Why would Palou leave an established championship team to join McLaren?

INDIANAPOLIS — I heard the rumors but never bought into them. Why on earth would Alex Palou leave the team that just brought him a championship in only his 2nd year in the NTT INDYCAR Series and drive for a new team in the 4th year of his career here?

Palou has said he was happy with Ganassi and we know Ganassi was happy with him. Was it the initial meeting with McLaren? Rumor has it and maybe it held more weight than I initially thought, but Ganassi was working on a long term deal past 2023 with Palou. Allegedly. Their initial contract that they’re operating on currently is for 3 years. The final year (2023) was a team option. Ganassi knew they could exercise the option for next season, then renew for a longer deal after if need be. However, Palou was already talking to McLaren. Which one sought the other?

That part didn’t matter.

The fact they were even talking to one another hurt Ganassi. Some words were said and they each knew then 2023 would likely be it. My question remains though, why Palou would even open the door to McLaren initially. Why answer that knock? Why even think to turn your back on the team that not only took a chance on you, delivered you a championship and has the possibility to make you a star for a long time here?

I get Palou signed a 3-year deal on a smaller scale and now that he was a champion wanted a bigger piece of the pie and a seat at the big kids table, but these things take time. There wasn’t a way for this to happen between October of last year and February of this. After all, this was the 2nd year of a 3 year deal. Word is Palou wanted a new contract. A raise on the team option and a payday for 2024 and beyond. When Ganassi didn’t budge at Palou’s pace, Palou started talking to McLaren.

When Ganassi found out? The talks of a raise stopped. He likely felt betrayed and the future of Palou and Ganassi grew rocky.

What’s wild is, Palou has been in the mix in nearly every race of his championship defense. In fact, one could make a solid case that the future of Chip Ganassi Racing was in his Spanish hands.

The 25-year old driver has a bright career ahead of him and revitalized the Ganassi team to be more than just Scott Dixon. Which is a huge reason as to why Palou talking to McLaren hurt Ganassi so much.

Which is also the reason Palou knew he was worth more to the team that he was structurally being paid.

Since Dario Franchitti retired at the end of the 2013 season, Ganassi struggled to find any balance to this team. Dixon had won three championships and 17 races in the seven year span between 2014 and 2020. He also scored 45 podiums in that time frame too.

By comparison, the No. 10 car had 115 starts between three drivers in that same span. They had two wins, 17 podiums, 30 top fives and 64 top 10’s. The points finishes?

7th, 8th, 7th, 10th, 13th, 6th and 11th respectively.

Dixon’s?

3rd, 1st, 6th, 3rd, 1st, 3rd and 1st respectively himself. He was no worse than sixth with the 10 car being 6th or worst in all seven years.

That’s a stark comparison from what it was when it was Dixon and Dan Wheldon as teammates between 2006 and 2008 and then Dixon and Dario Franchitti from 2009 through 2013.

Alex Palou and Scott Dixon came up just short due to pit lane for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

The 10 car in that span had 19 wins, 52 podiums, 75 top fives and 97 top 10’s in 133 races. The points finishes were second, fourth, fourth, first, first, first, seventh and 10th respectively.

Since Palou has been in that 10 car, his ride has outperformed Dixon by a large margin in fact. In 25 starts in this span, Palou has 3 wins and 13 podiums. Dixon has just 1 win and 6 podiums.

“Unfortunately for one reason or another, we haven’t found that right combination for a few years,” Ganassi said of the 10 car last year. “You have to work just as hard. Sometimes you’re probably working harder than the guys on the 10 car and the 8 and the 48. They have to work harder sometimes than the champion.”

That’s why Ganassi valued Palou as much as he does. He’s not going to let him get away that easy. He lost Felix Rosenqvist to McLaren and lucked out in finding Palou.

“It’s as big as it gets. Just to see this young man come along, it’s been a few dry years in the 10 car,” Ganassi said after Palou gave him his 14th INDYCAR championship last year in Long Beach. “I go back to think of Dario and Dan Wheldon in the 10, all the successes they had.”

Dario Franchitti even gave him rave reviews too.

“As Chip calls it: You’re either a Sunday driver or your not. I think with Alex we have a Sunday driver,” the four-time series champion said of Palou.

Ganassi has always said the right things and given Palou everything he needs to be successful. The one thing missing?

Money.

That’s why both sides wanted to discuss past 2023. After his rookie year in 2020, Palou had nothing for 2021. Ganassi was left with an unexpected opening and sought out a free agent in Palou. They gave him something. A 3 year deal with a lower base to give him security to prove his skill and if he did, pay him well for his next deal.

Palou is just 25 starts into his tenure at Ganassi. He won so quickly they didn’t have a chance to formally finalize something. Palou wasn’t waiting.

 “One of the dreams was to come here to the U.S. once you are in the U.S. you want to be more and you want to be competitive, and to be competitive I wanted to be part of Chip,” Palou said just last year.

“I actually introduced myself to Chip at the Indy 500 because I wanted to be part of that team. I saw the spirit of the team, just because of the years I was following. And yeah, to be part of Chip Ganassi is 50 percent of another dream, which is to become a champion.

“But it’s just 50 percent. I have to do the job now.”

He did his job. Ganassi thought they have done theirs. Palou doesn’t agree. Which is why he was even talking to McLaren in the 1st place. Why leave in the first place?

McLaren being in Palou’s ear soured Palous relationship with Ganassi. Let’s face it here, even if Palou sought out McLaren, the papaya team was telling Palou things to make him happy. More money. F1 tests. He worth more to them than he’d be at Ganassi. They had a gem land in their lap and they weren’t afraid to court it. You don’t get many opportunities to land a defending series champion at such a young age come your way. Usually these guys are locked up for the long haul. Palou came to McLaren’s door and they weren’t letting him leave.

“I would never say no to anything that has a steering wheel and four wheels,” Palou said back on April 6. As he said, we like to race. I would do NASCAR and INDYCAR in the same year if I could, like all the races. We like to race. That’s what we like.

“Obviously, if it’s such a big series like INDYCAR, NASCAR, or F1, you can not say, ‘oh, no, I would say no,’ because what if a good opportunity comes, maybe you want to take it. That doesn’t mean that that’s the target. That’s not the target. The target is where I am now and try and win the most I can. But, yeah, at the end of the day NASCAR is the number one series of oval racing, especially here in the U.S. F1, it’s the biggest series of motorsport.”

An F1 carrot and more money has to be on the line to lure Palou away but did they do it ethically? That’s what’s going to make a war between Ganassi and AMSP interesting.

“I’m extremely excited to join the driver roster for such an iconic team as McLaren,” Palou said in a wild statement on Tuesday night. “I’m excited to be able to show what I can do behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car and looking at what doors that may open. I want to thank everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing for everything they have done for me.”

A deal had to be done prior to this evening. You don’t see Ganassi’s release then sign with McLaren out of spite.

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