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IndyCar 2020 hot topics: Has Coyne found a megastar in Palou?

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IndyCar 2020 hot topics: Has Coyne found a megastar in Palou?
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Jan 31, 2020, 10:26 PM

When Sebastien Bourdais was suddenly dropped by Dale Coyne Racing at the end of last year, many feared the team might replace him with a mediocre pay-driver. Instead, Coyne hired Super Formula sensation Alex Palou. Still, the big question remains whether the rising star is a true substitute for ‘Super Seb’.

Losing Honda funding for Bourdais, losing Michael Cannon to Chip Ganassi Racing and losing Craig Hampson to Arrow McLaren SP could have made Coyne’s little Plainfield, IL.-based team a depressing place during the off-season. This combination of personnel – as well as the quiet but hugely talented Olivier Boisson and rookie Santino Ferrucci who proved immediately strong on ovals – had kept Coyne buzzing in recent seasons.

Heck, the team’s first ever 1-2 finish looked feasible as recently as last August at Gateway’s World Wide Technology Raceway. And while Bourdais finished outside the top 10 in the championship last year, one only needed to look back a year to see the four-time Champ Car title-winner beating both Arrow SPM cars, both Rahal Letterman Lanigan cars and even a Chip Ganassi Racing entry… Now, was one winter going to see Coyne’s pool of high-profile talent drained almost dry?

No. Because ever since Alex Palou interrupted his Super Formula season to test a DCR-Honda IndyCar at Mid-Ohio, Coyne had been determined to sign him. He wouldn’t say it on the record, but when he spoke to Motorsport.com late in November, it became clear that Dale considered James Hinchcliffe, Formula 2 star Sette Camara and others only as fallback options should a deal with the 22-year-old Spaniard fall through.

“Alex was highly impressive when he tested for us at Mid-Ohio,” Coyne remarked. “He was 0.8sec quicker than [ex-Formula 1 racer, current IMSA ace] Felipe Nasr in the Arrow [Schmidt Peterson] car, and Nasr had the advantage of knowing the track. Palou did a hell of a job considering everything was new to him.”

Three weeks after that chat, he was confirmed in a Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh entry for 2020 and earlier this month Eric Cowdin was revealed as the rookie’s race engineer.

This is quite a change of circumstances for both. Cowdin guided Tony Kanaan to championship glory in 2004 (Andretti Green Racing) and 2013 Indy 500 victory (KV Racing), while he has also spent spells at Chip Ganassi Racing (with Kanaan and Charlie Kimball), and at Team Penske with Ryan Briscoe…

The engineer’s perspective

From listening to feedback from a 377-race IndyCar veteran, Eric Cowdin in 2020 becomes mentor to a series rookie.

From listening to feedback from a 377-race IndyCar veteran, Eric Cowdin in 2020 becomes mentor to a series rookie.

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

Cowdin's last two years at AJ Foyt Racing were grim, however. It is a team which, in the words of one baffled ex-employee, “has a strange chain of command, where some people make decisions on a suck-it-and-see basis, and others have opinions based on logic and sums and experience but aren’t given enough say.” To be fair, that actually sounds like a description of any number of companies, but the point in this case is that Cowdin alone wasn’t going to be able to make a huge difference in Foyt’s squad, not even when teamed with ex-Ganassi team manager Scott Harner. In a team that has struggled with the current era of cars and running his old pal Kanaan – gifted in the cockpit, but not a ‘technical’ driver who can help navigate a lost ship back on course – Cowdin’s term was over in two seasons.

Now he moves from race engineering one of the most experienced drivers in IndyCar history to running an absolute newbie, he’s joining a small team that over the past dozen years has regularly punched above its weight, and he’s also shorn himself of the technical director role – DCR doesn’t have one – to become a pure race engineer. These aspects of his new job, together with the chance to work side-by-side with Boisson, have boosted Cowdin’s enthusiasm.

“I’m not an egotistical person and I never really liked the dual role, because there’s so many aspects that you have to keep your eye on,” he comments. “Olivier and I have known each other for almost 10 years, we worked together at KV in 2012, and we’ve been great friends since then. Working with him will be the easy part. For this year I’ve changed teams, drivers and engine manufacturers so right now I consider myself lucky I can find where the toilet’s at!

“For me to walk in and say, ‘I know how to do all this stuff and you guys don’t know what you’re doing,’ – that would be ridiculous and a big step backward for everyone involved. They’re a fantastically switched-on group here and I think that’s shown in their results in the past, so I’m currently fitting in, understanding what they’ve done, and reviewing a year’s worth of racing through someone else’s eyes.

