Palou gearing up for first Le Mans run

For full-time IndyCar drivers, the stretch from April to July is punishing, with seven races on the calendar to get through, headlined by the series' crown jewel event, the Indy 500.

But it seems that's not enough track time for a handful of them, including defending champion Alex Palou. The Spaniard, along with Scott Dixon, Romain Grosjean, Nolan Siegel and Kyffin Simpson are squeezing a week at Le Mans into their packed schedule and traveled to France directly after the XPEL Grand Prix at Road America. Anyone looking for proof that racing is an addiction should look no further…

For his Le Mans debut, Palou will drive the No. 2 Cadillac V-Series.R with the GM brand's full-season WEC duo of Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn. 

Palou hasn't shared a car with either of them in the past, but he does have an existing relationship with both to build on. He first met them back at the 2022 Rolex 24 Hours when they were sharing the No. 02 Cadillac Racing DPi-V.R and he was placed in the No. 1 sister car. That connection may prove vital as they look to build chemistry as a unit rapidly ahead of this weekend’s race.

There will certainly be no time to relax, as he joins the crew at a crucial point for its 2024 campaign. After being disqualified from Qatar, struggling for pace at Imola and crashing out at Spa, the No. 2 crew are in dire need of a big result if they are to feature in the title fight later in the year. 

And what better place for a change in fortunes to occur than at Le Mans? It's the most prestigious race on the calendar and double points are on offer. Yes, the field is deeper than last year in Hypercar, but after the V-Series.R finished on the overall podium last year, expectations are set equally high 12 months on for the three-pronged Cadillac effort.

While Bamber and Lynn will hope that Palou serves as a lucky charm on Sunday, they'll also be hoping that he gets up to speed rapidly on Wednesday and Thursday. With no previous WEC race experience to draw from, and only one IMSA race start in Cadillac's current prototype under his belt, Palou is in desperate need of seat time.

From the moment the pit lane opens in Free Practice 1, managing his schedule will be key. The team needs to ensure he is given ample time to learn the circuit and get a feel for how WEC races are regulated and managed by race control.

"I'm going to get extra time because I haven't driven a Cadillac since January and skipped the test," the two-time IndyCar champion told RACER. 

"But it's not crazy, they will be open to giving me the time I need, but I need to make sure that Alex and Earl are prepared for Qualifying and Hyperpole too.

"This situation is not ideal, but I reckon I will get plenty of laps."

Thankfully, before Palou arrived at La Sarthe, Bamber and Lynn enjoyed a highly productive test day, where they racked up plenty of miles and worked on a base set-up. The hard work last Sunday, Bamber explained, will enable the team to place ample focus on getting Palou as comfortable as possible.

"We were happy with the test day and the car balance felt good," he said. "Now it's in a good enough spot that we can hand the majority of the running over to Alex in the practice sessions to help him prepare for the race. 

"We are happier as a team than last year, we are better prepared and feel like we can go racing tomorrow. We aren't scrambling around at all.

"It gives us space to pass on as much information as can to him. We will try and school him up as much as we can, but he will need to learn some of it for himself with his own experience."

Palou’s previous outings at the Rolex 24 stand him in good stead. Both times he was impressive and took it seriously, demonstrating an ability to adapt to new surroundings quickly and hit extract performance from a car with limited track time.

There is no sign that his approach this week will be any different. He’s eager to leave a mark on another event he’s had his eye on for a long time.

"I am so excited to be at Le Mans,” he said. “This is a rare event that's close to home, it's like seven hours away. It's so much closer to home than when I race in the U.S.

"I always push for stuff I want, and this was an event I've always wanted to do if I could fit it in. Daytona gives you a taste of a 24-hour race, but this is a bigger event with more manufacturers. 

"I have been following Le Mans for a long time and knew about it before the Indy 500. The good thing for me is that the team is the same, and they know me, they know I will be 200 percent focused. We are not here for fun, we are trying to win it.

"IndyCar is my number one priority. But this pushes me to try and learn more, improve and push in IndyCar. And I hopefully it's not a one-off. I want to do more endurance races. Hopefully starting now and for a long time."