When Alex Palou hits the track Monday at Sebring International Raceway, it will be his official wakeup call to get ready for the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.
Palou and his new Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Jimmie Johnson will take on the historic Florida circuit in a private test to prepare for the season opener on Sunday, April 11 at Barber Motorsports Park.
CGR newcomer Palou said he and his team will use the morning as a systems check. Since he still has yet to race his No. 10 Honda, Palou still needs to ensure his seat, safety belts, helmet and more are precisely where they need to be before he can spend hours driving at 200 mph. By mid-afternoon, the Spaniard said he’ll be up to speed and racing through the checklist his team has to prepare for the 13 road and street course races on the schedule.
“There’s no specific result I want to accomplish,” he said. “I just want to get used to the car again, test a couple of ideas we have for this preseason, and hopefully it’s going to help us during the street courses and road courses. I think there’s a lot of things to try and learn.”
Palou, 23, is entering the Sebring test with added confidence, even if he is one of the new guys on the team. Last year, his first INDYCAR test of the season came in February at Circuit of The Americas, and he felt behind schedule because other drivers had already been on track in private tests over the offseason.
Palou still turned in a solid rookie season for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh. He scored one podium finish, which came in his third career start at Road America. He also proved to be a solid qualifier with five top-10 starts, including a seventh-place start in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, where he posted the fastest single-lap speed in the Fast Nine Shootout.
This year, Palou feels ahead of the game after moving to Ganassi after last season. He had two offseason tests with Ganassi last fall at Barber and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. He knows the car, his crew and his teammates. Now, he says, it’s just time to go to work.
“I was able to spend two weeks with the team here in the factory and planning everything, talking to everybody,” he said. “I know the names, I know the faces, and I know the car already. I’ve had two months since the last test, and that time gave me the opportunity to embrace everything I’ve learned and hopefully put everything together at the test.”
Palou said what he learns on-track Monday might just come second to what he learns from his legendary teammate, defending and six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Dixon. He tested with Dixon last fall at Barber but not at Laguna Seca. Palou said not having Dixon was noticeable, and it’s his goal to spend as much time as possible with the man who sits third on the all-time INDYCAR wins list and soak up all the knowledge he can.
“I want to test all the time with him to compare data with him because it’s not the same when you have Scott and when Scott is not there,” he said. “He’s the man. He’s the champ. You always want to be with him and listening. If he talks about tea: ‘What do you think about this tea? Or the coffee?’ Whatever, you always want to be there, because you don’t know when he’s going to say something that you didn’t know, and that’s most of the time when the talks about cars.
“You know that he has the same tools as you and the same car. You don’t know what other teams are doing, but you know what Scott is doing. He’s the target, and if I see he’s able to brake 10 meters deeper into a corner with the same car as I, I need to watch how he’s doing it to be able to do the same thing he does. That’s why being with Scott is so important and so beneficial for me.”
One might think being Dixon’s teammate is intimidating because he sets such a high standard to match in a similar car. However, Palou said he feels no pressure when trying to run laps comparable to Dixon. He would rather have the information and know how Dixon got there rather than be on the outside looking in.
And it’s not just from Dixon. Ericsson brings a Formula One career with him to Ganassi, while seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson is bringing his deep racing knowledge to the team. That, Palou thinks, will help him immensely this year and is a recipe for success for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“They all work differently, but I think it’s really good to be able to get all the different mindsets,” he said. “We have the INDYCAR mindset with Scott, we have the NASCAR mindset with Jimmie, we have the Formula One mindset with Marcus, and we have my mindset, which is trying to learn from everybody and trying to be at the same level as they are. It’s really good for the team.”
Palou said those mindsets have been put to work in team meetings, but now it’s time to put them to the test and see what one of the most successful NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams, with one of the most diverse lineups of talent in the paddock, can do.