until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


When IndyCar's dominant champion leaned fully into his maverick side

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

As The Race reflects on the 2023 motorsport season - one that featured a record-equalling Formula 1 schedule, no fewer than 39 MotoGP races, and no shortage of on- and off-track drama in IndyCar and Formula E - we’ve asked our writers to recount their standout motorsport memory or feeling from the past 12 months.

In the latest edition of our rundown, deputy editor and The Race MotoGP Podcast regular Valentin Khorounzhiy recalls the 2023 race that will linger long in his memory.

As a regular on our MotoGP podcast and the general 'overseer' of our two-wheeled output, I probably should pick a MotoGP option as my 2023 standout. After all, it's not like the options are lacking.

Johann Zarco's long-long-long-awaited first win in the premier class in a mind-boggling Phillip Island showdown with massive championship race ramifications? Great pick. I remember shaking from the thrill of watching that race (while sat, funnily enough, in the reception area of an accommodation near Hockenheim) in what was the very early morning in my timezone.

Or how about the Qatar Grand Prix that so memorably capped off Fabio Di Giannantonio's transformation from "a MotoGP non-factor destined for his walking papers" into "uhhh... when did you get so good?!".

I've talked plenty about both though - and, even if I hadn't, when I was reminded of the subject of this column I realised there could be no other answer, four wheels and all.

Alex Palou's 78-point winning margin and crushing victory streak mid-season may suggest otherwise, but so much of the IndyCar campaign this past year was actually appointment viewing - and Palou, for all his efforts to snuff out any championship intrigue, actually contributed hugely to this.

Yes, sometimes it was a mere case of "hot damn, isn't he fast?", a Scott Dixon-esque stint here or there that didn't really make sense in terms of how much he was outgaining his opposition.

But you can't win an IndyCar title without getting your elbows out, and when Palou found himself in that kind of situation, the other side came out - that of an extremely ruthless racer operating with a real audacity and a willful ignorance of the championship picture.


In the overall picture, his weekend at Toronto was hardly a standout - if it was one, it was only one in a negative sense. He qualified a season-worst 15th and took some first-stint risks that felt ill-advised in the moment - namely an attempted overtake on Romain Grosjean that led to minor contact and the loss of a position.

But the thing about those risks is they often only feel ill-advised when they don't come off. Further into the race, Palou uncorked a scintillating divebomb on Grosjean that prompted me, done with my work for the day in that moment, to return to our work Slack (communications software) with a "y'all see that Palou overtake lol?" and watch the rest of the race along with my coworkers from that point on.

As far as Palou's drive goes, that really should've been the highlight. But it wasn't. No chance.

The #10 crew in 2023, and Palou himself, were clearly gamblers, and Lady Luck sure loved them for it. Just like Palou seemed to revel in forgetting his championship situation (coming into Toronto, he was 110 points clear), so did his strategist Barry Wanser approach weekends as if he and he alone was aware of some secret playoff format resetting the points every weekend.

Palou's Toronto race looked like he was absolutely going for a win. And it probably would've been his - if, on one of the restarts, Kyle Kirkwood didn't tap Helio Castroneves into a spin, finally getting the generally-lucky Palou caught up in one of those frequent mid-pack IndyCar melees and forced him to take evasive action straight into a wall.

He carried on. Yet once Palou - aided by strategy, naturally, but also by a two-in-one overtake on a pair of Andretti cars, who he seemed to have a personal vendetta against in that race - worked himself back towards the front shortly after, it became very clear he had not exactly got away with that wall hit.

The nose of his #10 was looking increasingly terrible, a major crack forming separating the Honda logo from the rest of the sponsor branding on the nosecone, while the front wing wasn't just at a weird angle but was now actively dragging itself against the track surface.

So, to recap. The front wing looks like it's about to go underneath the car any second and pitch it straight into a wall again or at least one of the run-offs. The lead is 110 points. You can probably make it to the end on fuel, but if you have to stop the pace is there to recover nicely. Again, the lead is 110 points.

You pit, right? You pit every time and then you go 'ah, we'll get them next time', and that's how you win the championship?

Of course not. Instead you apparently tough it out for almost 30 laps, somehow dragging consistent pace out of a car that just looked wrong, increasingly wrong with every five laps or so, the wing bouncing non-stop, the crack getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

The strategy, wing aside, was a race-winning one. But Christian Lundgaard, well-deserving of a first IndyCar win, worked his way past Palou's hobbled #10 with relative ease and escaped into the distance.

Somehow, though, the skid ended there. Nobody else got particularly close, with a fuel-managing Colton Herta behind Palou acting as an inadvertent rear gunner.

Before you say it - yes, I don't think it should've been allowed. The nosecone, to my admittedly untrained eye, did not look structurally sound. The crash a failure promised could've been quite unpleasant. Even accounting for the more laissez-faire approach to race direction all across American (in this case Canadian, but you get it) racing, I'd like this kind of thing flagged for a mandatory pitstop 10 times out of 10.

In hindsight though, knowing the wing holds up, it's a hoot. It's a riot. It's kind of a lower-stakes, longer-running version of Ross Chastain's 'Hail Melon' - don't let it happen again, but man, am I glad it happened.

The Toronto drive is one of those that accentuates Palou's increasing 'maverick' reputation. Mostly, though, that reputation is being built off-track - how could it not be when he has now been taken to court by two separate IndyCar teams twice in the span of just over a year?

But - in a way that will be of no consolation whatsoever to the currently-aggrieved McLaren, just like it wasn't to the previously-aggrieved Ganassi - this too, for me anyway, adds to Palou's status as IndyCar's current great entertainer.

He, by himself, is appointment viewing, and that Toronto drive deserves to be his calling card.

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