Nearly a year removed from the most recent Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, the chatter is still centered on race winner Marcus Ericsson, late-race challenger Pato O’Ward and pole winner Scott Dixon, whose chance to win a second “500” was stopped by an untimely pit road speeding penalty on Lap 175.
Ever hear Alex Palou’s name mentioned? Seldom, for sure. But a closer examination of that day suggests the Spaniard easily could have been the driver celebrating in Victory Lane.
Preparing for a fourth “500” start next month, Palou knows he has every right to believe he is on the right track to earning a likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy. He has qualified in the top seven in each of his three races, finished second in 2021 to Helio Castroneves and, like Dixon, was a dominant driver in last year’s event.
Palou’s downfall last year was one of the most unfortunate in recent history. Having led 42 of the race’s first 68 laps, he was no more than 30 yards – a virtual blink of the eye -- from the entrance to pit road when the caution came out for Callum Ilott’s accident in Turn 2. To say Palou was committed to pitting would be an understatement; at that point he had no choice, and he was nearly out of fuel.
Palou bypassed his pit box to avoid being penalized for taking service in a closed pit, but he was forced to take fuel on the next trip around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s when a penalty came, and the result forced him to restart 30th in one of the most competitive fields in NTT INDYCAR SERIES history.
“Passing 20 cars like we did last year, that was hard,” Palou said Thursday as this year’s competitors reconvened at IMS for a spring test. “It was like the whole race – about 150 laps! -- just to get back to ninth or 10th (he finished ninth after leading 47 laps). So, you want to start up front and stay there all day.”
Recent history suggests Palou is with the best team to do that. Chip Ganassi Racing qualified four drivers in last year’s top six, with Palou earned the second position alongside Dixon’s second consecutive pole. Ericsson was fifth, Tony Kanaan sixth. From there, Chip Ganassi’s drivers combined to lead 163 of the 200 laps, with Kanaan finishing third.
Palou isn’t dissuaded by the experience. In fact, he said it was significantly more beneficial for him than in 2021, when he was beaten by this generation’s only four-time race winner.
“(That year) was, let’s say, an ‘easy’ race because we ran all day up front,” Palou said. “We didn’t have any issues, but I didn’t really know how to battle in that race, whereas in ’22 we were running good strategy until that problem on the second stop, and we had to come back from the very back. That was good for me, and I learned a lot. I got a lot of really good experience.”
This year, Palou said it’s invaluable to have three teammates who are former “500” winners, and the big addition is Takuma Sato, a two-time winner of this race, in 2017 with Andretti Autosport and 2020 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Dixon won in 2008, Ericsson last year. Palou even suggested there is a downside to having Sato on the squad.
“He is one of the most (competitive) drivers to have in a (similar) car because he’s a real threat (to win) on Race Day,” Palou said. “But I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and see if we can be just a tiny bit better than him.”
Palou finished Thursday’s test session eighth on the speed chart at 225.863 in the No. 10 Honda, but rankings aren’t all that important right now as there are miles to go before the 107th Running is held Sunday, May 28. Palou is just pleased that his day was comfortable, and it featured the day’s first 235 mph charge into Turn 3.
“Everything feels good, right on schedule,” he said, smiling.
Palou can’t change the past; he can only learn from it, and it seems he has.
“(2021) does not hurt, honestly, as I didn’t know how to race on an oval and still managed to be P2 behind Helio,” he said. “I was not sad about last year either because we couldn’t have done much differently. It was a shame that we had such a fast car that we couldn’t really take advantage of.
“We know one day it will come. One day.”
Spring testing is scheduled to resume Friday at IMS, weather permitting. The session is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with live coverage streamed on Peacock and INDYCAR Live, with the INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasting live.