texas Motor Speedway, the cathedral of pace that’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the relative minnows of Iowa and St Louis. His solely failure got here on the last-named, the place he clipped the wall in a useless try and sustain with Dixon’s alternate technique.

ANALYSIS: Has IndyCar’s Texas loss come at the right time?

One of the vital deceptive stats of the season is laps led, the place Newgarden beat everybody by miles (Palou was closest to his 602, with 377!), which served to mirror his oval prowess. And his day of days got here on Memorial Weekend Sunday when he swept to his maiden Indy 500 success after an exhilarating final-lap move on final yr’s winner Marcus Ericsson.

It’s truthful to say that Chevrolet’s top-end grunt performed its half in Newgarden’s success on ovals, whereas Honda’s frugality and driveability meant he struggled to match them on street and avenue programs. However that was the place his team-mate Scott McLaughlin really excelled to energy forward of the two-time champion within the closing levels of the season to complete third in factors.

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After claiming a terrific win at Barber Motorsports Park by beating Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, with whom he’d pushed each into the wall of their duel over the lead within the St Pete season-opener, former Aussie Supercars legend ‘Scotty Mac’ didn’t discover Victory Lane once more. However prime Penske driver in factors is a nice bragging proper, and one place higher than he completed in 2022 when the crew was prime canine.

The sight of Penske drivers wanting pissed off after non-oval qualifying was frequent. Newgarden took an inherited pole at St Louis, and solely featured 3 times in Quick Six shootout periods on street and avenue programs, whereas Will Power and McLaughlin scored two poles apiece. Their repeated struggles to make it by way of IndyCar’s qualifying knockout system have been a far cry from the 9 poles of final season. Was Penske’s focus positioned an excessive amount of on conquering the Indy 500 after a couple of years within the wilderness? Newgarden’s success there definitely sweetens the tablet of the pendulum swinging in the direction of Ganassi.

The one different driver to attain a number of wins was Andretti Autosport’s new signing Kyle Kirkwood, who produced two glowing drives on the streets of Lengthy Seaside and Nashville. After his glittering junior profession, the 24-year-old clearly has an enormous future, though his youthful enthusiasm must be curbed – that may be blamed for his ending exterior the highest 10 in factors.

Christian Lundgaard is 2 years Kirkwood’s junior, however the Dane produced a veteran’s season within the unfancied Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad. After a turbulent season for the crew, highlighted by a wretched Indy 500, his affinity with Indy’s street course shone as soon as extra, and it was a shock that his breakthrough win truly got here in Toronto. Lundgaard was imperious that weekend, but this was his solely podium.

Last year's champion Power endured his first winless season in the US since 2006

Final yr’s champion Energy endured his first winless season within the US since 2006

Photograph by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

The opposite winner was final yr’s Indy 500 victor Ericsson, who lucked into honours at St Petersburg when the plenum chamber of Pato O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren machine hiccupped at a vital second within the closing laps, permitting the Swede to scoot previous. He didn’t seem like profitable one other, aside from the five hundred, the place he got here inside half a lap and 0.0974s of going back-to-back.

And what of Energy? The Australian veteran, champion in 2022, recorded his first winless season in over a decade and a half. He gave the impression to be in a funk at occasions, in stark distinction to his good previous marketing campaign, and even his superb qualifying type abandoned him all over the place however Iowa – the place he added to his superb all-time document tally – on his method to seventh within the factors.

Subsequent yr contenders may have the curveball of a brand new frequent electrical hybrid system to grasp. It seems like one thing proper up Dixon’s avenue

The sequence began with 5 completely different winners from three completely different groups, till Palou grabbed the factors race by the throat after the Indy 500. It ended with solely two extra drivers claiming victories (plus one further squad) and even the bettering Arrow McLaren operation was shut out, which was galling after coming so shut within the opener and in Texas with O’Ward.

That was far more reflective of IndyCar’s mantle as probably the most aggressive, top-tier open-wheel sequence on the planet. It ought to be robust to win right here. And subsequent yr its contenders may have the curveball of a brand new frequent electrical hybrid system to grasp. It seems like one thing proper up Dixon’s avenue.

Palou will enter the 2024 season looking to register back-to-back titles

Palou will enter the 2024 season trying to register back-to-back titles

Photograph by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

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