How Zak Brown and McLaren are single handily changing the INDYCAR contract landscape

NASHVILLE, Tenn — You better be paying attention. Hell, it wouldn’t hurt to add some law books into the bookshelf either. You also may want to keep a lawyer close. In the meantime, you better know what documents your name is signed on and what the language says in them because you can rest assured that everyone in the NTT INDYCAR Series paddock has thumbed through their own pages over the last month or so.

It’s evident by the deals that are being signed already. You’d notice an abundant of new contracts being signed are “multi-year” deals. There’s a reason behind this.

Last Thursday Callum Ilott was signed to a new deal by Juncos Hollinger Racing which keeps him there for at least the next couple of seasons. This Thursday, it was Ed Carpenter Racing’s turn to re-sign Rinus VeeKay to stay in the seat of his No. 21 Dallara-Chevrolet on a new multi-year deal as well.

With both deals being multi-year in length, you almost have wonder if the entire landscape of racing contracts are now changing for the future. This could be the moment, the year, the time, that we look back on this summer as the start of a revolution in racing deals.

Some may think this isn’t sexy. This isn’t a story. Any time a defending series champion ends up in a federal court with a lawsuit against him and a counter claim against his current team just 11 months after that said title is damning. It’s a high speed drama.

This wasn’t a big deal prior to 2022. In the past, drivers would sign a short term, maybe a 1-2 year deal in order to prove yourself to not only the team, but to others in the sport around you and by the end of the terms, use your success to then get a pay raise for the next deal. Other times you may not have had the best of results or have the most money in your pocket, but want a solid ground for a longer term deal. The team takes the options on their end and less financial burden by a lower base as a result.

It gives you security of a job but you compromise a smaller paycheck for that security. That all could soon be thrown at the window. In fact, it may already be.

Now so, contracts are getting messier. It’s a brutal world that’s spilling out of the offices of these headquarters and have landed into courtroom. With how McLaren is poaching other drivers and preying on them while they’re questioning their own contracts with their respective teams, this is a wild set of circumstances that’s forcing each and ever organization and driver to brush up on what they signed their names to.

“Options” is becoming a dirty word in the sport. It’s a control word and it’s one that’s brought us to where we are right now.

“I can definitely tell you that there’s three types of options. There’s a driver option, a team option and a mutual option in contracts, and like (Fernando) Alonso, he had a driver option, so he was the one in control of his future,” Colton Herta admitted to me.

“For me, I’ve had options in the past, but they’ve been team options, and I’ve had mutual options where we both have to agree on a price to pay me, how long to do it for and whatnot. It’s a lot to digest. It definitely depends on what type of options you have, though.”

For a driver, why on Earth would you sign a team option heavy contract then? Wouldn’t you rather be in control of your next season like Fernando Alonso was with Alpine. Neither side had an agreement for 2023. Alonso wanted more years added to his new contract. Alpine wanted team options knowing that as drivers age, their pace slows down and the result suffer as a result. Alonso wanted the guarantee that even if he starts to decline, he doesn’t have to worry about his future.

However, Alpine had Oscar Piastri they thought that they had to house somewhere for 2023 and wanted to move him into their team in 2024 or maybe even 2025. Alonso knows that and wanted to avoid any distractions for himself for 2023 and have an option that he could control in 2024 which meant that if they did bring Piastri up for 2024, it would be at the expense of Esteban Ocon and not Alonso.

Who could blame Alonso? Also who could blame Alpine either for not wanting to tie up that seat if Alonso struggles?

As a result, neither side got a deal done yet and Alonso went to Aston Martin. In the process, Piastri by all accounts signed a deal with McLaren Racing. He didn’t want to wait out another year on the sidelines nor be forced to race for a backmarker in Williams. So he felt like he could strong arm his way out like Alex Palou did on the NTT INDYCAR Series side.

The common denominator?

McLaren.

Alex Palou during Saturday’s Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

They’re raised some chaos in the paddocks of both F1 and INDYCAR and have forever changed the landscape of each. I mean think about it. Options don’t matter to them because they’ll prey in the gray areas. Even if the driver holds it like in the case of Daniel Ricciardo, they have a big enough checkbook to buy him out. It doesn’t seem to matter to them. They play by their own rules and by their own rules only.

Piastri and Palou clearly each had options of some sort on their current contracts for 2023. Zak Brown didn’t care. Ricciardo said he owned his option for 2023. Brown didn’t care.

That’s the ruthless nature of this business now.

For Palou’s case, he was operating on a team friendly contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. Palou had no financial backing for 2021 and was looking like after 1 year in the series, he’d have to head back overseas in pursuit of something else. Ganassi gave Palou a lifeline with a multiple year deal with 2023 being a team option. He could say and prove to Ganassi he’s deserving of a top ride. They paid him a smaller salary and took the options knowing that Palou had nothing else lined up in a take it or leave it type dealing.

“I mean, I think it seems like whenever this happens, it’s always related to options,” Felix Rosenqvist told me on Tuesday too. “I think as a rule, teams generally put options in their contracts because they want to control the drivers.”

He says that Palou is a perfect example of why drivers elect to take on the burden of a team option.

“I think also a lot of us, we’ve all been there when you’re young, maybe you don’t have any money in your bank account, you have a deal going, and it’s very one-sided, but you still sign it because it’s the best thing you can have,” he says.

