Alex Palou is having a solid rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series. The first year driver at Dale Coyne Racing has two top 10 finishes in his No. 55 Honda in nine tries. As the season has gone on, the speed and comfort are rising too.
Now, Palou finally heads to a familiar place at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend. Mid-Ohio is the only track that he’s had any experience at before this year. He tested there last year. Everything before was all new to him.
“It’s awesome,” Palou said about heading to Mid-Ohio this weekend. “That’s what I like. It’s going to be the first track that I know from last year. It’s going to be a huge advantage. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to go there and be like, Oh, yeah, look at this guy, now it’s quick. It’s not going to be like that. At least I’m not going to lose 15, 20 minutes trying to learn a new track.
“Mid-Ohio is a track I love, it’s a road course. It’s the same road courses as we have in Europe, in Japan, the things I know. So I expect that it’s going to be a good weekend for us.”
This gives Palou the upmost confidence for this weekend. It’s almost too much confidence he joked.
“Yeah, 100%. I’m super confident,” Palou continued. “The problem is maybe I don’t know if I’m too confident and I’m going to go there and I’m going to struggle (laughter). You never know until you are on track and finishing the race.
“I’m more confident. I already have some experience. I have like almost a full year on INDYCAR now. So I know everybody from the team. I know what to do when the car was understeer. I know what to say, how to communicate with my engineer. So for sure it’s going to be a bit easier. Hopefully we can replicate or even improve what we did at Road America.”
Speaking of Road America, Palou’s two top 10 finishes in 2020 each came there back earlier this season. It’s also the last time the series was on a road course too. So, with four of the final five races being on tracks that he’s been at before now and all being on road courses, he’s beaming with pride.
“Yeah, to be honest, it’s what we expect, to perform well,” said Palou. “Maybe not to have podiums like right away, but we expect to perform, to be in the top 10, to fight for top five, to be around there free practice, qualifying and race.
“I think Indy GP was my second race on INDYCAR, was my first weekend on a road course. It was really chaotic. It’s like my first real road course was Road America. That’s the only chance we had to show what we can do.”
Palou said that he thinks the key to success at Mid-Ohio this weekend is all about qualifying.
“Qualifying is so important, especially now with the doubleheaders,” said the Spaniard. “As soon as you don’t feel super strong, you’re losing like two races. So the first qualifying is going to be super important.
“I think that’s it, just trying to do the normal things, not trying to win the race on the first lap, just trying to finish the race and trying to fight for it.”
Palou also notes just how important these next five races are. In fact, this is his future wrapped up into five races than spans three race weekends. He doesn’t have a deal next season. No plans. He wants to remain here but his future is dependent on how this season ends too.
Without a deal, it’s truly on how this season ends and four of the five races now he has experience on those tracks.
Now, the series ends with five road course races, which is more back into Palou’s comfort zone.
“Yeah, for sure that’s going to help a lot,” Palou said of the season ending with all road/street courses. “There’s four races that I know the track, Mid-Ohio and Indy. That’s going to help. That’s what I’m saying. I have to push now as much as possible, try and get the results to get the contract next year, and to be here with you guys as many years as I can.
“It’s going to be difficult. I think these races that are coming are the most important of my life.”
Palou, notes that part of what he can also do to stay here is to win Rookie of the Year as well.
“Yeah, I think it’s really, really important,” he said. “It’s only this year that I can win the Rookie of the Year. It’s one really important thing.
“It’s going to be important also to continue in INDYCAR. I came here with one-year contract. Now it’s already we’re ending this season and I don’t have a contract for next year. I need to win a race, I need to do podiums, I need to perform to show everybody I want to come here, stay here, I want to win championships here. It’s really important for races that we have coming up.”
If he does stay, what has he learned so far that he can hopefully take over to next season?
“I learned that INDYCAR is really, really difficult,” Palou said. “It’s tough for everybody. It’s tough for the big guys. We saw not only, I say Scott just because he was able to win so many races, then suddenly he struggles a bit, then he wins again. But we saw Penske at the Indy 500. Indy 500, which all the teams think of that race only, and they prepare that race so much, and they go there and they struggle.
“So INDYCAR is super, super competitive. It’s super difficult. As soon as you don’t have 100% of everything, of the driver, of the car, of the tires, the team, you start to struggle. It makes this championship really difficult and really attractive.”
Another thing he liked but still isn’t comfortable on are ovals. He says he’s learned a lot on them but is gaining more and more confidence too.
“Obviously I learned so much on ovals, I could stay all day talking. But, yeah, ovals, I like it, I enjoy a lot. I just want to go back now because I feel like if I go back now to Indy, let’s say Indy, I think it’s the easiest one in terms of racing goes, I would finish much higher obviously.
“Yeah, every night when I go to sleep, I’m like, Oh, man, why did I crash? Why, Alex? I’m just waiting to go back next year and hopefully fight for the race.
“Yeah, I’m still not 100% comfortable. Even at Indy, everything is new. Like you go to the start and you feel like the drop you have from two rows in front, just have two rows, but it was so huge I had to almost lift when I passed the straight line. There’s a lot of new things. I’m still not comfortable, but I’m loving it.
“It’s so much about having confidence with the car and with your team, to being able to like go aggressive with the setup and the downforce. Yeah, it’s been nice. I was a bit frustrated Indy, of course. Also going to Gateway, we were so quick. I couldn’t pass. I couldn’t overtake.
“The strategy also, if the driver is able to say to the team, Hey, man, I need to stop now, or I can go 10 more laps, that can play a big role at the end of the race. I’m not able still to do that on ovals, while I can do that on road courses.
“Hopefully when we go back we going to be even faster and even more comfortable.”