It looks increasingly likely that reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou won’t be a Chip Ganassi Racing driver next year. Whether that means he’s increasingly likely to be a McLaren one is a different matter.
The Race’s sources indicate that Ganassi has decided it is not keen to carry on with Palou in the #10 next year regardless of the outcome of its contract wrangling with him.
Unless Ganassi has misunderstood the wording of its own contract with Palou, that likely means a buyout from McLaren will be necessary.
Although it has been reported that the funds for that would have to be raised by Palou’s management and not McLaren, the team’s racing CEO Zak Brown would surely move heaven and earth to end this PR disaster for everyone involved by writing a cheque.
After all, that’s what he’s already done in a big way to get Palou signed.
Maybe even Chevrolet will step in to help sign IndyCar’s newest champion away from Honda’s top team. He’d be a big coup for it.
Ganassi’s move to initiate Palou’s contract extension – after Palou said he was leaving – was deemed by many as a good business move, as triggering a Palou stay would guarantee his rival Brown would have to pay to have him removed if Ganassi had interpreted the contract correctly.
Chip Ganassi is one of the sharpest people in the paddock, and not someone to suffer fools wisely. It feels like even with the back and forth over Palou in the past few weeks, Ganassi has committed to moving on without him.
The fact the team has cut off Palou from some data this year seems like something you wouldn’t do if you thought there was a possibility that the driver might stay on.
Ganassi and Palou might be focusing on winning a championship, but it doesn’t seem the kind of environment in which that can happen when your driver is being cut off in a detail-oriented series. That might be a short-term loss, long-term gain if he was to leave, preventing him from taking information with him.
A long court case wouldn’t benefit either team if The Race’s sources are correct, because if Ganassi won it would be stuck with a driver it no longer really wants in its car and one who doesn’t want to be there either.
So a buyout – admittedly with so many options on the table and with time for a change of heart from both sides – seems the most likely option. And the most mutually beneficial option.
Much may have been made of the friendship or lack thereof between Ganassi and Brown. But it’s not strong enough that either would do serious damage to their own chances of winning and competing in the series. That’s a somewhat ridiculous notion.
Palou totally ruled out taking a year out from racing next season to The Race last weekend, so at the moment everything is adding up towards a McLaren move. But how easily and for how much might well depend on how hospitable Ganassi wants to be.
What’s next for the #10
Another reason to believe Ganassi has decided on a Palou-less future is that The Race’s sources claim it has held talks with management groups of other drivers in the paddock.
Of those involved in the silly season for 2023, Ganassi has a wealth of options (which, it should be noted right away, do not include under-pressure McLaren F1 man Daniel Ricciardo).
If Ganassi wants to get someone in the car next year as a stop-gap for 2024, when the likes of Colton Herta are available, it has Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais on its sportscar books.
The end of last season felt like the right time for Hunter-Reay to move on after his Andretti stint, but Bourdais was a giantkiller through the latter 2010s who deserved a chance at a top seat.
A steady pair of hands and the kind of driver to stay after hours to help the crew take down gazebos, Bourdais would be the perfect team player to install alongside Scott Dixon and the emerging star Marcus Ericsson, and doesn’t appear to have lost any pace in recent years.
But there’s also the option of making something happen this off-season as a long-term replacement for Palou.
The Race believes that, of the drivers currently in the series, Callum Ilott is very high on the team’s shortlist based on his own David versus Goliath performances for the only single-car outfit on the grid, Juncos Hollinger.
While he’s made some mistakes in races, his qualifying performances have been impressive and he’s known to be coveted by multiple teams.
However, if Ganassi really wants a driver for the long-term this off-season, Ilott likely won’t be that someone as he is expected be announced publicly in the Juncos Hollinger car for 2023 very soon, as part of what The Race’s sources indicate was a multi-year deal when he joined the team.
Queue the jokes about Ganassi then announcing hours later it has also signed Ilott (or is it too soon?).
Juncos has multiple drivers from Europe and Indy Lights interested in driving a second car at the team next year, off the back of JHR’s performances and because the team has made its intention to expand next year clear.
But Ricardo Juncos is happy with Ilott and was keen for him stay even with interest from Ganassi, so if that move is going to happen it might have to be in 2024 or beyond.
While Rinus VeeKay isn’t believed to be top of Ganassi’s list, he is an obtainable option in terms of the mechanisms of signing him away from Ed Carpenter and might become the driver of the #10 simply by process of elimination, although if it was The Race deciding, it would put Bourdais in the car and go for broke to sign Herta next year.
VeeKay told The Race last week he has an exclusivity clause with Carpenter until August 1, which is when VeeKay can speak to other teams, and that whatever happens he’s achieved a goal of knowing he can stay in IndyCar.
While he’s been inconsistent, he is a race winner and has been rapid in qualifying for the Indy 500 – a race Ganassi likes to evaluate drivers in; it’s one of the key reasons it signed Palou – which counts in his favour.
David Malukas is another option and has been a revelation since the Indy 500, but he’s on a long-term deal with Dale Coyne Racing with HMD (HMD Trucking being Malukas’s father’s concern).
However, loaning Malukas to Ganassi would surely be an attractive proposition for Malukas’s father to see his son race a top car?
There’s also the small matter of Dale Coyne with HMD wanting to expand to field Indy Lights leader Linus Lundqvist next season, although that appears unlikely as Honda is already at full capacity and without the likelihood of another team scaling back at this time.
So ‘loaning’ out Malukas, promoting Lundqvist and triggering Takuma Sato’s team option would keep the team at two cars and seemingly everyone involved happy, even if it feels like the least likely of the options outlined so far.
At least with Dixon and Ericsson, Ganassi has the steady hands and could take a risk on someone less experienced if it wanted.
The Race understands no option has been decided on for Ganassi as it busies itself with solving the Palou situation first.
But to summarise at this point, Ilott appears to be the top option, VeeKay’s the easiest young driver to sign, Bourdais is the easiest short-term option and Malukas might be a friendly long-term outsider.
What’s next for Rosenqvist
Last weekend Felix Rosenqvist spoke of the “addictive environment” IndyCar is amid his dilemma of whether he’ll race in IndyCar or Formula E next year.
He’s signed a McLaren deal, and Brown will decide where he ends up.
Again, because of the difficulty of engine manufacturers working at peak capacity the rumour or question of McLaren expanding to four cars – when it’s already expanding to three for next year for the first time – is not likely at all.
Three weeks ago, before this Palou/McLaren/Ganassi mess started I’d have called it impossible, but now that word feels off limits with the events that have unfolded.
Rosenqvist said in Toronto that he believes Palou could sit next year out, although as has already been pointed out, Palou refused that notion.
So, with the scenario that Palou is likely to come into McLaren’s IndyCar team, Rosenqvist looks set to head to Formula E.
“What’s hard is that I really love my team,” said Rosenqvist, discussing his possibilities last weekend. “I really enjoy working with these guys and girls. I think it’s always hard, from the emotional side, to think that you might leave them, leave your workplace.
“Because I think as you grow older, you’ve kind of learned that that’s everything you want, you want the place that you’re happy to work with the people.
“It’s less about, what championship or which sponsor, I think it’s all about having that group, which I think I finally have now.
“That’s obviously hard, but we’ll see where it goes. I can only do one thing and that’s just push and we’ll see where we land.”
It’s worth tempering at this stage that things are moving quickly in this situation and in every scenario Ganassi has plenty of options.
It just feels like in the week following Toronto the team has been able to take stock and is proceeding as if Palou is out of the picture for next year.
There’s still time for that to change, though. The coming weeks should give us a clearer picture.