INDIANAPOLIS — When all the attention about a Spaniard entering this year’s Indianapolis 500 field, Alex Palou is showing us this month that maybe we focused on the wrong one.
Yes, Fernando Alonso is going to grab the headlines whenever he’s here. He’s a two-time Formula One world champion and one of the best racers of all-time. The amount of attention and respect that he shows the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is great.
Following a successful rookie year here in 2017 with Andretti Autosport, everyone figured it was a matter of when, not if, Alonso would win racing’s Triple Crown. But, after his last two visits here to Indy, what Palou is doing should get more attention back home.
Alonso, is having a difficult time with the new cars. It’s not the same as it was here in 2017. The downforce levels are less, making them harder to drive. He’s crashed twice now in as many years and missed the show completely last year. Granted, most of last year’s blame can be put on the team, not Alonso, you still can’t overlook what Palou is doing.
Palou is with one of the smaller budgeted teams in the series. He’s a rookie. Like Alonso, until he showed up here, he’s never raced on an oval before.
Texas back in June was his first oval start. He made two more oval starts last month in Iowa. But, those tracks aren’t Indy.
This place is daunting. This place is tough. Still, that’s not affected Palou one bit. For a driver that’s never seen any of these tracks before on the schedule, the Spaniard is making a nice name for himself here.
“Amazing place, I love it,” Palou said of Indianapolis.
Despite that, he’s quietly been the best rookie among the talented five driver rookie class.
Palou, led all rookies on the speed charts on opening day with a top speed of 223.128 mph in his No. 55 Honda. That was good enough for P8. He backed that up on Thursday with a top lap of 224.971 mph. That was P5. He was sixth when the boost got turned up on Friday at 231.989 mph.
On Saturday, he was one of two rookies to make the Fast Nine, but his four lap run came in the heat of the day while Rinus VeeKay’s came as the fourth qualifier out. In Sunday’s Shootout, Palou turned in the quickest single qualifying lap of the entire session. He will start in seventh this Sunday.
For a rookie driver in a field as competitive as this one is, he’s not supposed to be this fast this early. He’s a driver to watch this weekend.
“We had such a good first day, I was a bit worried that oh God maybe we had too good of a first day,” Palou said of his early impressions. “Everybody can go down right? Yesterday we went up again. We were even faster. I was even more comfortable in traffic. I’m just looking forward to the real thing so I can know where we are.
“This is my first time getting a big tow and yeah you really feel the speed. We’re still not able in our case or our car to get a run just because we’re playing it safe on downforce levels.
“It’s been a surprise but not a felling that I can’t do.”
One thing that he didn’t have to worry about is being bumped. We have 33 cars for 33 spots. Despite that, he still wanted to know what it feels like to have the fear of not making the show.
“Yeah, for sure,” Palou said. “I think that for sure it’s a relief to know that you’re going to do the race. I think that at the end of the day I knew that I had the car capable of doing the show without any problems. It was up to me to make the show.
“So, yeah, anyway knowing that you going to race for sure next week, it’s a relief. I don’t have to be thinking about that. I can go and attack a bit more I think in qualifying. It takes pressure off, for sure.
“But to be honest, I would love to feel that fear of not making the show, having so many people having pressure. I think that’s what drives us. I think that’s what makes this thing so special. Yeah, it’s just a shame that my first experience in Indy 500 is going to be like that, not the full experience.
“But anyway, I’m looking forward. It’s good that we are here. We going to go and try to make a good result at the end of the day.”
The Spaniard said that this is for sure the most confident he’s been going into a race this year and that’s the nature of having so much on track time so far this month.
“Yes,” Palou said if the extra track time has helped his confidence for Sunday’s race. “It’s been so tough this year. I have to learn a race track in one hour and get the balance of the car as better as possible then you have to go straight to qualifying which is super hard.
“This is the most prepared here in IndyCar. I think this is going to help me for future races just because on the previous races, it was a new car for me. I think I had a span of just 10 days in the car for four races. It was good that we got so much track time here in Indy.”
Palou, says that in Europe you couldn’t really follow Indy Car, which is why this is so big for him to be in the same race as Alonso. The ‘500 though, you can see it. The Spanish driver said F1 was always his dream as a kid but when he got to 10 he felt like he needed to do something to get there. He watched a lot of races with his dad when he was younger of the Indy 500 and it’s a dream to get here to race against drivers that he watched when he was younger like Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon in this race.
Sharing the biggest sporting event in the world with such an icon in his home country will surely help him grow in popularity back home too. But, he also notes that Alonso, not him is still getting all of the attention in Spain right now despite him being faster.
“It’s going to help because people are going to be more focused in Spain,” Palou said of having Alonso in this year’s race. “The first day, Fernando I think finished P4, so all the news was Fernando finished P4. I think yesterday we finished P5 and all the news was Fernando.
“If you watch the news in Spain, you’re not going to see anything that I’m ahead of him. Does it help me? I don’t know. It’s good to I think maybe finish ahead of him and show everybody that it’s not only him racing from Spain.”
Palou is a strong rookie so far and if he continues this effort here in Indy Car, he’s going to be a big star. He’s got a ton of talent and it’s being shown this month.
Also, his family is with him now too. His parents, his sister and his girlfriend are here on site.
“They think it’s impressive,” he said on what his family feels about Indianapolis. “We all as a family were dreaming of this. Now that it’s happened, it’s like we’re living a dream everyday. We’re super happy and super lucky to be here.”
But, he says his mom isn’t necessarily looking forward to Sunday’s race for one reason — the speed. He told a funny story about that on Media Day to me.
“My mom isn’t super, super happy about this just because the other day, I decided ‘hey mom why don’t you come to pit box and I show you Turn 1.’ I could see the face of my mom just changing as soon as she saw a pack of 10 cars going into Turn 1. She was like okay I don’t like this so I said okay just go to the motorhome and that’s it.
“Just because what you see on TV, you see that the cars are fast but on TV you can’t really see how fast they are going. And also, in Spain we have kilometers per hour. It’s not the same as she sees 230 mph and that’s 385 kilometers per hour and that’s a big change.”