Race winner, points leader: Is this really a driver who needs a change of team?


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Given the manner of Alex Palou’s victory on Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with a perfectly prepared car and masterful strategy from his Chip Ganassi Racing crew, one would never have imagined driver and team were so fiercely at odds with each other less than a year ago.

Let alone embroiled in a civil lawsuit together throughout their 2022 summer of discontent.

“We’re not going to stop here,” 2021 champion Palou said after his crushing victory in last weekend’s Indianapolis Grand Prix. “We’re going to try and keep the championship lead until the end of the championship, and hopefully get the second one.

“It just fills everybody with energy, all the crew, all the engineers, myself – for the big race.”

Palou won by almost 17 seconds on Saturday, thwarting the challenge of super sophomore Christian Lundgaard while keeping the McLaren fleet of Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist well out of reach. Leading 52 out of 85 laps, it was still only his second most impressive win of the last eight months.

Palou came from third to win on Saturday
He ended 2022 with an even more striking victory at Laguna Seca Raceway – he led 67 out of 95 laps and won by an astronomical 30.3 seconds, a record for the current IndyCar series throughout its 27-year history. It was his first win since his championship triumph the year before, during which he claimed a trio of victories and came within half a second of winning the Indianapolis 500 – all in his first season as a Ganassi driver.

But Ganassi’s hopes of extending Palou’s stay at the team suffered a blow in July last year after they announced his one-year contract extension. Palou publicly denied his team’s announcement on social media, and McLaren claimed they had bagged the Ganassi driver’s service for 2023.

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Chip Ganassi Racing never backed down from its claim that Palou was their man for 2023, even as the extraordinary situation unfolded of the team bringing a lawsuit against its active driver. Social media buzzed with claims Palou would be fired from the team – rumours that turned out to be nonsense. Nonetheless the feeling persisted that Palou would be shown the door the minute the 2022 IndyCar season ended.

But in the post-race celebrations after his win at Laguna Seca, it seemed Palou and Chip Ganassi had settled their differences. That view was justified when, three days later, Ganassi and Palou reached an agreement that would keep him in the stable for 2023, while also under contract with McLaren to continue as a Formula 1 test driver, a role he performed during opening practice of last year’s United States Grand Prix.

Crushing performance at Laguna Seca underlined Palou’s class
Palou’s pursuit of the F1 dream appeared to be the wedge that drove him and Ganassi apart. The 26-year-old isn’t discontent with IndyCar, where a long and fruitful career beckons, but would have been consumed with regret if he never tried to see what opportunities were available for him to break into F1.

His outlook is somewhat bleak: Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri are already set at McLaren F1 Team. The driving talent does not appear to be responsible for the team’s recent decline in performance.

That might drive Norris to look elsewhere when his current McLaren deal ends in 2025. But would Palou – who will be nearing 30 by then and has left the traditional F1 feeder ladder 56323232long ago – really be the primary target to succeed him?

Ganassi’s lawsuit against Palou is a thing of the past, but there’s a poorly-kept secret too great to ignore in the background. Palou’s current deal with Ganassi ends after the 2023 season, and barring a dramatic turn of events, he is widely expected to join McLaren’s ever-growing IndyCar operation for 2024.

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That’s something Palou refused to acknowledge in his post-race press conference. Asked if McLaren’s trio of top-five finishers had him thinking ahead to his plans for 2024, the victor shrugged, laughed, and said: “Absolutely not. It’s too early. It’s May, c’mon.” But 12 months ago Rossi was similarly cagey when answering questions about his own long-term future – before he left Andretti to join McLaren.

Alex Palou, McLaren, Circuit of the Americas, 2022
McLaren ran Palou in US GP practice last year
Many have asked and will continue to ask a fair question of Palou – why leave Ganassi, a proven, perennial powerhouse organisation, to mortgage your long-term IndyCar career with a rising but less-proven McLaren outfit with a strong roster of talent? That question will be asked many times if Palou continues to run well with his current employers.

“Honestly, last year we were really good to start,” Palou recalls of last season – countering the narrative that he’d been struggling while in legal proceedings against his current team. “We had three podiums in the first four, which was pretty impressive.” Many of those were close runner-up finishes to the likes of Scott McLaughlin.

It’s a testament to how well Alex Palou drove through the adversity – even if that adversity was somewhat of his own creation – that he was still fighting for wins and had an outside shot at the title while being sued by his current team. And now, free of that self-made distraction, he’s leading the IndyCar points table with a chance at his second championship in three years.

If Palou was to jump ship, where might he go? Palou had been what Ganassi was searching for nearly eight years: A suitable replacement for the four-time series champion and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti. But it soon became clear that Palou was also in line to be the successor to the great Scott Dixon, Ganassi’s longest-tenured and most successful open-wheel racer.

