IndyCar: Did McLaren get what was coming to them?

Alex Palou, McLaren, IndyCar (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Alex Palou, McLaren, IndyCar (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

The announcement that Alex Palou will not be joining McLaren for the 2024 season took the IndyCar world by surprise. But it’s a decision we all should have seen coming.

Ahead of Saturday afternoon’s IndyCar race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, McLaren CEO Zak Brown sent a letter to team employees that Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou did not plan to “honor” his commitment to the team for the 2024 season.

The decision continues a dramatic silly season saga that began last summer, when McLaren tried to sign Palou away from Chip Ganassi Racing, despite the fact that Chip Ganassi Racing had just picked up an option in the 2021 series champion’s contract to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda in 2023.

After Palou made clear that he had intended on leaving Chip Ganassi Racing for McLaren, a legal battle ensued, and while the relationship between the driver and team owner may have appeared fractured, Chip Ganassi’s team ultimately got to retain Palou for 2023, as the two sides were willing to let bygones be bygones.

Arrow McLaren ended up keeping Felix Rosenqvist instead of replacing him with another new driver alongside Pato O’Ward and newcomer Alexander Rossi.

Palou has responded to the drama by having a career year in 2023, and he appears to be well on his way to winning his second title in three years. In fact, he looks poised to become the first driver to clinch a championship before the season finale since Dan Wheldon in 2005, given his 101-point lead over teammate Scott Dixon with just three races left on the 17-race schedule.

Still, the assumption under which many were operating was that Palou would be making the full move to McLaren in 2024.

He did, in fact, still join the Woking-based team this year as their Formula 1 reserve driver, a role Ganassi was willing to allow him to have, provided it didn’t interfere with his IndyCar duties.

Suffice it to say that it hasn’t negatively impacted his IndyCar performance, which has seen its lowest point in 14 starts be a pair of eighth place finishes.

The major question was whether Palou would join the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team or the McLaren Formula 1 team.

But with McLaren’s two young Formula 1 drivers both under contract through 2025 (Lando Norris) and 2024 (Oscar Piastri), there were rumblings that Palou’s management team had been meeting with other Formula 1 teams. AlphaTauri and Williams were the two most often mentioned as potential landing spots.

McLaren’s recent resurgence on the Formula 1 side may have made the team a more attractive destination for the 26-year-old Spaniard, but at the same time, it all but eliminated it from the realm of possibility.

With both Norris and Piastri performing well and taking advantage of the team’s drastic improvement, rumors of either one seeking a new team — or being axed — quieted down in a big way.

Still, many assumed that Palou would strengthen his papaya ties and compete behind the wheel of an Arrow McLaren Chevrolet in 2024 and for the foreseeable future, which would at least keep him in the frame for an opportunity in Europe sometime down the road. With Chip Ganassi Racing, such an opportunity would be out of the question.

But factoring in the timeline of the last 13-plus months, there was never much of a real chance of this happening. It was, more or less, an overblown silly season talking point.

Arrow McLaren’s underperformance, outlined in greater detail in an article published last week, gave Palou no reason to even consider moving on from his current seat.

I don’t like selling drivers short and I don’t like selling teams short. But this is an organization that has been drastically overhyped since they entered IndyCar through a partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2020.

They have a total of four wins — Palou and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden each have five in the last calendar year alone — and O’Ward, the team’s only ever race winner, hasn’t won in 13 months. He hasn’t been in the fight for this year’s championship since the first two races.

Rossi has led as many laps this year as Devlin DeFrancesco, whose career-high finish is only 12th place, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has competed in just eight events. Seven of Rosenqvist’s 14 results are DNFs and/or finishes of 20th place or worse.

As far as being on the level of Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, forget about it. Even Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing — yes, the team that fielded the only car which failed to qualify for the Indy 500 — have more to show for their efforts this year.

I’d even argue the Arrow SPM team that existed before the partnership was stronger than the current team. Look at the year Robert Wickens had in 2018 before his injury.

So why the heck would Palou want to leave a team — IndyCar’s top team — with which he knows that he can be an Indy 500 and IndyCar championship contender for the next decade-plus to join a team that is nowhere near as advertised?

It’s mind-boggling that this was even a question, but when you think about it, it’s a question that nobody has ever really had an answer for. Yet the inexplicable assumption was still that he was going to do it.

While I have no doubt that Arrow McLaren have the potential to improve and become a top three or four team, especially if they continue to build around O’Ward, why would Palou want to take that step down after building what he has built at the No. 10 team, a team that had just one win in six seasons prior to his arrival?

