IndyCar champion Alex Palou had long been linked to McLaren. But was it the Woking team’s newfound Formula 1 success which solidified his recent decision?
After starting the year looking like arguably the slowest Formula 1 team on the grid, McLaren were a comfortable second best team in both the British Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit and the Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring.
Fans got a taste of the team’s upgrades when they were implemented on the MCL60 of Lando Norris at the Red Bull Ring, where he finished the Austrian Grand Prix in fourth place.
At Silverstone, the upgrades were applied to both cars, and it was arguably McLaren’s best race in more than a decade, excluding their surprising 1-2 finish at Monza in 2021.
Norris qualified in second place with rookie Oscar Piastri in third, and they would have finished there if not for an untimely safety car. Norris managed to hang on to second, but Piastri dropped to fourth. In Hungary, Norris finished in second again, and Piastri finished in fifth.
While the Belgian Grand Prix weekend at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps did not go nearly as well for the team, Piastri still led laps in the sprint and finished in second place.
Big picture, was this success what led to the decision that Alex Palou will not be joining McLaren in 2024?
Last July, Palou tried to leave Chip Ganassi Racing for McLaren. In fact, McLaren announced that they had signed the Spaniard just hours after Chip Ganassi Racing announced that they had picked up an extension in his contract. Palou stated his intention to leave Chip Ganassi Racing for “personal reasons” and a legal battle ensued.
While McLaren never specified where the 2021 IndyCar champion would be competing, many assumed it would be for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team. That said, Palou’s lawyer at one point put out a statement accusing Chip Ganassi Racing of preventing him from competing in Formula 1.
Considering the recent success Palou has had with Chip Ganassi Racing, which includes three straight wins, one might wonder why he would leave the team for what would be, at best, a lateral move within the NTT IndyCar Series.
But it’s no secret that Palou has long wanted to compete in Formula 1, and Chip Ganassi Racing, no matter how fast their IndyCar race cars are, cannot give him that opportunity.
Would Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren seat have gone to Palou over Piastri, had he been allowed to leave? It’s possible, but even that isn’t likely, given when Piastri was informed that the seat was his.
Palou was able to work together with both parties to land a deal to serve as the reserve driver for the McLaren Formula 1 team this season, and many had long assumed that he will make the full move to the papaya outfit in some capacity in 2024, with Arrow McLaren seen as the most likely option.
But CEO Zak Brown recently sent a letter to McLaren employees that Palou has no plans to “honor” his alleged contact with the team for 2024, implying that he will either remain behind the wheel of Chip Ganassi’s No. 10 Honda or sign with another Formula 1 team.
Could this be because a move to the McLaren Formula 1 team was no longer possible?
Much of the recent discussion surrounding the future of Norris, who remains under contract with the Woking-based team through 2025, was that he could seek other opportunities if McLaren were unable to give him a competitive car.
Norris recently revealed that Max Verstappen offered him encouragement, stating that he too had doubts about Red Bull. But after opting to stick with the Milton Keynes-based team, Verstappen is poised to win a third consecutive world championship this season, possibly by breaking his own record for wins in a single season.
Now it appears as if the Brit’s patience with McLaren could pay off in a big way, not just in the immediate future but well down the road as well.
As for Piastri, he was more of a question mark, since he is a rookie driver who hadn’t truly had the chance to show his potential.
He is under contract through 2024, meaning that Palou could technically take his seat in 2025, but his recent performance has left little doubt that he is a driver whom McLaren need to retain for the long-term future as well.
He took no time at all to get up to speed when the MCL60 finally unlocked its true pace. The fact that fourth and fifth place finishes in back-to-back races were viewed as disappointments for a rookie driver speaks volumes.
Piastri clearly isn’t the kind of inexperienced driver who is going to make silly mistakes in a fast race car, as we have seen quite a few times from others in the past. After an ultra-successful junior career, he finally got the chance to show what he can do in one, and he did — immediately.
Let’s also not forget to mention that McLaren’s drivers are two of the youngest drivers on the grid, with Norris having turned 23 last November and Piastri’s 22nd birthday having been celebrated in April.
Where would Palou, 26, have fit into the picture?
Amid McLaren’s recent Formula 1 resurgence, Palou was always going to be better off staying with Chip Ganassi Racing. While that resurgence may have made the team a more attractive landing spot for the Spaniard, it also effectively removed any sliver of that possibility.
With McLaren’s two Formula 1 seats seemingly in good hands, arguably more so than any other team on the grid, such a scenario simply didn’t add up, and switching over to an Arrow McLaren team that have been nowhere near as competitive as Chip Ganassi Racing was never Palou’s end goal.
Let’s not pretend that staying put is a bad deal. Palou has what it takes to win championships and Indy 500s for the next decade in the No. 10 Honda. In only his third season with the team, he took the pole position for the Indy 500 with a record four-lap average speed, and he is well on his way to winning title number two.