The battle for the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship ends this Sunday with the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Radio Network), and while the two key protagonists are in just their second full season, their history dates back further than the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Championship leader Alex Palou and second place Pato O’Ward have considered each other competitors ever since the two raced each other in Super Formula in Japan in 2019. Palou was competing in the series full time, while O’Ward took on three races in the middle of the season.
Palou, now the driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, embraced O’Ward off the track. It wasn’t a frosty relationship then, and it isn’t now even as the two have exchanged the championship lead multiple times this season, with Palou holding a 35-point lead over O’Ward heading into the season finale.
“I think we have more of a relationship than what some people think,” Palou said. “But not on track. We didn’t fight much there. I was doing the full season, and he was not. We know each other personally more, I think, than what people think.”
Palou, then 22, was gunning for a series championship driving the No. 64 for TCS Nakajima Racing. O’Ward, then 20, was experimenting in international racing as a Red Bull development driver and running the No. 15 for Team Mugen.
Mexican O’Ward made his first start in the fourth race of the season at Fuji Speedway. Coincidentally, that was the race where Spaniard Palou scored his first and only Super Formula win from the pole.
That season, Palou scored three pole positions and recorded two fastest laps, in addition to his win. It culminated in a third-place finish in the championship, but he was on his way to the series title until a mechanical failure forced him to finish 19th in the season finale at Suzuka.
In O’Ward’s last Super Formula race at Okayama International Circuit, he saw what has become a familiar sight to many NTT INDYCAR SERIES competitors this season: Palou’s tire tracks. Palou finished that race fourth, while O’Ward was two positions behind in sixth.
Palou said O’Ward’s arrival in Japan was a welcome sight. He admitted that racing in Japan was lonely at times. The language barrier prevented him from talking to many people, and the time change made it difficult to speak to friends and family back home who couldn’t travel to see him because it was too expensive.
So, when a fellow Spanish-speaking driver arrived in the series, Palou, who considers himself not one to go out of his way to talk to people, made sure he introduced himself to O’Ward.
“We talked when he came over, and obviously because we both speak Spanish, it’s super easy to connect,” Palou said. “We are both really open, and we talked a lot. It was fun to have him there. I wouldn’t think that we would both be here today fighting for the championship.”
Palou said back in Japan, the two only connected while at the racetrack, because O’Ward was not living in Japan like Palou was. And when they did talk, Palou admits that most of the discussion was about the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
O’Ward came to the series after competing in seven of the first 10 races of the 2019 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season for Carlin. Palou was trying to find his way to the United States to compete in North America’s premier open-wheel series and used O’Ward to learn about the series.
Specifically, Palou wanted to know about ovals.
O’Ward did not compete in the season finale at Suzuka, but little did the two know that race at Okayama on Sept. 29, 2019, was not the last time the two drivers would compete against each other. Just over eight months later, both drivers were full time in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
O’Ward landed a ride in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, while Palou competed his rookie season in the No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing w/Team Goh Honda. Both drivers continued their connection last year with career-best days at Road America in July.
Palou scored his first career podium finish, a third, at Road America-1. He followed the next day with his best start of the season of third. Lining up in front of Palou at Road America-2 was O’Ward, who scored his first career pole.
It was near impossible to predict that the 2019 Super Formula season would be the prologue to the 2021 battle for the Astor Challenge Cup. Palou is ready use his championship advantage of 35 points to finish the incredible story this weekend on the Streets of Long Beach.
But first he must fend off a friend, not a rival, of two years.