INDIANAPOLIS — Alex Palou was announced as a driver for 2 separate teams on Tuesday. 1st it was Chip Ganassi Racing exercising their option on their star driver for 2023. Then it was McLaren Racing 4 hours later saying that Palou was leaving Ganassi and driving for them next season.
In the middle, Palou tweeted out that he didn’t sign off on the quote that Ganassi used in their press release and that he was leaving Ganassi at seasons end.
So how did we get here?
This has been public enough now that it has to carry some weight. In 2020, Palou drove for Dale Coyne Racing. He showed flashes of brilliance. That August at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he caught Chip Ganassi Racing’s eye. They saw his raw speed. Palou even sought Ganassi out during that month to introduce himself. Dario Franchitti confirmed this last year.
“Really it was Indy last year. I’d watched Alex in the early races, but at Indianapolis, it was the first race I’d been at in person last year. I watched what was going on, as I do in practice. I thought, Okay, he’s pretty good,” he said.
“I went up and said hello to Alex in the paddock. He was walking out of Gasoline Alley. I was walking in. Great job, keep it up. He said something like, I hope one day I do a good enough job that I can drive for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I spoke to Mike Hull, I said, This kid’s really, really good, man.
“He said, I think so, too.
“The next day Alex said something to Chip, introduced himself to Chip.
“Yeah, it was watching him at Indy, then watching what he did throughout the rest of the season that convinced me, but more importantly convinced Chip, Mike and the engineers.”
Still, despite those initial Indy discussions in August 2020 that year, it didn’t initially go anywhere.
“I didn’t really have strong talks with Chip at the moment, so that was completely — I was devastated by Mid-Ohio because we had a good chance to stay up front and we crashed on the first lap, so that was not good, and that’s not what I needed,” Palou said.
I then talked to him a month later at Indy and he said it was looking bleak that he’d be back at all for 2021 in fact.
“It’s been tough,” Palou said of this season last October to me. “2020 has been tough for everybody not only for me. It’s been hard because we showed almost every weekend that we had speed. The speed was there. Even on ovals. But, we didn’t really get the results. If you look at the results, I think we’re 17th but if you look at the results on the races and qualifying and free practices, we’ve never been 17th except for now. It’s been tough but it is what it is. We have to take it. We have to learn from it.
“But, it’s tough to say to somebody when you’re like that far back as I am. It’s a good thing to have pace everywhere but it’s hard to go to a guy and say give me a chance when he may say ‘oh man I don’t know if I can give you a chance.’ Hopefully we can have another chance. That would be a dream. I don’t think that we did enough. We tried but I don’t think we have the results to deserve another year.
“It’s looking bad. It’s a bad year for everybody to commit. It’s hard to commit without the sponsors with the results that we’re having. It’s going to be tough but we’re still pushing.”
Then, Felix Rosenqvist gave Palou an unexpected yet indirect lifeline. Rosenqvist, would move from Ganassi to drive the second car at Arrow McLaren SP for 2021. The seat in the No. 10 Honda was open. Ganassi then knew just the guy that he wanted in it.
Ganassi, worked out a deal with Palou between the Harvest Grand Prix and the season finale later that month at St. Pete and the rest was history.
“When the opportunity came up for somebody to go in the 10 car when Felix decided to go to McLaren, it was like, Oh, he’s our guy,” Franchitti said.
Ganassi got Palou when he had no other offers and no money to bring to the table. Palou was forever grateful for that.
“But Chip — and not only Chip, but all the team trusted in me, believed in me, and they gave me this opportunity, which is amazing,” Palou said of Ganassi. “Like going from not knowing if you’re going to be around next year or not and then suddenly they give you the champion car, it’s like, wow, amazing.”
Palou signed a reported 4 year deal. The first 2 years were guaranteed. The final 2 years were team options. Perform and the team will keep you around. Don’t perform and the team can cut ties for either 2023 or 2024.
“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.”
Palou performed right away. He won the 2021 season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. That was the 1st of 3 wins last season which resulted in a season championship.
“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.”
That’s right, Palou was doing something special and making this organization not all about Scott Dixon.
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.
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.
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 did. It’s also why Palou got a bit greedy and felt he was owed more right away. After just 16 races, he felt like he was already owed a hefty raise. I mean, I get it. He won a title and proved what kind of driver he was. But they were just 1 year into a 4 year deal.
Palou felt like he proved enough already to merit a new deal instead. Ganassi didn’t necessarily disagree, but they needed time to figure out a way to null the initial 4 year deal and find a way to sign Palou to a newly structured deal with better guarantees, more money and less team friendly options.
That takes time. Unfortunately for both sides, the season didn’t end until late September and for the first time since 2003, the next one would start in February.
They didn’t reach a new deal and Palou was upset. He felt internally he was wronged. He felt like he was owed more and felt like this team should be more of his. He started talking to McLaren. When Ganassi found it, he was pissed. He felt betrayed. This guy that had no where to go, Ganassi gave him 2 guaranteed years and provided him a car capable of a championship and now this guy wants out because of money?