“As far as driving is concerned, I got along well with Tony, we went through a lot together, had tough times but also some great success, and as far as I’m concerned he’ll always be a brother and there are a lot of fond memories. At the same time, I think it’s great to have a raw talent like Alex to work with this year. Now that I’m one of the old guys in the sport, I can help Alex on an easier learning path.

“The best representation I’ve got right now is from the Mid-Ohio test – his only IndyCar test so far – which I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about. Going through the data and the comments, Alex seems very precise and detailed in what he likes. My impression right now is that he has a good vocabulary for describing what he wants and what he’s feeling the car is doing. Obviously, reading those notes from the test and actually hearing him relay the information in a session or a debrief are two different things, but I don’t anticipate problems. The notes were taken verbatim rather than in summary form, and they give a good impression.

“And the important thing is that when he gets what he’s asking for from the car, he goes faster. So I think finding what’s best for him will be our priority in building his ‘toolbox’ when we get to COTA for Spring Training. Things like long runs and tire management, obviously he’s got some experience there from other series, so there’s a lot that is familiar but with nuances that we’ll have to get him used to.

“What I always have to keep in mind with a rookie is that I don’t know what he doesn’t know. What I mean is that I can’t make assumptions that just because there are situations and nuances that I know from 20 years in IndyCar and which are now ingrained, that it will be automatic for Alex, too. Some of the things that occur are going to be foreign to him. Of course you want to re-center your weightjacker when you pit… but he doesn’t know that until I tell him. He’ll understand why as soon as I explain it to him but those are the sorts of things you don’t need to tell a veteran, but which you do need to teach as first principle to a rookie, especially on ovals.”

Of course for any rookie who hasn’t reached IndyCar via the Road To Indy, the ovals are the most eye-opening aspect of the NTT IndyCar Series, but a couple of months ahead of Palou’s oval orientation test at Texas Motor Speedway, Cowdin doesn’t seem unduly worried. He is, however, aware that recent results mean there are high expectations for Coyne’s sophomore and super-rookie in 2020 on all types of track.

“Yeah, of course there’s pressure there,” he says. “This job comes with expectations of performance regardless of your situation, so Alex may be a rookie in IndyCar but everyone knows he’s far from being a rookie from the pure driving standpoint, especially on road courses. Just because he hasn’t been in these cars doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to wheel them around.

“So yeah, the ovals are going to generate the most ‘walk before you run’ scenarios for us in terms of getting him up to speed, but I think everyone who’s studied Alex’s career résumé is expecting him to perform well everywhere, especially when you think of how well Dale’s cars have gone over the past few seasons. There’s pressure there for both of us.”

The driver’s perspective

Alex Palou's swift adaptation to Super Formula bodes well for his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Alex Palou's swift adaptation to Super Formula bodes well for his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Palou himself is going to feel pressure too, but a lot less than before his fateful test last July. Not that it started out too well…

“IndyCar is a different type of car from Super Formula so it is a different type of driving,” he tells Motorsport.com. “The Super Formula car is really good, very light and very aerodynamic, and the grip in the corner is really impressive. Engine-wise, it is not so good as IndyCar, and IndyCars feel really heavy and the downforce to weight ratio is OK, but not like Super Formula.

“So I had to adapt a little, but that was quite easy. The team helped me a lot and being there all race weekend with the team was useful so I could learn.

“At the beginning of the test, the track was really dirty, so the grip level was very low even though the race had been just the day before. I was like three or four seconds slower than the race times. That was a little bit shocking: I had never had that feeling of being so slow. I did 10 laps and was four seconds per lap off, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! I don’t know how I can do this.’ Then we realized that the track was the issue and the other driver [Nasr in the Arrow SPM] was having the same problem. Soon my lap times [at Mid-Ohio] were good.”

Very good, in fact – but still the deal was a long way from being done.

Palou recalls: “Yeah, I was in the middle of the Super Formula championship, trying to win, but I had IndyCar in my mind every day, because after the test everyone was happy, it looked like there would be opportunities, and then one month later everything shut down. I thought it would not be possible. Then November, December, everything started going again and that was good.

“I love the history of Indy car racing and the dimensions of the championship across 17 races – superspeedways, short ovals, street courses and road courses. Road courses will be most natural for me, obviously, and I like Mid-Ohio a lot. But I’m really looking forward to Laguna Seca – I can’t wait to go there because I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid and Laguna is the best track!

