Now that the shock from Tuesday’s IndyCar bombshell involving Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing and McLaren Racing has subsided, how do the three parties move forward and handle the more pressing business of going racing across the remainder of the season?
We know one thing for sure: Whatever lies ahead for Palou in 2023 won’t be resolved overnight.
In the McLaren Racing/Arrow McLaren SP camp, it should be somewhat easy to motor on as there’s no question whether Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist will drive their respective cars through the championship finale in September. I’m sure the unanticipated melee has been unsettling for both AMSP drivers, but they aren’t directly involved in anything that will happen this year regarding the team and Palou.
Over on the Ganassi side of the equation, a series of important rapid-fire decisions must be made. The first involves the status of Palou’s ongoing presence within the team.
The No. 10 CGR Honda he wants to vacate at the end of the season is due to hit the track on Friday for opening practice in Toronto, but will Ganassi allow Palou — who we can assume is being viewed in a new light as a rogue agent within CGR — to set foot in the car this weekend? Or any other weekend?
I can make the argument in both directions on this one. Holding fourth in the drivers’ standings, Palou could easily improve his position over the last eight races and deliver a second consecutive title to CGR. From a purely competitive viewpoint, there’s no valid reason to stand Palou down from the 10 car.
But if CGR opts to continue racing with Palou, there’s a 100-percent guarantee he’ll be treated as a threat and be walled off from all the meetings and communications where chassis setup information, R&D developments and onboard data were shared freely as recently as Mid-Ohio on July 3.
Informational lockdowns are routine when star drivers announce they’re leaving, but in this unprecedented instance, we’re talking about a disgruntled champion who is likely being handled as a hostile character, and who could be on the receiving end of a lawsuit from his current team. What a wild concept. Would Palou be escorted at all times by a Ganassi representative when he’s in their transporters or interacting with team members? It sounds extreme, but once again, we’re in uncharted IndyCar territory with this multi-team entanglement.
Had the dueling CGR and McLaren press releases and aggrieved social media posts from Palou emerged last week, I’d imagine the call on who will drive the 10 car would have been slow-walked leading into Toronto. Instead, it erupted the day before teams and drivers were scheduled to fly to Canada and ready themselves for today’s track walk and final engineering briefings. Time to ponder and process the situation has been sparse. As a result, Palou just might be the most convenient solution.
There’s the other, messier matter to factor in here as well. The CGR/McLaren/Palou dramas will overshadow most aspects of the Toronto event, so that can’t be avoided. We can expect the entire CGR team to be under a gag order from the moment they land, but will the team still want the distraction of having Palou in the car, on camera, being discussed ad nauseum by TV and radio broadcasters, with title sponsor — and series sponsor — NTT Data being repeatedly associated with this nonsense?
The situation isn’t going away, but can the temperature be reduced by putting Palou on ice, removing the central figure in the controversy from the paddock, and pulling in CGR reserve driver Ryan Hunter-Reay or CGR sports car driver Sebastien Bourdais to pilot the 10 car? That’s the other option.
RHR, the 2012 IndyCar Series champion who won at Toronto during his title run, and Bourdais, the four-time Champ Car champion and two-time Toronto winner, give the team a pair of stellar options if Ganassi leans towards making a change—provided it’s allowed within Palou’s contract. CGR veteran Tony Kanaan could be another option as well, but with his busy schedule and Brazilian Stock Car racing commitments, Hunter-Reay would have the fewest items to clear from his calendar.
In terms of availability, Bourdais isn’t racing for CGR in IMSA this weekend, so in theory, he could be pressed into service. And while Hunter-Reay is meant to compete in the SRX race at I-55 Speedway on Saturday, there’s no way he rocks up to go in circles in Missouri if Ganassi sends a plane to gather the 2014 Indy 500 winner.
And if the topic of whether Palou will keep his seat through Laguna Seca is interesting, rest assured that CGR has been inundated with calls, emails and texts from drivers who want to take possession of the No. 10 Honda once we reach the offseason. Free agents Rinus VeeKay and Callum Ilott must be among the drivers CGR would want to engage as potential long-term replacements for Palou, and with a few Formula 2 front-runners considering a switch to IndyCar in 2023, look for a stampede of strong candidates fighting to secure a championship-caliber opportunity.
Returning to McLaren and AMSP, we know they’re ready to deal with all the questions that are inbound at Toronto because they wouldn’t have claimed Palou was theirs if they weren’t prepared to vigorously defend the move. With Formula 1 enjoying a weekend of inactivity, it would be a surprise if McLaren CEO Zak Brown hasn’t already touched down at YYZ airport and made his way to the Toronto circuit. He’s built for this kind of scrum and any scrutiny that might come his way.
Ganassi is also tough as leather, but he’s not the type to chase the spotlight and litigate this case through the media. Frankly, Ganassi dreads such things. It leaves me asking whether he’d want to spend the next eight races being hounded with questions involving Palou, McLaren, the No. 10 car, lawsuits, and whatever else might develop.
Or would he’d prefer to remove the driver in question — and all of the distraction he’d bring — from CGR’s presence, dial the rancor down a few degrees, take the hit on losing a title contender, and put all of the team’s energies behind championship leader Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon in their bids for the IndyCar crown?
It feels like the decision could go either way, but if a change is made, the sprint to the championship finale over the next two months will definitely be affected in ways that benefit CGR’s rivals. Taking Palou off the grid would be a gift to AMSP and Team Penske at this stage of the game.
So, can a peace accord between the team and driver be found to get through the end of the season, or was irreparable damage done on Tuesday?
Stay tuned, racing fans, because an answer is imminent and as we’re so often reminded, nothing is boring in IndyCar.