It’s no secret, at least in the IndyCar media, that Alex Palou doesn’t like to big himself up. But after four wins in five races, even he’s having trouble avoiding the obvious.
In this run he’s on in IndyCar he’s repeatedly avoided or rebuffed the use of the word dominant, but he has now admitted this is the best run of his career when asked if he’d had another like it at Mid-Ohio last weekend.
“Not at all. No, absolutely not,” Palou said.
“Obviously in go-karts I had a good couple of races, but I don’t think I had three big wins in a row or in the last five and always being up there. So, no, it’s the best moment of my career so far.”
Palou’s had to get used to numbers and stats being read to him. What he’s accomplishing this year is quite out of the ordinary so it’s to be expected.
But instead of reading a sheet of stats to him, The Race elected to get Palou to pick out where he thought he had excelled with his driving in 2023.
“I would say we got a lot better in qualifying than in the last two years,” said the Ganassi driver.
“We’ve been able to get more speed from the car and get myself more comfortable. That helps getting, I would say, better strategies during the races.
“And I would say, reading the races. I’m learning a lot. I’ve been learning a lot from Scott [Dixon], from the team for what I need for my races.
“So far it’s working. So hopefully we can keep on learning and keep getting some good results.”
The qualifying point and how it opens the door for different strategies is a good one, so let’s delve more deeply into it with last weekend’s race being a perfect microcosm of Palou’s season.
Probably partly because he has such a big championship lead, Palou was able to make a slight gamble at Mid-Ohio and start on the harder tyre from fourth with those ahead on softs. He’d passed Kyle Kirkwood for third on-track during that first stint.
So when his two rivals ahead in the first stint pitted to ditch the soft tyres, Palou stayed out – having saved fuel in the first stint – with clean air.
Points per race needed to outscore Palou
2 Dixon 12.33
3 Newgarden 13
4 Ericsson 13.67
5 O’Ward 14.22
6 McLaughlin 16.56
7 Power 16.89
He ripped off a succession of fast laps before diving into the pits and, because he’d saved fuel in the first stint and had gone longer than his rivals, he didn’t need to take on as much fuel during the stop, thus reducing the time spent in the pits.
Scott Dixon and Will Power both executed this strategy also and ended up on the podium behind Palou, but both had qualified further back.
One of the benefits of Palou’s qualifying prowess is that he’s almost always going to be the first driver on his strategy if he elects to do something different from his leading rivals.
The fact that Dixon and Power used the strategy to great effect shows it wasn’t just an isolated successful strategy call from the #10 crew either. Two more factors intervened.
The first was Palou’s starting position which we’ve discussed. The second was his inlaps and outlaps.
If you take each driver’s fastest inlaps and outlaps from each race, and use their position in each race to form an average, Palou is the best driver when it comes to those laps. That’s not a perfect way of deciding who is the best driver on those inlaps and outlaps because it doesn’t consider all of them in the equation but, given he’s not messed any up this year, it’s fair to have him right up there at the top.
At Mid-Ohio, Palou delivered the fastest inlap and fastest outlap of the whole race. Neither was beaten.
With Colton Herta being his closest rival at that point, he was 1.450s quicker than the Andretti Autosport driver on the inlap and 2.783s quicker on the outlap. This even negated Palou being slightly baulked by another car entering his pits and losing 0.9s in the pitlane.
At a key moment, he delivered to an elite level to make his strategy work. Switching from the hards to softs instead of the softs to hards like his rivals also was a benefit as the soft tyres offer more grip than the hards even in the warm-up phase.
It’s worth remembering that IndyCar has refuelling and no tyre warmers, so on an outlap the tyres are ice cold and the car is as heavy as it gets. It’s truly an art form in modern motorsport and one that is a joy to watch, especially on a street circuit.
Palou emerged with a three-second lead – it’s true Dixon and Power momentarily held up Herta, but Palou just kept pulling away even after Herta had cleared them – which ended up being vital as part of the bigger lead he would eventually watch disintegrate as backmarker Benjamin Pedersen held him up.
Not only did the qualifying position mean he was on the best strategy, but his championship lead meant he could afford to take the risk of choosing it. Usually, it’s drivers around sixth and lower that tend to deviate from the tyre the leader starts on.
The underlying factor is Palou’s pace is good enough to make most realistic strategies work, but when he does something different to the leaders it usually spells trouble for them.
As we’re at the halfway point of the season – and on the topic of asking where Palou feels he’s excelling, he clearly feels like he has improved – we’ll take this time to look back at his 2021 campaign that earned him his first IndyCar title.
Palou’s record after nine races – 2021 vs 2023
*This was boosted by double points at the Indianapolis 500, which weren’t awarded at the 2023 Indy 500
**Palou is credited with pole at Texas but he got that through being the championship leader as qualifying was rained off
The big, noticeable difference is the average start and finish. This year he’s starting three places higher per race on average – his 6.67 was one of the best in the series after nine races that year, too – while his average finish is over five positions higher per race.
In 2021 he was leading the standings after nine races, but he’d had a mechanical issue at St Petersburg which meant his worse finish was 17th, and a 15th at Detroit – coincidentally initiated by a poor qualifying to go along with a six-place grid penalty for using an extra engine – which unlike in 2023, gave him some deficient areas to manage.
After losing an engine in pre-season and then another crashing in Indy 500 qualifying, the threat of grid penalties were always looming large over Palou that year, too.
It’s also worth mentioning that Palou finished second in a double-points Indy 500 in 2021, so that inflated his points total and lead, whereas in 2023 he had no such benefit.
He’s better in almost every category in 2023; the podium tally doesn’t include wins so that is lower than 2021, and even his two poles are a step up – he now has his first on a street course and took his first proper one on an oval at the Indy 500, as his Texas pole in 2021 was given to him because qualifying was washed out and he was leading the championship.
The big, intangible but perhaps obvious difference this year is it feels like Palou is not leading through sheer will and consistency, but using something else people have often questioned whether he had at least on the level of his contemporary peers: raw speed.
His Road America win in 2021 came after a mechanical failure for Josef Newgarden, although his Barber and Portland wins were both fantastic. The lack of a pole further led people to question whether Palou, although a deserving champion, was also the fastest driver in the series.
Fast forward to 2023 and there’s little doubt about that. Mid-Ohio was the perfect cross-section of that, and you don’t have to look far at all to see more examples.
It’s not that anyone doubted Palou had this speed, but it was easy to forget this is a driver who had bounced around multiple series, won IndyCar in his second season and therefore hadn’t give us a big sample size of data to work off when analysing how good he was/is.
There’s no doubt of that now. And it’s clear under the right circumstances he’s every bit as quick as the drivers we discuss as being fast enough to rip off multiple wins and initiate dominance, such as Newgarden or Herta.
The only remaining test facing him in 2023 is whether he can win on an oval. There’s a double-header coming up at Iowa at the end of the month, and a strong showing there really would remove any questions about Palou being a complete IndyCar driver.