“I think in those cases, I remember when I came to Formula E there was a lot of drivers who came up to me and they were like, hey, think about this, like you should definitely have this in your contract, and I was like, oh, I really appreciate that because I didn’t know anything. I never got paid to drive anything before that.

“I remember I really appreciated it at the time and it maybe got me out of potential trouble.”

However, as a driver performs on those team option contracts, they grow frustrated. Palou won 3 times in 2021 and took home the championship less than a year into it. He felt like he was worth more. Ganassi did too. The thing is, the contract ran through 2023 with 2022 being under similar terms to 2021 and 2023 being up to Ganassi if they wanted to keep Palou.

They obviously want to keep him. Palou wanted a new lucrative deal as what he felt he deserved after landing them a championship. For whatever reason, a deal wasn’t done by May and Palou talked to McLaren. He felt like he had the option. Ganassi felt otherwise.

It led to some major drama between the two sides that now lands them both in a federal court.

“I think if you have an option, that means that there will potentially be a mess if both parties don’t agree,” said Rosenqvist.

His AMSP teammate of Pato O’Ward agrees.

“Oh, I mean the guy has a contract, like I mean, if not, then contracts wouldn’t be written for anything, right?” said O’Ward. “Like, from my understanding, he has a contract. And I don’t think he has a choice. When you have a contract and the team decides what you do, you don’t have a choice.

“I know that’s the problem but like there wouldn’t be a second problem if he just said ‘sorry.’ Because when you have a contract your hands are tied, man. It doesn’t matter if you really want to leave the team. You can’t you cannot. Because the team chose to, to keep you and doesn’t matter where you are mentally does not matter. If, if that’s what the contract says then he’s got one and I don’t know how it is, but from my understanding is he’s got a contract. And I think, yeah, I mean, for me, it’s like, I mean, I’m very curious to see how it all plays out at all. I think everyone else is too but yeah, but like, I mean, I don’t think like he doesn’t have a choice. Unless the contract says that it’s got to be a mutual.”

O’Ward was in a contract saga himself. His deal with AMSP was up after the 2024 season. It was no secret, O’Ward wanted an F1 drive in the future and wanted to do so by he was 25. Then came the news that their set up their F1 testing program for 2023 and Colton Herta, not him, was on it. He grew angry and no longer trusted his future with the team.

It led to some bad results. O’Ward got over it. McLaren offered a new contract that kept them together through 2025. Zak Brown put it on Carb Day, the previous contract was like they were both dating, each side had an avenue to get out of it. This new one marries them together now.

So now what? There’s new contracts to be signed each season. With all this drama, I don’t think this is going to calm down any time soon. Everyone is on notice. Drivers. Teams. Agents. Drivers now want the control. Teams don’t want to relinquish it and as a result also want control in their hands. It will as a result now lead to bitter talks to get deals finalized moving forward.

“Yeah, I think it might change a lot of things,” said Rosenqvist. There’s probably going to be a lot of teams and drivers think about going forward signing their contracts. I think this is my big case for drivers to get together and say let’s not sign any options, or let’s not put options in our contracts, because it just creates a mess.”

So, does each respective series have councils that represent each side? NASCAR has one. What about INDYCAR? He feels like one is needed.

With that said, how much do these drivers know what’s truly in their contacts or do they have management taking care of their off the track dealings? Both Herta and Rosenqvist said they know exactly what’s in theirs.

“I read all my contracts,” Herta said. “I know exactly every bit of it, when I’m allowed to talk, when I’m not, and whatnot. I think it’s important. I think you have to.”

Rosenqvist agreed.

“Yeah, your name is on it, right, so you have to know exactly what you’re signing. It seems like in these cases maybe that wasn’t the case.

“It’s always complicated. You don’t know all the details. But it’s definitely interesting. It makes you think of what can be different.

“Yeah, I mean, whenever you sign a contract you’re always — first of all, you actually sign it, which is you’re obliged to follow what it says.”

The drivers are glad Zak Brown is ruffling the feathers and altering the entire complexity of contracts now. He’s the only one in the sport who has the F1 carrot to dangle. He has 2 F1 seats, 2 Formula E seats and now 3 in INDYCAR. He can use that F1 opportunity to lure drivers to his Formula E or INDYCAR teams with the potential of a future F1 opportunity too.

“I wish there was Zak Brown around when I was that age, when I first got to INDYCAR, because I know I would have got a chance in Formula 1,” Will Power said last month.

“It’s cool to see that because I know how that feels. I mean, a great opportunity. I think it’s just so fantastic to have a team like McLaren and Zak Brown in INDYCAR. I think it’s great for the series. It’s good for the young guys here obviously.

“I think it’s great what Zak Brown is doing, I do. Cool to see.”

Is it morally right to do what Brown is doing. He has Daniel Ricciardo who thinks he holds the option for 2023 but it also seems like Palou and Piastri were promised that seat too. What about O’Ward and Herta? They probably feel like they have an F1 future if need be.

Brown isn’t doing anything wrong and signing the best of the best. Who could blame him? It’s making this a drivers market now because teams have to concede options and money to the drivers in order to keep them away from people like Brown. As a result, the money is flowing here and it will further lure more drivers outside of INDYCAR to the paddock. It’s also why you’re seeing the security of multi-year deals.

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