The driver’s situation at McLaren is messy


Team name. Driver’s name. Series name. These are the three ingredients you’ll find in nearly every driver’s signature car racing ad.

(Above: McLaren’s Pato O’Ward leads Alex Palou, who is apparently signed to both McLaren and Chip Ganassi Racing at the moment.)


In its constant search for innovation, the McLaren Racing team has adopted a new limbo-based approach to recruiting drivers that removes one of the three pillars. We will soon know if this is a stroke of genius or the inspiration of a massive lawsuit.

With concurrent programs in Formula 1, NTT IndyCar Series, Extreme E and, from next season, Formula E, the UK-based McLaren team led by CEO Zak Brown recently announced two driver offers without the name of the series nor indicating exactly where these pilots will be competing.

The first example came in June with Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar driver Felix Rosenqvist, who joined the team in 2021. Rosenqvist has endured a difficult year and a half before regaining his form in recent months, and rewards a new multi- A one-year contract commits the Swede to McLaren Racing for a few more seasons, but not in a particular series. Where will the little dynamo live in 2023? Monegasque? Indianapolis? England? He has no idea.

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Brown will decide on his own before the end of the year whether Rosenqvist will stay in IndyCar or be deployed in Formula E. And to be clear, the 30-year-old driver voluntarily made the loose deal. As much as I try to grasp the parallel of a quality Major League Baseball player signing an extension with his team that offers no guarantee he’ll stay in MLB, my brain veers toward tonic stillness while trying to deal with the new tactical double pillar. I have never seen anything like it.

As he waits for his future to be decided, Rosenqvist is doing everything he can to convince his boss that IndyCar is where he belongs after clinching a third-place finish Sunday in Toronto. He’s won races in both series and would be an asset to McLaren in IndyCar or Formula E, but nobody wants to trade 240mph at the Indianapolis 500 for farting in parking lots in underwhelming electric single-seaters.

But it’s not the McLaren contract that has the racing world’s attention.

Those are last week’s double announcements from Chip Ganassi Racing and McLaren as both teams placed future claims on Ganassi’s reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou. These are two teams with two contracts bearing the name of the nice Spaniard. Again, there is no precedent for this kind of imbroglio in the world of IndyCar racing.

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Ganassi pulled off the trifecta by citing the name of the team, the name of the driver and the name of the series in his press release. He even added a term saying he would keep Palou, who joined the team on a two-year contract in 2021, until 2023.

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Less than four hours later, McLaren released its own announcement, a missive that read as if it had been repeatedly reviewed by in-house counsel, and the timing of its release did not appear to be a coincidence. He followed the team’s new two-pillar practice by entering McLaren Racing, Alex Palou and no series, but matched Ganassi by stating the driver’s services would be rendered exclusively in 2023. Say hello to contract polygamy.

Palou, the soft-spoken 25-year-old who went from obscurity to the pinnacle of IndyCar success in 12 months, is the last person fans would expect to be embroiled in a contentious war between the racing titans. But having opted to sign separate contracts on Ganassi letterhead and another with McLaren in mind, there’s no way to describe the confusing scenario as a one-on-one between the teams. This is a creation of his own making.

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Caught between Ganassi and McLaren’s announcement timeline, you’ll find a series of Tweets out of character from Palou where criticism and an accusation were made against Ganassi. In addition to claiming that he did not provide or endorse the quote used in Ganassi’s press release indicating that he was happy to return, Palou also revealed that he informed the team of his desire to return. leave at the end of the season.

These tweets, posted minutes before McLaren’s superb press release was released, gave the appearance of a coordinated effort between the team and the driver. Not to be outdone, there was a fourth communications event for the day as hours after McLaren’s announcement, the Ganassi team responded with a new statement reaffirming that Palou is indeed under contract for 2023.

And now we focus on the uncomfortable rulings to follow as the dispute should head to court. Lawsuits and countersuits between the teams would be a predictable outcome, but would it stop there? Would Ganassi sue Palou, who just finished sixth for him in the Toronto race, in court as well? And would that take place before or after the end of the current season in September? Has a driver – in any series – raced for a team while being chased by that team?

Every question begets more questions in this stunning power play performed by Palou and McLaren.

Assuming it goes to court and results in a verdict, if McLaren wins, will Palou replace Rosenqvist? It would certainly strengthen its IndyCar team, but Palou is known to want a crack in F1, and in its post McLaren said it would start a testing program for its new driver after he leaves Ganassi.

Last week rumors swirled that beleaguered McLaren F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo would be moved to IndyCar, but the Aussie quashed the idea in a social media post as he reaffirmed his intention to complete his contract of F1 which would continue until next season.

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Colton Herta recently completed his first F1 test with McLaren; he is under contract with Michael Andretti’s IndyCar team until 2023. As Andretti and Brown are great friends and business partners, where could Herta’s future lie if the Andretti Global F1 team does not go? Would the Californian be in line to take Ricciardo’s place if he continues to impress McLaren’s F1 leadership in future testing?

Rosenqvist’s IndyCar teammate Pato O’Ward, who tested with the McLaren F1 team late last year, is believed to be in the frame to do more F1 racing which would add to the Deadlock for IndyCar drivers vying for an F1 racing seat that may not materialize.

And what if a court rules in favor of Ganassi? Minus Palou, McLaren have an easy safety net in IndyCar with Rosenqvist and the pairing of Lando Norris and Ricciardo in F1 next season to maintain the status quo. Losing a lawsuit would damage his reputation, but nothing more.

But how, among the hypothetical, would a returning Palou be welcomed by the Ganassi team? Especially after trying and failing to arrange a divorce with the help of a rival team? This is the scary part. Would Revenge or Forgiveness be selected from the options menu?

Offering a buyout to take Palou’s contract seems like a reasonable way forward, but Ganassi doesn’t need McLaren’s money. Does Palou find himself on the sidelines, paid his salary but benched because of his disloyalty? Or would Ganassi, despite a favorable decision, part ways with his champion driver and seek a grumpy replacement?

A happy return to Ganassi seems the least likely outcome of all the possibilities at stake. En masse, independent drivers are looking to replace Palou in case he is ousted from the car. The hiring, dismissal or stationing of drivers is here the second element of consequence; the direction to follow will be dictated by the men wielding the greatest influence.

Brown and Ganassi could double for “Billions” characters Bobby Axelrod and Mike Prince. Their burning need to fight could end up fueling whatever is happening in the clash around Palou.

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