IndyCar: McLaren not the losers of the Alex Palou situation

Alex Palou, McLaren, Formula 1 (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Alex Palou, McLaren, Formula 1 (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

McLaren missed out on Alex Palou for the second straight IndyCar season, but this time around, it’s clear that they have not ended up losing out. In fact, no one has.

There’s no doubting that missing out on Alex Palou hurts, and missing out on him two IndyCar seasons in a row — and to bitter rival Chip Ganassi, at that — has to be somewhat humiliating, and no less infuriating, for McLaren CEO Zak Brown.

The 26-year-old Spaniard, who was allowed to join the Woking-based team as a Formula 1 reserve driver for 2023 after Chip Ganassi Racing prevented him from jumping ship after the 2022 season like he had initially tried to, is coming off of his second title in three years.

Palou became the first five-win champion since 2016, the first driver to seal a championship before the season finale since 2005, and the first driver to complete a season of at least 17 races without a finish lower than eighth place since 1922.

It’s not often you get a chance to sign a driver like that on the free agent market (and, quite frankly, why Palou technically never ended up on it).

But in addition to his Formula 1 testing role, Palou was said to have signed a three-year deal with McLaren to compete for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team, and he was said to have been paid an advance on his salary.

This development emerged in mid-August, despite Palou having theoretically not been allowed to negotiate with other teams about a future contract until September.

As a result, McLaren have taken Palou to court. Their goal is largely financial-related, as unlike when Ganassi took his own driver to court last year for what amounted to pretty much the same situation, they already know he won’t be driving for them next year.

And while Alex Palou sticking with a rival IndyCar team in itself may be a hard pill to swallow, it’s also why McLaren haven’t totally lost out in this situation.

Rather than sit around and pout about it — or “play the victim”, as Ganassi put it, after they had literally just tried to pry the same driver free from a previously existing contract with his team — McLaren knew that they suddenly had an in-demand seat to fill for 2024.

Felix Rosenqvist had not been performing up to expectations, so it was long believed that Palou would replace him alongside Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi next year. They do have plans to expand from three cars to four, but not until they officially acquire Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis headquarters in 2025.

But with Palou now out of the picture, they still effectively had the opportunity to sign the best driver available, and they undoubtedly secured that driver in David Malukas.

Malukas, the 21-year-old who spent his first two seasons in the series competing for Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports, has serious upside and potential.

It may not be Palou-like upside and potential, but it’s worth noting that both he and Palou, as rookies with Dale Coyne’s team, recorded three top 10 finishes, a podium finish, a 16th place points finish, and a 14th place average finish.

We all saw what Palou did in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing back in 2021.

But it’s not just the fact that Malukas can thrive with Arrow McLaren that prevents the team from being the big losers here, as there are surely other drivers out there who could do the same.

It’s the fact that even had Palou signed with McLaren, a bad breakup was inevitable.

Palou had not exactly made it a secret that his goal was to get to Formula 1. While he may have never directly admitted it, it was indicated by multiple statements he made last summer regarding a move to McLaren, it was indicated by several statements made by Brown, and it was even indicated in a statement made by Palou’s lawyer last year, when Ganassi was accused of preventing Palou from pursuing a Formula 1 opportunity.

Palou’s long-term goal was never to drive a Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren in the United States. In his mind, this was nothing more than a stopgap measure before a Formula 1 seat.

But Palou landing a McLaren Formula 1 seat was always somewhat of a longshot, and not just because they have two young drivers in Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri who were under contract through 2025 and 2024 (now 2026), respectively, but because they are currently the only team in the sport with two young drivers who are both capable of competing at a high level.

Additionally, we all saw how McLaren handled the Daniel Ricciardo situation last year. Even by the time they had already informed Piastri that the seat was his, Ricciardo was still under the impression that they were going to honor his contract, which ran through 2023. He even tweeted about it to try to cool down the ongoing speculation.

Transparency was clearly not a part of McLaren’s playbook. And that’s one thing when it comes to the public’s interest in silly season, but it’s another thing when it’s lacking among their own drivers.

That had to be a bit concerning for a young IndyCar driver who had been “promised” that he might be considered for a Formula 1 opportunity at some point down the road — the same “commitment” made to quite a few other young drivers, in fact.

And who knows? Maybe the seat that had been promised to both Ricciardo and Piastri was the seat Palou thought he was getting. That certainly looks possible.

Piecing all of that together, Palou figured his best bet was to stick with Chip Ganassi Racing, and he informed McLaren of his decision.

You certainly can’t blame him for thinking that after the season he just had; he knows he is with a team where he can win many more championships and perhaps even a few Indy 500s.

And you certainly can’t blame McLaren for being upset, even though Palou never should have been able to sign a contract with them to begin with. But to some extent, they have already moved on, despite the ongoing litigation.

Palou’s eventual inevitable frustration with not moving to Formula 1 would have set off a whole other chain of events that would not have been pleasant for anybody.

But even in the slight chance that Palou did get to move to Formula 1, that would have left Arrow McLaren needing to fill two seats when they expand to four cars on the IndyCar side.

Instead, they signed a 21-year-old who they hope can be one of the faces of their future — one who had been linked to a number of other top teams — and they should only need to find one other driver as opposed to two in what looks like it will be a far less stacked free agent class next year.

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Beyond anything that happens in court, there were no major losers here: IndyCar itself, Palou, Ganassi, McLaren, Malukas, Norris, Piastri, you name it. Everybody is set to go into the 2024 IndyCar/Formula 1 season in arguably a better situation than they would have if this situation had not unfolded the way it did.