IndyCar championship leader Alex Palou confirmed last week that he has no offers from Formula 1 teams for 2024 on the table right now.
But it still feels like F1 is pivotal in his immediate future, and the clock is ticking for him.
Palou is a free agent at the end of this season, which he currently leads by 117 points for Chip Ganassi Racing.
As part of an agreement made last year to end any litigation between Ganassi and the Arrow McLaren team he initially tried to leave for, Palou races for Ganassi in IndyCar this year but is available to test F1 cars for McLaren (which he has done in older machinery, as well as running in Friday practice at last year’s United States Grand Prix), and will become its F1 reserve driver after the IndyCar season has finished in September. Which is, sadly, when we’re likely to have to wait until for official confirmation of what he is up to in 2024.
Daniel Ricciardo’s arrival at AlphaTauri has ruled out one of the F1 seats Palou was linked to, at least in the short term until it’s clear whether Ricciardo could replace Sergio Perez at Red Bull Racing next year and then a seat becomes available again – if Red Bull doesn’t just slot one of its existing driver pool in there.
But Palou’s Monaco Increase Management group has been pounding the grand prix paddock asphalt looking for a seat for Palou in F1. And that won’t be at McLaren in F1 due to Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri being there for the medium-term.
When the litigation was ongoing between Ganassi and Palou last year parts of Palou’s contract became public, and in that original contract it says that Palou cannot speak to other teams until September, defining a period of exclusivity in which Ganassi has with Palou.
Ganassi has tried to re-sign its star driver on multiple occasions this year but ultimately it still looks like Palou will leave. That’s the first part of the equation.
The second part is, did the wording in the contract over exclusivity become null and void? Paddock sources have indicated to The Race that Palou has until the end of July to find a seat in Formula 1, otherwise he has to honour his IndyCar race deal with McLaren. This has not been publicly confirmed.
It would explain how hard Palou’s management has been trying to find him something on the Formula 1 side. And remember as well how important the F1 link was in his original decision to leave Ganassi for McLaren.
If he doesn’t secure a 2024 F1 seat, then it looks like Palou will honour his McLaren reserve duties, and then the outcome expected for almost 12 months now goes ahead and he joins McLaren’s IndyCar programme, in place of Felix Rosenqvist. It looks unlikely McLaren will be able to add another car next year before moving to a new, bigger factory in 2025, so there will be no space for Rosenqvist in the 2024 line-up – which becomes Palou, Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi.
So at a best guess, there are no obvious seats in F1 for Palou right now, so McLaren still looks to be his most likely outcome in IndyCar.
He was asked in Toronto what principles he was using to make his future decision, whether it was about winning more in IndyCar, dropping everything for Formula 1 immediately or basically anything in between. In short, what might he be offered that would help his decision?
“It’s tough. It’s not easy to put in two columns, A, B, and then just say, ‘Oh, this is what I want’,” he said.
“I think there’s a lot more added to the decisions and stuff.
“So honestly, obviously, with the results that we’re getting, it’s like it’s getting bad, like even more important, that everybody wants to know what we’re doing. And, we will find out, I think, once our season is done, because I don’t want that to affect at all what we are doing.
“In terms of your question of, what do you want: to try and win as many championships here or go to F1?
“It’s also tough, but I always said that I wouldn’t take F1 no matter what, that’s it.
“It’s what I would like to try as I think all other drivers do, if it’s a good thing, but we don’t have that offer.
“Honestly, we don’t have that chance. And I’m not worried about that either. Because I know what we’re able to do here in the US. So yeah, we’ll see.”
The rest of the IndyCar paddock is keen to see Palou’s situation finally come to a head, not just because it’s been going on longer than 12 months, but because he’s one of the corks in the bottle in silly season.
If Palou is still going to McLaren, will Ganassi really let Marcus Ericsson go?
If Ericsson goes – his exclusivity with Ganassi is believed to end on August 1 – he likely takes a seat at Andretti Autosport.
Who does that affect? Alternative options Callum Ilott and David Malukas, potentially. Not to mention whether Romain Grosjean stays at Andretti, where Devlin DeFrancesco goes – still likely Dale Coyne Racing – who picks up Rosenqvist, whether Jack Harvey stays at Rahal Letterman Lanigan and how many out of Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves stay on at Meyer Shank Racing.
All of these moves have been log-jammed by the wait to see what happens with the in-demand Palou and Ericsson.
Palou may well be the more obvious one in terms of his direction as it’s been expected he would leave for McLaren for over a year, but what impact has his spectacularly strong 2023 season with Ganassi had on his situation?
Asked if his management had received more interest in the weeks in which he went on a four wins from five races run and opened up a 117-point championship lead, Palou replied: “Yes, but not as much as it might look from outside”.
“Obviously, you get more calls and more interest, but not as much as you would think from outside like, ‘Oh, we’re winning that much and now suddenly, the phone is on fire’.
“No, it’s not like that.
“I didn’t expect that because there’s a lot more that goes into getting into F1 or anything like that.
“There’s not many seats, and there’s not many good seats that you could go for one year or whatever.
“I think I’ve been lucky that I’ve always known that was not going to happen if I win, like, ‘Oh, if I win now, suddenly, three races, and we are so good in the championship, suddenly, we’re going to get amazing chances’.”
It’s bizarre to think that one of the most spectacular and dominant seasons in recent IndyCar history would never have happened if Palou got his way originally 12 months ago, and moved to McLaren then as he wanted.
Last weekend in Toronto was the one year anniversary of Palou speaking to the media about the whole debacle kicking off.
I remember being on holiday in Cornwall, where two days before Ganassi announced Palou’s extension, I’d been told by a very good source that a Palou to McLaren deal wasn’t yet off. I’d even shared that on The Race IndyCar Podcast, and how stupid I looked to my editors when the Ganassi press release arrived that fateful evening.
I felt less stupid when Palou’s famous tweets began to land soon afterwards.
In Toronto last year, Ganassi did not pull him from the media bullpen and Palou did not decline to attend. No matter what you say about Palou and his choices, he personally has handled the whole charade with gravitas and class.
Asked by The Race how he feels one year on from that troubled weekend, and how it must feel a million miles away now, he replied, “It’s coming back, right?” jokingly pointing out this is the crunch time when it comes to his future.
“But no, honestly, it was very tough last year, I didn’t really know how to react or do stuff to be focused on-track and now it’s different.
“I think the attention we’re getting now is from what we’re doing on track and not what we’re doing off track, which is good.”
Many things have changed since that frightful contract row process began.
One of the things that stays the same is that Palou still looks set to move from Ganassi to McLaren. Only the timing has altered.
There are still a few days left for things to change and another curveball to be thrown in. Palou and his management have proven quite good at those in the past.
But whether it’s a potential Palou F1 clause expiring or the end of Ericsson’s Ganassi exclusivity, August 1 and the days immediately following will be the day that decides many people’s futures in IndyCar.