IndyCar points leader Alex Palou will start his first ever visit to the Detroit street circuit on the back foot this weekend with a six-place grid penalty for changing his race engine during the Indianapolis 500 event.
Palou is six races into his second year of IndyCar and his first with Chip Ganassi Racing, where he has finished outside of the top seven only once, when he had a mechanical issue while running 13th at St Petersburg.
The 24-year-old won the first race of the season at Barber, a track he had never raced at before although he and his team did test there in pre-season.
He leads his team-mate and reigning champion Scott Dixon by 36 points entering this weekend, coming off the back of an epic Indy 500 where he was only narrowly beaten to victory by Helio Castroneves, rebounding from a qualifying crash and an ‘unapproved’ engine change following the final practice which has led to the grid penalty for Saturday’s Detroit race.
“We also have a grid penalty, I think, for the first race, so that’s going to make our stuff really hard, but we’ll try and have some clean and good strategies, and we’ll be up there by the end of the race,” said Palou.
Due to the cancellation of a number of races last year owing to the coronavirus pandemic, sophomores like Palou and Rinus VeeKay – who is fifth in the standings – will head to four tracks they have not raced at before in IndyCar.
When asked by The Race whether his Barber performance had given Palou confidence heading to a new track – even though he’d had extensive testing there – Palou replied: “I had never raced at Barber before but I had loads of laps in me [because of testing].
“Detroit, it’s completely different.
“I’ve never been there. It’s a street course. It’s also more difficult to get up to speed.
“But it’s all right, it’s what we have.
“We have one hour and 15 of practice so we’ll try and make the most of it, try to run as much as possible.
“What gives me a bit of confidence is that Indy road course we missed free practice one because we had an issue and we were able to be up there in qualifying, so I think we should be OK at Detroit, just need to keep focused, look at what my team-mates are doing and try and follow them.”
Of course the grid penalty will complicate things, and it comes at IndyCar’s first street circuit since St Pete in April. That was Palou’s only qualifying start outside of the top six so far this season in 10th. He says he is confident of turning things around this weekend.
It’s rare for a driver to come in at Ganassi and immediately match or exceed Dixon even over a short period like six races, so this is a relatively new experience for the team.
The Race asked Palou if it felt better having Dixon under his nose within the squad, so he can oversee his progress in the same machinery.
“No, that’s the opposite because I know he’s going to compete with the same car as me, so I know he’s going to compete with a really good car, and it’s going to be up to us,” he replied.
“I would prefer him to be on another team so I could know that I have the best team around me.
“But no, joking aside, it’s cool. It’s super good to be able to do what he’s doing, to know the strategies they are doing, to know how he’s approaching the weekends.
“It’s been really helpful for me so far, and it’s going to still be really helpful.
“We just keep on trying to do really good results during the race weekends, and we’ll be able to fight for the championship.”
He later added: “I know that Scott is going to be fast [in Detroit], Marcus [Ericsson] got his first podium there in ’19, so he’s going to be really quick.
“I’ll be able to learn from all of them and hopefully we can be up there.”