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IndyCar front row reacts: Palou in happy place at “beautiful” Laguna Seca

Written by Archie O’Reilly


Alex Palou will lead the IndyCar field to green for the Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca after securing his fifth pole in the series. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver dominated the 2022 event at Laguna Seca and has finished on the podium in each of his three visits to the track.


Andretti Global’s Kyle Kirkwood will start alongside Palou on the front row. Here is how the pair reacted to proceedings on Saturday in California…


Palou in his happy place


“I love this track,” Palou said. “You do a lap and you fall in love with the place, with the car - when it drives well obviously. It’s a track that is really complete. If you look corner by corner, almost every corner is beautiful. I would say there’s only two corners that are not beautiful at this track. It’s amazing. 


“I don’t know what fits me. I think having a good car around here helps - I had these in the past years. It’s been great. Qualifying we’ve improved. I think the last couple of years we were struggling a little bit more in qualifying than probably now. We need to keep working on everything… We’re happier with our qualifying performance, for sure.”


For a two-time champion into his fifth season in IndyCar, five pole positions - two coming this year - may seem somewhat meagre a tally. But with the car at his disposal, Palou is now in a position to execute.


“It was amazing, car was really good,” Palou said. “It’s been good all weekend. But it was really tough. If you see the gaps - even Q1, Fast 12, now Fast Six - it was tough. You had to nail everything. Glad I did it. The car was on rails. It was one of my favourite places and it’s becoming probably my favourite place.”


With grip a little inconsistent in parts of the track, Palou said it was “super tough” to find the last tenth of a second amid some unpredictability across the lap. 


“It’s tough to judge, tough to commit,” he added. “But once you nail a lap, it feels super rewarding.”


Ultimately, changes made from practice to qualifying were “really good” and paid dividends for Palou. And when sporting the faster red-sidewalled alternate tyres, the Spaniard was again able to peak at the perfect moment.


Kirkwood finding his best form


As Kirkwood was keen to note in the post-qualifying press conference, a second-place start is second to only his pole position at Long Beach last year across his three years in IndyCar.


“Really good day,” he said. “We executed super, super well, did everything we needed to do. Just didn’t have the eight-hundredths to beat Alex today. It’s always frustrating.”


Kirkwood currently sits sixth in the IndyCar championship standings and has the best worst finish in the field with 11th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He has finished fourth and fifth in the last two races - the first successive top-five finishes of his IndyCar career and the only two top fives aside from his pair of victories in his first season with Andretti last year.


“We’ve been really good across the weekends this year,” he said. “We just had a consistent year. Coming into this season, really just wanted to have more consistent races and get top fives. I’m making headway with that. Now that I’m piecing that together, it’s time to go for podiums and wins, taking a step back from last year where it’s either win or nothing.”


Kirkwood feels that wins have not quite been on the cards yet this year, aside from in Detroit, where caution periods fell badly and denied him of at least a podium after leading the race for a portion. Come race day at Laguna Seca, he is confident in his pace on primary tyres. 


And for only the second time, he will start with nobody in front on track.


“I felt like my Fast Six run was actually the best of my three,” he said. “Obviously I’ll go back in the data and find eight-hundredths somewhere. Never do you ever do a perfect lap. That’s always the case. I thought I did a really good job, we got our tyres in perfectly. Thought we nailed it on the right lap, didn’t put anything out of place on the quick lap Fast Six.”


The challenge of the Laguna race


Last year’s season-ending race at Laguna Seca was littered with caution periods on the repaved track. And Kirkwood believes it is now possibly the trickiest track on the calendar from a physical standpoint.


“I think this has turned into the most physical track on the calendar,” he said. “Just with the repave, it becomes very, very heavy. When we’re full of fuel, the car weighs a little bit more, it’s going to be even heavier. Doing a lot of laps around here is not easy.”


And while Laguna Seca is a technical challenge that drivers relish, overtaking is not easy and can make for a challenging race.


“Hopefully Alex just makes a mistake for me and makes it easy,” Kirkwood quipped, to which Palou smirked and responded with a joking: “Sure.”


Kirkwood continued to add: “No, we’ve got to nail strategy. Obviously race pace is involved with that. Really, the only passing spot that I can think of at this moment is down into Turn 2. Outside of that, it’s really hard to make a pass happen. You have to get lucky or just be extremely fast in one spot, which I don’t see being the case.”


Road America saw tyre degradation a significant factor, with the alternate tyres proving tough to hold onto in the race. While the primaries “last forever” according to Kirkwood, at this stage it is unclear which tyre will be preferred for Sunday’s race at Laguna Seca.


Another possible source of opportunities for drivers could be similar chaos to 2024 with the variation in grip with the repaved track in its second year. But there are contrasting opinions as to whether the race could pan out this way.


“I don’t think it’s really bad, honestly,” Palou said of the track. “I think it’s a little bit worse... Sometimes the issue is the sand that the wind blows. If you have that in a corner, you can go off pretty quickly. But yeah, tarmac conditions are good.”

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