“I don’t know street tracks that well – just two, I think – but I love it, and when I had good cars, I was quick there so I don’t think they will be a problem. Ovals… they look amazing, crazy, a lot of fun. I was really impressed with the Texas race last year.”

Palou’s enthusiasm for IndyCar is enlightening, but having come so close to the Super Formula title in his rookie campaign– he finished third and was a title contender into the season finale – surely the temptation was strong to stay on and finish the job in 2020.

“Hmmm, I understand what you’re saying,” he replies, “because, yes, we came really close to the Super Formula championship. We took pole [in the Suzuka finale], we just needed to stay out front to win. I was P1 and I was comfortable there – we were really quick – but after my pitstop an aeroduct got stuck in my rear suspension and we lost three seconds per lap. I had to pit again and so we finished last. It was difficult to think about at first because I didn’t understand what was wrong, but once you realize it’s a mechanical issue, not the fault of the team or me, then you think, ‘OK, that’s racing.’

“And so I look back and I’m happy with the season because it’s tough as a rookie in a series with only seven races and only six tracks – tracks that most of the best drivers have been racing on since they are 12 years old and they have experience of Super Formula already. They know already every single bump in every single braking zone, so right from FP1 they are on the limit. Me, I’m driving and thinking, ‘OK, let’s see where the braking point is for Turn 1, Turn 2, and so on…’ and after two laps they are really far ahead.

“So I had to work a lot on how to get up to speed quickly and I think that was the key lesson from 2019 that will help me for the rest of my career. Thankfully my team [TCS Nakajima Racing] did a really good job with setups and so I was able to score three pole positions in seven races, which as a rookie you cannot do without a very strong car, so I think I was lucky there.

“Going back to your question, of course I wanted to win and it would have been interesting to stay, especially as I had offers from three manufacturers [Toyota and Honda in Super Formula, and Nissan in Super GT], and the contracts were really good.

“But like I say before, I just love IndyCar. I had the idea of going there for six years, and in the last two years I was always thinking about IndyCar, watching every race, reading everything and trying to learn everything. It was my dream so I knew if I had the opportunity to go, I had to take it, because even if I won the Super Formula championship this season, an opportunity in IndyCar may not be there again. I had to make the jump while I had the chance. And I’m really happy with that decision.”

That increasing ability to learn tracks very rapidly is of course going to be useful in Palou’s battle for IndyCar Rookie of the Year honors with Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew (Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet) and runner-up Rinus VeeKay (Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet), but Palou is well aware of the task ahead.

He comments in passing: “I will have to work harder than a lot of other drivers who know the championship, know the cars, know the tracks, know the country. They know everything and I know nothing! And last year we saw rookies finish sixth [Felix Rosenqvist] and seventh [Colton Herta] in points, and Colton won two races and three poles! So I know already that the Rookie of the Year is not going to win his title by finishing 15th in the championship.”

He’s less daunted by this having observed Dale Coyne’s team in action over the course of the race weekend at Mid-Ohio and then working directly with the engineers the following day. He’s noticed a marked difference in philosophy between open-wheel racing in Europe and in the U.S.

He explains: “From the moment I wake up until I go to sleep, I think about racing and I really, really try to work with the engineer to improve the car. I’m not from a motorsport family so I have had to work in some ways that others haven’t had to do, and I understand the technical aspects of the car to help improve it. I don’t expect a car to be perfect from the start so I think a lot about how I best describe the car to the engineers.

“I have seen that actually works very well with how teams go racing in America compared with Europe. In Europe, the car is seen as perfect and you have to drive to what’s best for that car; in America, the machine is not perfect and the engineer helps to adapt the car to your way of driving, so you’re confident with it. So that’s great – we all know the driver is not going to be perfect, we all know the car is not going to be perfect but if the engineer is working for the driver and not for the car then this will help a lot.

“But to do this, Eric will need for me to describe in the best way I can everything the car is doing, and I must understand what is possible from the car and what is impossible. That is why I have studied and learned everything I can so we can work together to hopefully make the car the best it can be at each track.”

Palou, then, is a driver who knows he isn’t going to succeed in motorsport by relying on instinct or talent alone. If he continues to be put in the hard grind and thereby continues adding to what Cowdin and many others describe as a driver’s ‘toolbox’, there’s no obvious reason why he can’t be an immensely strong contender for the Rookie of the Year title – and go on to still greater achievements. Spanish eyes may be on a different driver during the Month of May, but longer term, Palou has the potential to become a star.

 

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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About this article

Series IndyCar
Drivers Alex Palou
Teams Dale Coyne Racing
Author David Malsher-Lopez