The talks took a different turn and headed in a different direction. Now both sides were angry. Ganassi knew no matter what, he held Palou’s option for 2 more years whether Palou liked it or not. He knew now that Palou would have to drive in defense of a 2nd title on a rookie pay scale. No more raise.
Palou wasn’t obviously happy. Ganassi probably had a contract date to pick up the option or not in July I presume hence the Tuesday announcement that they’d retain him another year. Palou didn’t like it one bit so took to social media to create a storm. McLaren then backed their new driver and announced unexpectedly that he’ll join them instead for 2023.
I don’t think McLaren’s release was originally indented for Tuesday night. That’s because it came from McLaren not Arrow McLaren SP. Lets not get that twisted here. McLaren is the big brand operating in England. AMSP is the INDYCAR side operating here in Indy.
I highly doubt that their plan was to unveil Palou was their 2023 driver at 7:22 p.m. ET but past midnight in England. So that means this Palou/McLaren unveiling was personal.
“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.”
The Ganassi release said the opposite.
“Alex’s track record speaks for itself,” said Team Owner Chip Ganassi in the release. “He’s a proven champion and one of the most formidable drivers in the world. We are very excited to continue working together.”
So which is it? I believe Palou has his name attached to 2 separate documents for 2 separate teams.
What About The Future?
So now what? What do you do now for Palou, Ganassi and McLaren? I sense this is going to the courts. Ganassi has no obligation to let him out of his contract if it is 100% true that he hold Palou’s option for both 2023 and again in 2024. McLaren can offer to buy him out which Ganassi then would have a decision on their hands on what to do?
Accept money to let 1 of your prized possessions walk and now be a rival against you for future series titles starting in 2023 or 2024, or do you force Palou to drive out his contract for you?
Another option could be still paying Palou like he already was going to, but not letting him race. Make him sit in the corner for the next 1-2 year and not allow him to race. I mean I don’t know how Palou can now show up to Toronto this weekend even and hop into his No. 10 Dallara-Honda and think everything is normal.
He’s 4th in points. He won the title last year. He has a shot to win a 2nd straight but is it worth it? It’s not like you can trust him anymore. With McLaren being a Chevrolet INDYCAR team and you know him going there eventually, I don’t see anyway Palou would be doing anything with Ganassi other than a debrief on how the car feels, what he feels like could make it better and just racing. Any enhancements and upgrades to the car, he can’t be privy to that information. With that being the case, it would hurt his chances of winning in this competitive series which leads to the point, why have him around any longer?
This car is sponsored by the entitlement sponsor of the series. You know NTT Data wants a car capable of winning and a driver in it capable of delivering. Which is why I wonder if Ganassi sits Palou and puts someone like Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and/or Sebastien Bourdais in this car to get through the season.
Then, it’s up to Ganassi on whether to accept a buy out or not.
McLaren Not Afraid To Ruffle Feathers But Not Necessarily Doing Anything Wrong Either
I wrote just 24 hours ago how an intra paddock fight could be on our hands in the NTT INDYCAR Series. It’s not just the four drivers within the Andretti Autosport paddock that’s fighting, but we could also see some team owner vs. team owner fires that were starting to get a spark. Now, I feel like some accelerant was poured directly on the flame and it’s one that will bring some feuds within this paddock that may be so large that it remarkably would spill into pit lane.
Arrow McLaren SP is ruffling a lot of feathers and they don’t see to care. From the way the news of the James Hinchcliffe dealings were made to now, INDYCAR has a team that some will love and some will love to hate.
It’s polarizing. It’s just what this series has needed. Someone to come in a ruffle some feathers and not have any care in the world while doing so. It’s keeping everyone on their toes because you never know what McLaren is going to do next. They’re after anyone and everyone and it’s helping not only the driver market, but it’s making owners take notice too.
The inner workings at McLaren, well they don’t give a rip. They just want the top talent in the sport and aren’t afraid to get them. I mean how can you blame them though. Doesn’t everyone want to win and wouldn’t they do anything in their power to assemble the best talent they can find.
“We have always said that we want the best talent at McLaren,” Zak Brown said in a surprise announcement on Tuesday night.
If they have the money and resources to make it happen, why not? I can’t blame Brown or McLaren for doing so. Use what you got and if you got more than what others can offer, it’s their problem not yours.
They may not have necessarily done anything wrong in the Alexander Rossi or Alex Palou situations either. We know now that both weren’t happy with their present team situations. Andretti wasn’t fielding cars capable of winning championships for Rossi and the California native was sitting back watching his friends depart the team and being replaced with inexperience.
Marco Andretti was left out following the 2020 season. He’s an Indy only driver now. Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe were dropped for a 2nd year driver now Romain Grosjean and a rookie in Devlin DeFrancesco. Rossi was also watching Colton Herta rise to stardom and get the treatment Rossi deserved too.
All this was occurring while Andretti was seeking an F1 team and the lead driver they kept talking about to pilot those aspirations?