Ganassi made a remark last year, amid speculation that Arrow McLaren had even tried to pry Scott Dixon free from his contract, that in order to be a successful IndyCar team, Arrow McLaren needed to find their own talent, rather than trying to poach top-tier drivers from other teams.

Skip ahead to 2023, and Palou and Dixon have more wins in the last three months than Arrow McLaren have since 2020.

Perhaps their latest Palou strikeout can serve as a good wakeup call that they should take a new approach, especially as they aim to expand to four cars once they acquire Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis headquarters in 2025.

And perhaps it can also serve as a warning not to play poker with Chip Ganassi.

So why was this Alex Palou announcement such a surprise?

The signs were there all along. Even aside from Arrow McLaren’s 2023 struggles, they were there last summer in the way the team managed Daniel Ricciardo’s Formula 1 departure.

Ricciardo had a contract to compete with the team through 2023, and he had been under the impression that the team were going to honor that contract.

But Alpine Academy driver Oscar Piastri was keen on getting to Formula 1, and he had been under the impression that Alpine would not have any open seats for 2023. As a result, he and manager Mark Webber worked a deal to have him replace Ricciardo at McLaren.

While it wasn’t public knowledge, this was known to Piastri in early July 2022. Yet it wasn’t until mid-July when the whole Palou/Ganassi/McLaren saga began to unfold — at which point Ricciardo still thought his future was solidified!

Alpine found themselves with an open seat after all, when Fernando Alonso bolted for Aston Martin to replace the retiring Sebastian Vettel. So they announced that Piastri would be replacing Alonso, to which Piastri replied that he would not. His McLaren deal was later formally announced.

So how does this situation tie into Palou’s?

Because of one simple remark from Palou’s lawyer last year, after Chip Ganassi Racing ignited the legal battle to retain Palou’s services.

The line that Chip Ganassi “would attempt to keep Alex from an opportunity to compete in Formula 1” simply did not check out with anything going on in last year’s silly season.

Where, exactly, was this opportunity was coming from? What, exactly, was Ganassi preventing Palou from doing?

Piastri was already in place to replace Ricciardo.

Perhaps McLaren were simply offering yet another young, talented driver a contract with the promise that they might be considered for a Formula 1 seat.

It’s the age-old “I’ll think about it” line that a parent tells a child who tries to bribe them for something they want for doing a chore. That’s what it amounts to.

Palou wasn’t going to get that chance, and his end goal was never just to switch IndyCar teams. The move simply never made sense for the current points leader no matter how you slice it.

Money, of course, could alter that assessment, but even right now, he is in one of the paid Chip Ganassi Racing seats, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that pay increase as he presumably leads the team into the future.

I say presumably because of the fact that the announcement that Palou won’t be joining McLaren did not yet precede formal confirmation that he is staying with his current team.

He is not a pay driver like teammate Marcus Ericsson, whose own future remains up in the air as he aims to land a contract without bringing funding.

Ganassi, who rarely speaks about the contracts of his drivers, put out a statement regarding McLaren’s statements about Palou not being willing to “honor” his 2024 contract, suggesting that McLaren are simply “playing the victim” by promoting a story that is “inaccurate and wrong”.

It’s not an unfair — nor untrue — assessment.

Just look at the irony of McLaren’s reaction to losing a driver they thought would be theirs, considering what they tried to do to Chip Ganassi Racing last summer, and even how they handled Ricciardo’s departure.

But there are layers to peel back from Ganassi’s statement as well — one in particular.

Monaco Increase Management firm, the management team which worked with Palou to construct a deal to compete for Chip Ganassi Racing while serving as McLaren’s Formula 1 reserve driver in 2023, cut ties with him over his refusal to join McLaren for 2024.

They noted that they were disappointed in his decision to “break an existing agreement with McLaren for 2024 and beyond”. But all season long, it was stated that Palou was not allowed to negotiate with teams other than Chip Ganassi Racing regarding the 2024 season until September 1.

So how can McLaren be a victim when Palou could not have legally had a deal with them for 2024 in mid-August to begin with?

Yes, it takes two to tango. But how could Palou theoretically be in the wrong by simply making clear that he does not intend to compete for a rival team next year, a team with which he would not have been allowed to sign a valid deal yet anyway?

You just can’t help but think that McLaren got what was coming to them all along. It has been building up ever since they tried to get a driver out of a legally binding contract with another team to bolster their own, and now it has finally backfired.

Next. All-time IndyCar wins list. dark

And Chip Ganassi’s grin has never been wider. As they say, it’s just good business.