Alex Palou is returning to the streets of Long Beach for the first time since he was crowned the 2021 NTT INDYCAR Series champion. Well, he’s already there in fact. On Wednesday, Palou was on a media zoom call discussing Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) and the Spaniard was already pool side ready to go on the west coast.
The thing is, this year’s Long Beach is vastly different than last year’s.
In 2021, Long Beach served as the season finale. Now, it’s back in its rightful April date, a spot that Palou has never been to during.
The 2020 race was canceled all together due to COVID. For 2021, they didn’t feel like they could host the amount of fans that Long Beach annually brings, so they moved it back in anticipation of doing so. It worked. They were already on the west coast anyhow and Long Beach did a phenomenal job of hosting the last race of the season.
Palou, needed a solid outing that day to take home some shiny new hardware. He did just that in finishing fourth in his No. 10 Honda. Ironically enough, he was the one celebrating the most, for obvious reasons, but he did so on a type of track he’s actually never won at before.
Palou, is 0-for on street courses. As in winless in eternity thus far. He’s never had a chance to relish a street course victory. Last year, he didn’t need to win the race, he just needed a top five and the title was his.
Now, in his return, a win is much more needed in a sense Long Beach serves as the third race of the season.
Palou, would admit, that street courses were his Achilles Heel in this series. To come away with a podium on one already this season makes him thrilled at the future, including here this weekend.
“I’m really, really happy about that,” he said of his recent street course results. “Street courses, I think when I first joined INDYCAR, I just did like three races on street courses before joining INDYCAR, so I think it’s just experience and confidence. Yeah, getting more confidence every time, and hopefully we can keep on scoring good results on street courses.”
In six prior starts on them, his finishes were 13th, 17th, 15th, 3rd, 7th and 4th respectively. Now, he’s second and as you can see, he’s improving greatly in going from no top 10’s in his first three to three top four’s in his next four.
In saying that, he still doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable on them yet. Palou told me on Wednesday that while it’s coming around, street courses still aren’t a track that he comes to with the upmost confidence.
“I think I’m getting better and I’m getting more comfortable at it; but to be honest, I never won a street course race,” he told me. “Never in my entire life. I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m not 100% comfortable like I can feel on road courses.
“Having a second place at St. Pete and a podium last year at Detroit gave me some confidence. I think I’m getting there, and I can push myself a bit more. Yeah, I’m not as comfortable as on the road course.”
So, how do you get better? It’s not like you can just show up and test on these tracks to get extra seat time. It’s essentially trial by error each time out.
“Preparation-wise, it’s pretty similar,” he continued on what he can do differently than other discipline of tracks. “With the simulator we prepare as much as possible, especially on a street course, just to get differences and get comfortable with the bumps, stuff like that. Then watching the race, the past races.
“Yeah, last year we had a great race for us in the 10 car even though we didn’t have an amazing result. But we got the fourth place, and we’ll try and improve that.”
In order to win a title this time around though, you can’t afford too many bad weekend’s and with five of the 17 races on these circuits, you really don’t want to punt away many opportunities. Palou, felt like they were off their game in his 7th place Texas finish. He sits third in points (-30) behind Scott McLaughlin heading into Long Beach and knows that you can’t give this one away.
“Yeah, I think we’re really happy so far,” he said of his season entering Long Beach. “I think last year at St. Pete we got 16th place or something like that. We got second place this year. In Texas we got a fourth and a seventh.
“We’re still good. We’re running third in a championship without having a really good weekend. We just started, but I feel like we’ve been struggling the start of the season. We still got the results we wanted, but I think it’s time to try and move forward and trying to find points.”
Is that a warning shot though that the defending champion who resides fourth in points isn’t firing on all cylinders…yet?
“Yes and no. You never know,” he says. “This series, it’s so competitive right now that if you don’t have everything together mentally, physically, the car and all the team is perfect, you cannot fight for wins. But, yeah, we struggle.
“I think everybody saw that that it’s not like we show up and we are running super fast since the beginning of the weekend. We struggle, but we still end up with a good result. Yeah.
“I cannot wait for the races that are coming now. I think our races that we were strong last year that I have experience in, we know that we have a strong car. Yeah, maybe it’s something that’s coming.”
Now though, he’s back in Long Beach. Memories still fresh in his young mind with a smile on his face.
“Obviously it’s super special for me,” Palou said of returning to the spot that he won the title at. “It was the first time last year, but getting the championship here was just amazing. Everything I did before in preparation and the days I spent after it with the media tour and all that stuff, so super excited.
“The best memory was winning, obviously. When we were in victory — well, it’s not victory lane, but when we had all the team there celebrating with the trophy, it felt really special.
“There’s not like one thing that I would say, ‘oh, that was the best moment.’ I think the weekend in general was just amazing, all the attention from the fans and the media that we got that weekend, all the hype that was around the championship fight with Josef and Pato. It was special.
“There was that little added pressure, but it was a good pressure. It was something that would push you forward, and the atmosphere from the fans was great. Yeah, I would say the experience of the weekend was super special.”