Last summer, confusion swirled around whether Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou would indeed be returning to the IndyCar team after Ganassi exercised an option in Palou’s contract.
Palou countered by announcing he’d be leaving for McLaren and Formula 1 in 2023. Team Ganassi, McLaren, and Palou eventually settled their differences, with Palou driving for a final year in IndyCar.
While the Spanish driver’s performance the remainder of the 2022 season fell short of his championship run in ‘21, he’s already off to a strong start this year—even if he’s still not on speaking terms with his CGR boss.
We head into Sunday’s fourth race of the 17-race 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season, and barely a word has been written or said about Alex Palou’s lame duck status with Chip Ganassi Racing.
It’s as if everyone at CGR, including Palou and team owner Chip Ganassi, have adopted a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach, as Palou continues to go through his final season not only as a Ganassi driver, but also potentially his final season in IndyCar.
If you don’t recall how we got here, here’s a quick refresher: Last July, CGR issued a press release that it had exercised its option on the final year of Palou’s contract and that he would be returning to the team for one final go-‘round in 2023.
Pending a new contract or extension of the existing deal, that is.
Then four hours later, Palou and McLaren rocked the IndyCar world when it issued a press release of its own that the Spaniard would be driving for McLaren in 2023, with the inference—although no definitive explanation at the time—that he’d be driving in F1 this season.
Or at the very least, he’d be back in IndyCar in 2023 with Arrow McLaren.
Palou criticized CGR for its press release, claiming there were quotes attributed to him about returning to the team— which Palou insisted he never said.
Long story short, Palou and Ganassi barely spoke for weeks after the whole dust-up. The tension in the paddock and garage was so thick you literally could cut it with a knife.
Of course, lawyers had to get involved. Eventually, an agreement was worked out between all three sides—Palou, Ganassi, and McLaren—and Palou would return to Team Ganassi to honor the final option year of his contract in 2023.
That brings us up to today. Palou, who turned 26 on April 1, has had a strong start to the season thus far. In the first three races, he’s finished eighth (season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida), a podium finish of third at Texas, and fifth two weeks ago at Long Beach.
Sitting in third place in the standings, 19 points behind series leader Marcus Ericsson, Palou now returns to Barber Motorsports Park for this Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Grand Prix. And if there was ever a race and place for Palou to bust out and truly begin his quest not only for a second IndyCar championship, but to also leave CGR as a champ and joins McLaren also as defending IndyCar champ, this is the weekend to kick all that off.
“Barber this weekend (is) a super special place for me,” Palou said. “We won there my first IndyCar race with the team and we’ve run really well there in the past. I’m looking forward to the first road course race of the year. We started the year really good, and we will head into the month of May soon.”
Barber was the first win of Palou’s burgeoning IndyCar career, taking the checkered flag in the 2021 season-opening event (the race was moved up because of the lingering effects of Covid-19 to the IndyCar schedule). It would be the first of three wins that season en route to his winning the championship in commanding order.
Last year, Palou almost repeated his previous win at Barber, but was forced to settle for a runner-up showing behind race winner Pato O’Ward.
Admittedly, when the whole Ganassi-McLaren soap opera burst onto the scene in mid-July and continued to play out for several weeks until a mutual understanding was reached that Palou would honor his deal with CGR, his performance in 2022 did not match the previous campaign.
While Palou is one of the most focused in the sport, how do you race for a team owner and a team that you don’t want to be with?
While Palou had a decent season in 2022, earning six podium finishes, the feud with Ganassi had to be a distraction, even though Palou said in countless media interviews that it was not, something that Ganassi reiterated from his side as well.
Still, after earning three wins in his championship-winning season in 2021, Palou managed just one win in 2022.
And that win didn’t come until the final race of the season, at Laguna Seca. He ultimately finished fifth in last season’s final standings, with one win and six podiums compared to three wins and eight podiums in his championship-winning season in 2021.
So, can history somewhat repeat itself starting this weekend for the McLaren-bound—eventually, that is—Palou?
Will he have added inspiration this weekend knowing this was the place he earned his first IndyCar win, and it may also be the last time he ever sees Barber for a long time, if ever again, if his racing path with McLaren takes him to F1 instead of remaining in IndyCar in 2024?
Some of you older IndyCar fans may remember a song from the early 1970s by Seals and Crofts titled “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” and that somewhat encapsulates where Palou is right now if indeed F1 is in his future. Every IndyCar track he goes to this season may indeed be the last time he sees it from behind the wheel of an Indy car.
Even though Palou is earning most of his paycheck as a primary driver for CGR, he’s also considered a “reserve driver” for the McLaren F1 operation for this season.
But when he actually gets behind an F1 wheel to test again—let alone drive competitively—is up in the air, given his IndyCar commitments. It’s very possible he may see very little, if any, action in a McLaren F1 ride—or for that matter, an IndyCar ride—until after the current IndyCar season and after his tenure with CGR officially ends in mid-September.
McLaren released a statement last December about Palou’s unique role, saying in part, “2021 NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou will serve as one of the McLaren Formula 1 Team’s reserve drivers for the 2023 season. Palou will provide support for the team alongside his driving duties in IndyCar, being available as a reserve driver for the team for all events that do not conflict with his IndyCar commitments.”
So, for all intents and purposes, Palou’s status with CGR is essentially as a hired gun—or maybe you could call him a private contractor—for the 2023 season. Palou knows, Ganassi knows, and we all know that Alex’s future is with McLaren.
But if he kicks off his sprint to a second IndyCar championship this Sunday at Barber, essentially beginning a repeat performance of what he did in 2021, in a sense, everyone is going to wind up being a happy winner in the long run:
Palou earns a second title, Ganassi earns another championship, McLaren gets the driver it wants (albeit delayed), and there will be peace in the IndyCar valley going forward.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski