Alex Palou’s IndyCar future remains up in the air, and his decision was always sure to create intrigue. Another victory has made it even more interesting.
2021 IndyCar champion and current points leader Alex Palou remains without a contract to compete beyond the conclusion of the 2023 season, a season during which he had originally been planning on competing with McLaren.
We are nearing the one-year anniversary as what will always be remembered as the day McLaren almost signed Alex Palou. Hours after Chip Ganassi Racing announced that they had picked up an option in his contract to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda in 2023, McLaren publicly welcomed him to their team.
Palou made clear his intention to join the latter, though he did not specifically indicate that he had signed to join the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team.
Long story short, Palou did end up back at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2023 — without a solid contract for 2024 — all while taking on a new role as McLaren’s Formula 1 reserve driver.
Following his fourth win in the last nine races going back to the end of last season, his third win in the last four races, and his second consecutive victory, Palou’s decision on 2024 is looking more and more interesting.
While Palou making the full move to McLaren in 2024 was widely considered a “done deal” not even a few months ago, even though he can’t legally speak to other teams about 2024 before September, one must wonder whether or not there is still a chance that doesn’t happen.
As the reigning series champion last year, he did not win until the final race of the year amid an 18-race win drought, and he was a non-factor in the championship battle. Was he just a one-year wonder?
A change of scenery might have actually made some sense, even if very few others would have made one after just one slightly less than stellar IndyCar season.
Arrow McLaren are largely seen as a team on the rise, a team on the cusp of breaking into that upper echelon of the sport with Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing.
They want to be part of the “big three” and end the stranglehold that those two teams have had on the championship since Andretti Autosport’s most recent title with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012.
But the numbers don’t lie. They aren’t there yet.
This year alone, Chip Ganassi Racing have more wins than Arrow McLaren since McLaren entered the sport full-time via a partnership with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports back before the 2020 season.
Going back to last year’s season finale, which he won by more than 30 seconds, Palou himself has as many wins as Arrow McLaren do in total.
Having said that, there is an element of the equation that could be misleading. Palou accounts for four of those five Chip Ganassi Racing wins. The only other one belongs to Marcus Ericsson, and that is a win that should have gone to Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward, had it not been for a fluke engine blip in the closing laps on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
There is no denying that Chip Ganassi Racing have race-winning cars at almost every venue, and Palou has taken advantage. But you can’t discount Palou’s skill itself. Would he be capable of doing the same thing at Arrow McLaren?
It’s an intriguing question, and there’s no way of knowing unless it happens. But perhaps he is the missing piece that can put Arrow McLaren over the top.
Just look at whom he has beaten at Chip Ganassi Racing. Marcus Ericsson has had an even stronger start to the 2023 season than he did last year. The points leader at this time a year ago, he has more points now than he would have had through eight races in 2022, had the Indy 500 points not been a double points race (like it wasn’t this year).
Palou finds himself a whopping 74 points ahead of Ericsson, who hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 yet this year, and he has won as many races as Ericsson and six-time champion Scott Dixon combined since joining Chip Ganassi Racing as somewhat of a surprise addition ahead of the 2021 season.
Skill-wise, he can absolutely take Arrow McLaren to another level. The question is whether or not that level would be quite the level at which Chip Ganassi Racing find themselves.
Of course, many believe that Palou will pursue the Formula 1 route instead. While moving to McLaren and running no better than 11th every week doesn’t exactly sound appealing for a driver with the ability to win IndyCar championships and Indy 500s for the next decade-plus — and an owner who wants him to do so — a Formula 1 opportunity might not have to come via McLaren.
Palou’s management team have reportedly been seen scouting out multiple opportunities for their client, not just with McLaren.
In a perfect world outside of IndyCar, Palou signs with Red Bull sister team AlphaTauri for 2024, performs well enough to justify a promotion, and gets Sergio Perez’s Red Bull seat alongside Max Verstappen in 2025 once Perez’s contract is up, thus creating a pairing of the top two drivers on the planet at the moment.
This is, of course, one of many possibilities. And as Palou continues to show the world that he is the top driver at America’s highest level of open-wheel racing, his decision gets more and more interesting, not only because of his talent but because of what he’d have to give up in order to trigger any sort of change.