IndyCar: Alex Palou back at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2023?

Alex Palou, IndyCar (Photo Credit: The Indianapolis Star)
Alex Palou, IndyCar (Photo Credit: The Indianapolis Star) /

Alex Palou returning to Chip Ganassi Racing for the 2023 IndyCar season seemed practically unthinkable until another development emerged.

It goes without saying that the story of this year’s IndyCar silly season has been that of Alex Palou supposedly being under contract with both Chip Ganassi Racing and McLaren (though not necessarily Arrow McLaren SP) for the 2023 season.

Hours after Chip Ganassi’s organization made the obvious decision to pick up the option in Palou’s contract to keep him behind the wheel of the #10 Honda in 2023, McLaren announced that they had signed the reigning IndyCar champion to their squad for next year.

Palou responded by saying that the Chip Ganassi Racing release was not authorized by him and that he had informed the team that he would be leaving following the 2022 season. He later added that he is joining the McLaren family.

Chip Ganassi Racing maintained their initial stance: Alex Palou is under contract with their organization through 2023.

A legal battle was inevitable, and one is ongoing as we speak.

Chip Ganassi Racing recently filed a civil lawsuit against Palou for breach of contract. They are believed to hold an option in the contract of the 25-year-old Spaniard for not only 2023 but for 2024 as well.

The common belief is that Palou will be with McLaren in some way, shape, or form in 2023, and that this legal process is a way of forcing an expensive contract buyout.

Typically, as a team owner, you don’t want to have a driver competing for you under duress. It doesn’t work that way, and if the driver is good enough, his say in the matter will go unmatched.

But one recent development has made this situation perhaps more interesting than ever, and it might not be as straightforward as that.

Earlier this summer, McLaren announced that they had signed Felix Rosenqvist to a contract extension 2023, but they did not specify whether he would retain his IndyCar seat or move to Formula E.

But it emerged early last month that Rosenqvist isn’t actually under contract with McLaren beyond 2022, and Rene Rast was then signed to drive for McLaren’s Formula E team.

The most likely scenario is that McLaren made the announcement of Rosenqvist’s “extension” to give them a fallback option in case the Palou situation didn’t work out.

They predicted the ensuing chaos and wanted to protect themselves in case they couldn’t land the current driver of Ganassi’s #10 Honda for next year.

While it would have, of course, been simpler to actually extend Rosenqvist’s contract, doing it this way gave them the ability to cut ties with him if the Palou deal works out, all while preventing other teams from pursuing Rosenqvist and potentially swiping him if they ended up needing him.

Here’s where things get even more interesting.

Palou’s lawyer, Rachel E. Epstein of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, released the following statement after Chip Ganassi Racing filed a civil lawsuit against the reigning champion toward the end of July.

"“We are disappointed that Chip Ganassi Racing would attempt to keep Alex from an opportunity to compete in Formula One, and even more so with CGR’s public court filings and continued commentary to the press on this matter. Alex has consistently given his very best effort to CGR and it is unfortunate that CGR would attempt to deny Alex this opportunity. We would hope the parties can resolve this amicably, but if not, we look forward to resolving this matter in a private arbitration, as CGR has requested.”"

Note the “opportunity to compete in Formula 1” line.

Now note the fact that McLaren never specified where Palou would drive, and note the timing of the Rosenqvist bombshell.

This news interestingly followed a set of events — a rapid set of events, I might add — on the Formula 1 side that have all but guaranteed Palou won’t be competing in Formula 1 next year — or for the foreseeable future — with McLaren.

This set of events almost immediately followed Epstein’s statement.

And it starts with four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel.

Toward the end of July, Vettel announced that the 2022 season will be his last. It didn’t take long for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who had reportedly been in talks about extending his Alpine deal, to announce that he would instead be moving to Aston Martin to replace Vettel.

Alpine then announced reserve driver Oscar Piastri as Alonso’s replacement. But Piastri proceeded to pull a Palou and deny the release from his current organization, stating that he would not be racing for the Enstone outfit next year.

Piastri had earlier been linked to Williams, in the event that Alonso stayed and Alpine loaned him out. But it was quite obvious at this point that he wasn’t turning down Alpine to drive Formula 1’s slowest car.

It emerged that Piastri and manager Mark Webber had been in talks with McLaren about having the 21-year-old Australian replace Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo was under contract with McLaren through 2023, and both sides had been adamant that they remained committed to each other, but even after statements from both sides, there was speculation that they would cut ties a year early, given Ricciardo’s struggles since joining the team. Now it is official that Ricciardo will not be back with McLaren in 2023.

Of course, Piastri’s official 2023 destination remains unconfirmed, with another legal battle taking place to get that situation squared away, but all signs point to him replacing Ricciardo.

That brings us to this: with a 22-year-old Lando Norris and a 21-year-old Oscar Piastri presumably set to make up McLaren’s 2023 driver lineup, where does Palou fit into the equation?

A better question: where does he fit into their driver lineup for the next several years?

Is it really Chip Ganassi Racing preventing Palou from a Formula 1 opportunity, or is it McLaren signing every young driver under the sun with the promise of maybe getting a chance?

Palou has since insisted that competing in Formula 1 isn’t the reason for making the decision he made. But he also initially shrugged off McLaren’s rumored interest, well after contact between the two parties had been made — and presumably well after a deal had been signed. We know how that turned out.

Additionally, is it just a coincidence that McLaren deleted their tweet about Palou joining the team last week?

It’s hard to see Palou jumping ship to McLaren just to drive an Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, even with a salary bump and a chance for a Formula 1 test.

Sure, Arrow McLaren SP are an up-and-coming team, but that would be, at best, a lateral move for a driver currently in a car capable of winning probably the next five to 10 championships, if not more.

A shot at actually competing in Formula 1, though? That’s a different story.

Now with Formula 1 apparently out, could Palou be back with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2023?

It’s tough to know just how many bridges, if any, have truly been burned here. As stated above, a driver competing for a team under duress won’t work. But in this case, look at what Palou has done since this whole bizarre sequence of events transpired.

He has clawed his way back into the championship mix and has even admitted that this process should indeed play out in the courts. He was even greeted by Ganassi following his third place finish in Nashville, marking their first conversation since this whole debacle began.

So if the legal process plays out in Ganassi’s favor, would Palou really feel slighted by the team like he had previously indicated, given the recent goings-on in the Formula 1 driver market?

Would Ganassi be willing to overlook the fact that Palou wanted out and the fact that this mess occurred, or would he move on and sign somebody new to drive the #10 Honda anyway?

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The picture obviously isn’t 100% clear, and it probably won’t be for quite some time. But if Formula 1 was Palou’s motivating factor for making the decision he made, perhaps he might want to think twice about suiting up to replace Rosenqvist behind the wheel of the #7 Chevrolet next year — if he even gets that chance.