Alex Palou will have a target on his back when he begins his defence of his IndyCar title at this weekend’s season-opener in St Petersburg and he knows it will be crucial to find another step to hold off the determined field.
Palou overcame engine issues and incidents to comfortably get over the line to become the first Spanish driver to win the IndyCar championship.
His three victories and five other podiums carried him to the title, whilst his rivals faltered and failed to match the consistency of Palou.
Remarkably, the Chip Ganassi driver only scored one pole position all year, ignoring the cancelled qualifying session at the first Texas race where Palou was awarded pole position.
Palou admits it’s an area where he can improve to give himself a better chance of winning and finishing on the podium.
“Starting more up front, getting one-lap speed should be a priority for us,” Palou told the press.
“We’ve always been able, not always, but constantly able to be around Fast 6 or top 10, which is great, but we only got one pole position [at Portland International Raceway]. Hopefully that’s going to improve and make our life easier during the races.”
Learning the art of ovals
Five of the 17 races on the 2022 IndyCar calendar are ovals and this is another department where, with experience, Palou will naturally improve.
Mastering ovals takes time and an accident can dent a driver’s confidence on oval tracks for a long time.
This is where Palou impressed in 2021 as he put aside his qualifying crash at the Indy 500 to fight for the win against Helio Castroneves in an almighty battle during the closing stages of one of the most prestigious events in the world.
It showed Palou has the mentality to put mistakes aside, indicating he has a wide head on young shoulders.
A first win on an oval will be a landmark result for the 24-year-old, and the double points on offer at the Indy 500 in May will be key for his season.
Alex Palou IndyCar Oval Results
|Iowa Race One 2020
|Iowa Race Two 2020
|Indy 500 2020
|Gateway Race One 2020
|Gateway Race Two 2020
|Texas Race One 2021
|Texas Race Two 2021
|Indy 500 2021
Palou thoroughly deserved the championship in 2021, although it did feel like some of his rivals weren’t at their best.
Runner-up Josef Newgarden was always playing catch up after a disappointing Indy 500 and you could argue his peak performances are unbeatable.
Pato O’Ward had an excellent campaign for McLaren last year and, just like Palou, he will only get better as he’s only in his third full IndyCar season
Colton Herta‘s natural speed will make him a serious contender, as long as he doesn’t suffer the same misfortune as 2021 and his Andretti team iron out their unforced errors.
Then, there is the ever-present Scott Dixon who can ever be ruled out. History tells us Dixon almost always bounces back from poor campaigns, so expect him to do the same this year.
Throw in names such as champions Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, or potential resurgences from Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist, you can see there are an army of drivers who could steal Palou‘s crown if they put a consistent season together.
Can Palou re-gain his IndyCar title?
Dario Franchitti‘s title-winning season in 2011 was the last time a driver defended their IndyCar crown, so Palou will be looking to break that 11-year pattern.
Whilst the former Formula 3 driver struggled to make a breakthrough in Europe, he’s performed brilliantly in Super Formula in Japan and has quickly rose to fame in IndyCar.
The last three years have been nothing short of impressive for Palou and a second IndyCar title would put him in esteemed company.
It will almost certainly be a bigger challenge to become champion this year, simply due to the quality of the field and the pressure of being the driver to beat, something Palou has never felt during his racing career.