When Dixon’s reign as team ace comes to an end, who will lead Ganassi into an IndyCar future without Alex Palou?

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Marcus Ericsson is the most obvious choice. Ericsson’s career-changing Indianapolis 500 victory last year coupled with three seasons of consistent results across every discipline of racing that IndyCar tackles has undone his reputation as a Formula 1 “never-was.” That he brings hefty financial consideration with him only makes him an even more attractive prospect.

The 2021 champion is back on top of the IndyCar standings
But that combination is also attractive to other teams throughout the IndyCar paddock, and Ericsson is also in the last year of his current deal with Ganassi. There’s a chance he Ericsson could leave in parallel with Palou.

In-house, Marcus Armstrong brings with him a strong pedigree. The Formula 2 graduate has been solid on road and street courses in his rookie season, and Ganassi is one of the best-equipped teams to give even an oval novice the confidence to succeed right away if he were to run a full season.

Indy Nxt driver Kyffin Simpson was signed to a Ganassi development driver contract last season. Between open-wheelers and sports cars, Simpson has shown flashes of genuine brilliance beyond his 18 years. He is also well-funded, backed by his homeland of the Cayman Islands. But he’s yet to find any sort of consistent success in IndyCar’s top developmental series.

Ganassi has also evaluated fellow Ferrari Driver Academy alumnus Robert Shwartzman and Formula E title challenger Nick Cassidy in tests earlier this year, both highly rated in their respective fields. Cassidy, like Palou, spent time racing in Japan – and to boot, he’s an avid enthusiast of open-wheel oval racing and his street racing acumen in Formula E has improved with every race.

There’s also a wide range of young drivers in other teams who might covet a move to Ganassi. Callum Ilott’s services would be highly sought after if he hits free agency. Rinus VeeKay has hit his ceiling with his current team and Lundgaard put in an eye-catching turn last weekend. David Malukas could follow the path Palou took from Coyne to Ganassi after several impressive performances. There may even be a chance of a reunion with Felix Rosenqvist, long painted as the “lame duck” at McLaren who would be pushed out when they acquire Palou – unless they expand to a fourth full-season entry.

All of these scenarios are fascinating. They could also be rendered moot if the unexpected happens and Ganassi is somehow able to retain Palou’s services as an IndyCar driver. Whether it’s the best idea for him or not, Palou is set to change places at the end of 2023 – with the promise of building an IndyCar powerhouse and the slim hope of an F1 seat his apparent motivation.

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RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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16 comments on “Race winner, points leader: Is this really a driver who needs a change of team?”

  1. That’s a tough spot for Palou. He won the IndyCar championship too young and too early not to have some burning desires related to F1. Unforunately, F1 is a complete wasteland for new talents, unless you get to drive for one of the top 3-4 teams.
    It’s a disappointing state of affairs in F1, when even the top teams don’t look for accomplished talents, but rather for teenagers coming from F2 or go for safe options in the form of veteran F1 mediocrities like Perez at RedBull.

    1. I don’t think that’s fair on F1.

      Every driver knows that if you leave the FIA single seater system, you lose your shot at F1. It’s tough but it’s true.

      You can have a lot of success and make a good living out of second-tier series like IndyCar, Endurance and Superformula. But even as a multiple champion you won’t get a chance to return to F1 unless you have a huge amount of backing or some kind of link to a team owner.

      I can’t even remember the last time someone came into F1 after a period of success outside FIA single seaters. Do we have to go back as far as Bourdais? He dominated Indycar for several seasons and was then completely outclassed by another F1 rookie in the same car. Granted Vettel turned out to be one of the best talents of his generation but F1 teams aren’t looking for the next midfielder. The are all looking for the next champion.

      As ever, the fact that Marcus Ericsson and Romain Grosjean are top contenders in Indycar counts against anyone like Alex Palou getting an F1 seat. He should just make the most of the F1 testing he’s been given. It’s not his fault that Zak Brown has got so distracted by non-F1 commitments that he has let the team stumble again.

      1. Wehrlein was a DTM champion before F1, same goes for Paul Di Resta. And of course Andre Lotterer also “competed” in F1 despite being endurance driver. I don’t recall anyone else though

        1. Brenfon Hartley @terrion

          1. True! His F1 run is even more forgettable than Andrés

      2. As ever, the fact that Marcus Ericsson and Romain Grosjean are top contenders in Indycar counts against anyone like Alex Palou getting an F1 seat.


