Alex Palou’s performance this year is historic as he becomes a rising motorsports star and has him on the verge of claiming his second NTT IndyCar Series championship.
But it could be a title that the series won’t see him defend.
The on-going contract saga of the 2021 IndyCar champion has been a side-story which has stuck to him like a shadow over the last two years. But if reports are true that he and his management are prioritizing Formula 1 rides, then next year he could be running the international circuit instead of the American open-wheel series.
And that would be a loss for IndyCar and its record books.
As noted by NBC during the Honda Indy 200 weekend, Palou is trending into legendary company based on his stats in his first 55 races. His seven wins, 19 podiums and 36 top 10s has him only behind Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, two drivers who are embedded in every historic IndyCar stat known to the human race. With his eighth win, in his 56th start, he is only improving on those numbers. The drivers ranked behind him in top 10s at this time? Just Will Power, Scott Dixon and Michael Andretti.
Those drivers would also go on to win 20 total championships, with Power and Dixon still in the running to add more to their legacies before they call it a career. Know what each one of these drivers have in common? Longevity in the sport. The fewest races run by any of them in IndyCar is the defending champion, Power at 277.
If Palou successfully jumps to F1, it would be a sign of positive momentum for the legitimacy of IndyCar drivers in the elite circles in international racing. But, would it be best for him to leave? That seems like a tough choice when he is compared to the company in the chart above.
Losing a talent like Palou isn’t a great marketing tool. It’s hard to build a fanbase if one of the most dominant drivers in the current generation of young talent packs up and heads overseas. However, that was the case many times in the 1990s and into the latter stages of the early 2000s for IndyCar racing. Championship winning drivers jumped over the Atlantic to give F1 a go, but not many met with success. Michael Andretti (1993), Alex Zanardi (1999), Christiano Da Matta (2003), and Sebastien Bourdais (2008) all tried. And each one returned back to an American open-wheel series after a season or two.
Since 1995, only two drivers that earned F1 rides after dominant IndyCar performances had winning results. Juan Pablo Montoya bankrolled an unbelievable rookie year in CART in 1999 to get a shot with Williams in 2001. He’d earn several wins and the ire of Michael Schumacher before jumping back to the States to rejoin Chip Ganassi in NASCAR.
Then there was the brightest of the IndyCar bunch to succeed – Jacques Villeneuve. He’d win the 1995 IndyCar championship, the last before the Split, and the Indianapolis 500 before signing with Williams as well. In 1997, he’d win take the F1 championship from Schumacher in blockbuster fashion.
From a fan’s standpoint, it’s challenging to fathom a driver wanting to forgo such success currently enjoyed in one series and pursue another. Especially on today’s F1 grid, where the championship has been mostly dominated by one team in recent years, with a sprinkle of a few seasons of multi-team challengers. Palou isn’t getting one of those seats though, as those seats are locked up and the teams have youth already lined up to replace them.
So why even try? Is it the dollars and cents? The F1 grid might grant more opportunity for earnings and cash flow. The esteem too of racing on the international stage is hard to beat.
Palou might be looking to lock up an opportunity to compete on the international stage, and grow his brand and race in his home country. But there’s a cost in that. If he doesn’t achieve the success, he’ll end up in the same position as Zanardi, Da Matta and Bourdais. All of them experienced their major successes prior to their F1 trials, and when they jumped back into single seaters in America, they didn’t mirror their early achievements. Is the glory of F1 worth that much to Palou to cliff dive off the meteoric rise he is on now?
More will be known as his contract discussions conclude later in the year, when he may choose to halt his historic IndyCar start to try his hand at F1.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar contributor at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
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