Herta. Not Rossi.
So Rossi knew last season that 2022 was going to be it. He was done. That’s where McLaren came in. Rossi could have approached them and not the other way around.
Same way for Palou. He joined Ganassi in 2021. He won a title that year. He was on a rookie scale salary and wanted a raise. Ganassi was willing to talk but didn’t have an offer yet. Palou grew mad. He too was unhappy with his team. He too talked to McLaren as well.
Did McLaren seek him? We don’t know. But why would McLaren not talk to Rossi and Palou when each were mad at their current teams? Is it kind of low and dirty to talk futures with drivers that are under contract with their current teams? Is it low and dirty to persuade them to come to you and leave their situation that they’re in?
Sure. But this is business not a marriage. McLaren wants to win and when they find out 2 of the best drivers in this hemisphere are unhappy and want to talk, you talk to them.
However, that could also rub people wrong too. McLaren is becoming the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers of racing. They’re not developing their own rather than signing drivers from outside.
Brown dangled the F1 carrot in front of Pato O’Ward’s face last year. Win a race, get a test. O’Ward did so at Texas in May 2021. Brown followed up with his end of the bargain in giving O’Ward a test in an F1 car last winter.
It did enough to make O’Ward want more. Following a championship caliber of a season in 2021, he felt like he was doing enough to merit a seat at McLaren F1 for the future. Instead, McLaren F1 announced a testing program for their cars this year and O’Ward wasn’t on it. Colton Herta was.
That pissed O’Ward off and he wasn’t shy about it.
Between those March comments and the middle of April, O’Ward put it behind him and realized that he was going to do his best on track and make it hard for McLaren to pass him over. It worked. He has their undivided attention.
O’Ward won at Barber, he finished 2nd in the Indy 500 and sits 5th in points at the moment. He’s on that testing program like Herta is now.
Notice I keep mentioning Herta. Andretti Autosport has F1 visions. They felt like they put a package together to get into the series for 2024. Herta was supposed to be a part of those plans.
Andretti and Zak Brown are friends. I question for how much longer though. Andretti’s F1 bid seems to be drawing a lot of resistance and it doesn’t look as favorable anymore. McLaren is legitimately interested in Herta.
What happens if they land him for 2024? Herta’s contract is rumored to be up at seasons end in 2023.
There’s a ride open with the F1 side for 2024. Daniel Ricciardo’s contract is up at the end of next season too. That has O’Ward’s attention and if Andretti doesn’t get into F1, it has Herta’s too. He tested for McLaren F1 the last 2 days.
Last month, was the formal Rossi announcement. What happens if he takes Herta away too? That can’t make Andretti happy.
Andretti may have to wait in line behind Chip Ganassi though. Ganassi feels they hold Alex Palou’s option for the 2023 season. They felt so strongly in that matter that they announced Palou would return next season.
A few hours later, Palou says that was all fabricated and that instead he’d join AMSP. That has to piss Ganassi off to no end. This is the 2nd straight driver of Ganassi’s 10 car to leave the team for McLaren.
A RACER report stated that Zak Brown and Chip Ganassi aren’t going to be sharing many meals or exchanging any Christmas Cards any time soon already. Now there’s this.
McLaren isn’t going to back down. Like Chip Ganassi, Zak Brown likes winners. He’s assembling a talented cast of drivers as good as they come.
He has last year’s season champion now in 25-year old Alex Palou. He has 23-year old Pato O’Ward. He has 22-year old Colton Herta in an F1 testing contract. He has 30-year Felix Rosenqvist and 30-year old Alexander Rossi on multi-year deals too.
With 3 NTT INDYCAR Series cars as well as a pair of Formula 1 and Formula E cars, they have 7 rides for the taking and they’re after the best drivers in the world to pilot them. They don’t care where they come from or who they’re under contract with at the time, they’re going to make them offers they can’t refuse.
They have the last 2 Indy 500 runner-ups in the same team now.
This Has Shifted To A Drivers Market Now
The arrival of McLaren in INDYCAR has now shifted negotiations to a drivers market. Think about it. McLaren has shown that they’ll discuss future opportunities with anyone no matter their current contract status. As a result, it’s going to force the other teams in the paddock to act swiftly and handsomly.
Pay up and pay early. Drivers are also going to want friendly options instead of relying on the team holding their keys.
It’s going to change the entire landscape of contract negotiations between drivers and teams moving forward.
McLaren Likes Having The Upper Hand
While Zak Brown is friendly with Michael Andretti, I could also sense Brown behind the scenes not as welcoming of Andretti to F1 either. He can say what he wants to Andretti to his face, but wouldn’t Brown rather be able to walk into any room with any INDYCAR driver on the market and say he’s the only owner in the sport with an INDYCAR and F1 team? That bargaining chip is huge for negotiations for him and only him as he can offer any driver a ride in INDYCAR as well as potential landing spot for them in Formula E and Formula 1 too. That’s powerful. So is the amount of money at his disposal which puts McLaren with the upper hand.