      3. RandomMallard
        15th May 2023, 15:51

        I can’t even remember the last time someone came into F1 after a period of success outside FIA single seaters

        Doesn’t Alonso technically count having won twice at Le Mans and become a World Endurance Champions? /s

      4. I can’t even remember the last time someone came into F1 after a period of success outside FIA single seaters. Do we have to go back as far as Bourdais?

        Not quite, Brendon Hartley was a WEC World Champion prior to joining F1 in 2017.

      5. David, whilst you refer to Super Formula, it should be noted that Gasly was racing in the 2017 Super Formula and was in contention for the title before the final race was cancelled due to Typhoon Lan (Gasly was half a point behind the winner that year).

    2. Alan S Thomson
      16th May 2023, 2:18

      I would not call Perez mediocre. He is very talented.

  2. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    15th May 2023, 14:36

    IMO, there are similarities between F1 and IndyCar and European soccer and American Soccer. In the same way that it’s difficult for an American soccer player to play in Europe, it’s hard for a racer in the American series to race in F1.

    In soccer, most American players are all about themselves and they foul and foul and foul and foul and foul. It’s more rugby than soccer at the youth level and Bobo Vieri who played for Italy and Atletico Madrid rightfully called it kung fu (even suggesting it’s more arms than legs).

    In the same manner, I believe that IndyCar drivers would have trouble driving in F1 because they share the same attributes – extreme aggression with lack of control and precision. If they tried to drive in a controlled manner, they probably would not be competitive. If they drove their normal style, they’d be a menace to the field in the same manner that a soccer player is dangerous that smacks into your knee at full speed.

    This does not mean that an American driver cannot drive in F1 but it would have to be a special driver that drives like F1 drivers.

    1. @freelittlebirds It’s true an Indy car has to be hustled with more assertiveness than an F1 car (and for that reason I think Palou’s smooth style would make him the most promising F1 candidate of all current IndyCar drivers). But being a menace to others? I disagree. In wheel-to-wheel situations, IndyCar drivers tend to show more respect for each other because of the series’ oval heritage and the danger involved, as well as the relative lack of runoff on old-school US road courses. On ovals, a driver on the outside with any sort of overlap always has rights; you can’t run someone wide at the exit without endangering yourself. And blocking on IndyCar’s narrow road and street courses is more tightly policed than in F1.

      If anything, I think the challenge for US drivers would be to adapt to the cutthroat tactics in F1. For decades, those tactics in Indy cars were viewed as a European import, and F1 drivers coming stateside would often ruffle the feathers of the US veterans who cut their teeth racing sprint cars on dirt ovals. To an extent, it’s converged somewhat now that the series is so international and young US drivers in IndyCar also come through karting. But the nature of the circuits still generally enforces a greater level of give-and-take than you see in F1.

    2. @freelittlebirds I think that there would be those who disagree that it’s about driving style, and I would say that the more dominant factor was the popularisation of the young driver training scheme that Red Bull promoted and has driven all of the other Formula 1 teams to adopt as well.

      If you look at the way that Red Bull started their young driver training scheme, after a few years of experimentation, they developed a programme for driver development that had a strong Eurocentric focus, given that was where their team and all of their staff were based, that put drivers through a relatively standardised set of racing series to standardise the process of evaluating their progress.

      Quite a lot of their drivers went through a broadly similar pattern of Formula Renault 2.0, Formula 3 (national or European wide series), GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5, then Formula 1 – Buemi, Alguersuari, Vergne, Sainz, Ricciardo, Kvyat and Hartley, to just name a few, all went through a similar sequence of junior series as part of that standardised training template. That mentality of wanting to have a standardised development process has spread across the field, and it’s tended to make teams want to focus on a limited set of racing series so as to focus their resources most effectively.

      To some extent, although perhaps not quite as strongly, the introduction of the “Road to Indy” scheme in 2010, based around a structured programme of US based series (F2000 – Pro 2000 – Indy NXT – IndyCar), is having a similar effect in the USA in encouraging drivers to follow a specific career path that culminates in the top tier in US open wheeler racing.

  3. I’m glad the window appears to have closed on young Mr Herta’s ambitions despite an obvious lack of success.

  4. Yeah, quite the drama with this. I’m sure Palou would be staying at Ganassi if he felt he was being paid fairly, but Chip tried to keep him on the cheap even though he is a series champion. McLaren finally appears to have the handling figured out with their cars so he’ll do well there. The relationship with Pato will be interesting. They’d have a real dilemma on their hands if Ericsson leaves.

    Palou would be terrific in a decent F1 car. He’s SO smooth and natural. He makes going really fast look easy. A sign of all the greats in any sport, making something hard look easy.

    1. The numbers I heard, Cheap exercised the right to extend the contract for a year for 350.000 while McLaren came to the table with 2 mil and the F1-driver contract.

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