IndyCar: Could Alex Palou pull off a surprise move?

Detroit Grand Prix winner Alex Palou poses with the trophy next to team owner Chip Ganassi during the ceremony in Detroit on Sunday, June 4, 2023.
Detroit Grand Prix winner Alex Palou poses with the trophy next to team owner Chip Ganassi during the ceremony in Detroit on Sunday, June 4, 2023. /

Alex Palou wanted to depart from Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of the 2022 IndyCar season. Still with the team, he owns a 74-point championship lead.

Less than a year ago, the guy on the right was in the process of filing a lawsuit against the guy on the left. Now, the guy on the left owns a 74-point lead in the IndyCar championship standings through just eight of the 17 races on the 2023 schedule as he attempts to win his second title in the last three years and third overall in four years for the guy on the right.

Last July, hours after Chip Ganassi Racing announced that they had picked up an option in Alex Palou’s contract to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda in 2023, McLaren announced that they had signed the Spaniard. Palou made clear his intention to leave Chip Ganassi Racing for “personal reasons”, and a legal battle ensued.

Skip ahead to June 2023, and Palou finds himself having won three of the last four races, including the last two, to build up a points lead of roughly a win and a half over teammate — Chip Ganassi Racing teammate — Marcus Ericsson.

The 26-year-old owns this lead despite the fact that Ericsson himself is a race winner who hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 this year. In fact, at this point last season, Ericsson was leading the standings, and he has actually scored more points this year than he did through eight races last year, if last year’s Indy 500 had not been a double points race (like it wasn’t this year).

When it was finally decided that Palou would be back with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2023, all while taking on a new role as McLaren’s Formula 1 reserve driver, everyone seemed to be under the impression that Palou making the full move to McLaren in 2024 was a done deal, even though he legally cannot communicate with other teams about a potential seat until September.

Given Palou’s recent hot streak, which includes as many wins in the last nine races as McLaren have since returning to the sport in 2019, one must wonder why he would give up a seat in which he can be capable of, on paper, winning the next 10 or 15 IndyCar championships — and, quite frankly, Indy 500s.

While it would seem that there are more reasons to stay, there are certainly reasons for a potential departure from the team, with one big one in particular looming large.

Palou is still said to be interested in Formula 1, and no matter what kind of rocket fast race cars Chip Ganassi Racing can give to him in IndyCar, they can’t give him a Formula 1 opportunity.

But that brings to the forefront another big question. Can Alex Palou even compete for McLaren in Formula 1?

Last year, amid the battle over the services over the then-reigning IndyCar champion, Palou’s lawyer put out a statement specifically sharing disappointment in the fact that Chip Ganassi Racing “would attempt to keep Alex from an opportunity to compete in Formula 1”.

While the situation was somewhat murky in that McLaren’s announcement that they had signed Palou did not specify where he would be driving, it did seem rather clear that that’s what Palou was after.

But what, exactly, is this so-called opportunity now?

Despite Daniel Ricciardo being under contract with McLaren through 2023, the team ended up cutting ties with him early and signing Oscar Piastri, who dealt with his own Palou-like situation last year when he denied Alpine’s report that they had signed him.

Was this the opportunity Palou’s team had been eyeing, knowing that Ricciardo’s seat wasn’t actually safe?

That’s certainly the way it looks. That’s certainly the way it has looked from the start.

But was Chip Ganassi really keeping that from him, considering when Piastri was reportedly told the seat was his (yes, before the Palou to McLaren announcement)?

Or was McLaren simply continuing their trend of signing every young driver under the sun, promising that they would maybe have an opportunity to compete in Formula 1?

Now both McLaren drivers, Piastri and Lando Norris, are under contract through 2024, with Norris even signed through 2025. The only way this possibly changes is if Norris is allowed to leave the team early to pursue a potential better opportunity.

That’s a major, major if.

There have, of course, been reports that Palou’s management team have had discussions with other teams in the Formula 1 paddock, not just McLaren.

The most obvious and logical alternative landing spot would be AlphaTauri, the Red Bull sister team. Neither one of their two drivers, Yuki Tsunoda and rookie Nyck de Vries, is under contract beyond 2023, and an AlphaTauri seat could put Palou in the pole position to take Sergio Perez’s Red Bull seat come 2025.

But even with as straightforward as that seems, a lot needs to happen for it to come to fruition. It’s certainly not impossible, but what kind of message would that send to the Red Bull junior driver program, which has lacked any sort of a true standout since Max Verstappen?

All things considered, it’s hard to imagine that Palou moving to McLaren would simply be to compete for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team, even though that option remains on the table since he hasn’t committed to anything post-2024.

The up-and-coming team have shown they can compete at the front, but again, why give up a Chip Ganassi Racing seat in which he knows that he can theoretically win a record five Indy 500s and eight IndyCar championships?

While a move to McLaren has appeared inevitable, we all know that Alex Palou has been full of surprises as of late.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s announcement that they had signed the relatively unknown driver from Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh for 2021 was a surprise. It wasn’t the usual “worst kept secret” silliness which silly season has become known to produce. A driver and team actually got to make their own announcement.

Palou winning his first race in the No. 10 Honda at Barber Motorsports Park was certainly a surprise. Him emerging from seemingly out of nowhere to win the championship in his first season with the team was another surprise.

And that was all before the bizarre, completely unheard-of sequence of events which led to his own team owner suing him amid a “down” season in which he won just one race.

Now here we are, eight races into a 2023 season in which he has set an Indy 500 pole speed record and put himself in position to potentially become the first driver to secure an IndyCar championship before the season finale since Dan Wheldon won it in 2005.

Could Palou pull off another surprise and extend his stay with Chip Ganassi’s organization? Such a move wouldn’t generally be seen as a surprise. Nobody would be surprised, for instance, if Josef Newgarden re-signed with Team Penske.

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But in Palou’s case, it’s not something that appeared possible a few months ago. Now, with Ganassi himself having said that he would be happy to let bygones be bygones and have him back, it just might be. And it might all hinge on AlphaTauri.