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'We cried together' - How McLaren is handling its hurt signing

by Jack Benyon
9 min read

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With every weekend David Malukas isn’t racing for McLaren because of his pre-season hand injury, the pressure cranks up a notch to come to some sort of solution that, as things stand, just isn’t there. His IndyCar future appears to hang in the balance.

If you include Alex Palou, in the space of a year Arrow McLaren has had as many as seven contracted drivers across its four cars, and one of the most bizarre starts of a season in recent memory.

It expected to have Palou in that car before he backed out of that deal to stay at Ganassi instead. Malukas was signed from Dale Coyne Racing in his place, but his injury means stand-ins Callum Ilott and Theo Pourchaire have been racing instead.

Malukas’s mountain bike accident before his McLaren debut should have led to a relatively straightforward recovery in time for last weekend’s Long Beach Grand Prix, but sometimes these things are far from simple and so it proved.

The pins came out of his fractured wrist this week - which should have happened back in March if things had been on track - and, according to the Indy Star, his recovery has involved such far-fetched recovery methods as heading to Panama for the injection of stem cells to speed up his recovery.

The procedure this week and how that has gone will no doubt be crucial to Malukas's timeframe.

Kanaan's view

Tony Kanaan

One unintended consequence of Malukas’s injury is that McLaren hasn’t been able to properly unleash another off-season signing: Tony Kanaan, the past IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner who came onboard as sporting director with the goal of working with the team’s drivers in order to improve their performances.

Many of the other teams have similar people in varying driver-focused roles, most notably Rick Mears at Penske and Dario Franchitti at Ganassi.

Instead of the start to Kanaan’s post-driving career being spent on the mechanics of performance with Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi, it has also been spent on such sundries as driving Malukas to various recovery appointments.

Outside the team there are plenty of loud questions about when Malukas might return, and if McLaren will move in a different direction if he doesn’t return soon - as it is believed to have he option to sign a different driver in place of Malukas, at least for next season if not earlier.

The story on the inside at the moment is very different. 

Kanaan and McLaren acknowledge the difficulty of the situation but insist they are committed to Malukas.

“Obviously, he was our choice,” Kanaan tells The Race.

David Malukas

“It's taking probably 70% of my time right now to help him recover, which is taking away from the other stuff.

“The most important thing that I want him to know, and to feel, is we're doing everything we can.

“It can happen, we all know it's a bad deal, because he didn't want to do that. But you're out of the car, it's going to hurt your feelings every time you see somebody in that car.

“Any time you see somebody in that car, it puts a risk. When you get hurt, you don't want anybody else there [doing well in your car] because you never know.

“I’ve been with him, Sean, our physio guy, pretty much every day. I just actually loaded a simulator out of my garage to take to his house so he can start having some sim time getting his hand ready to go. And it's been a lot of work.

“He cried with me. I'm a dad now and I cried with his dad. It sounds cheesy, but it's hard to see somebody going through it.

“If you look even at the last few races people think we're making mysteries because we're not announcing him [as returning]. It's because we're waiting for David. If they say he's clear, he's clear.

“Obviously he's not, it's day-by-day.

“Let me put it this way, when I signed up for this job, I didn't expect that I was going to have three driver contracts in three months. The intention was to make the team perform better and then spend time with the other two [drivers]. I'm kind of letting them down.

“We have a very capable group of people but yeah, can I maximise my efforts to help? Not really. But that is just the nature of the business, right?"

In so many ways it's fortunate McLaren brought on Kanaan when it did, because he’s been out injured during his IndyCar career and knows exactly how it feels to see another driver in ‘your’ car.

Kanaan’s situation was different in that he was sidelined for three races of the 2000 CART season, after a qualifying crash rather than an off-track injury.

“People sympathise a little bit more because you're doing your job, you're not riding your bike,” he reckons.

But that doesn’t change Kanaan’s understanding of the mental aspect of being out of the car, and with rumours swirling about your future. Back in 2000, Kanaan had to watch the then more established but temporarily drive-less Bryan Herta step into his Mo Nunn Racing car.

“I was lucky when I was injured that people were extremely truthful about my situation,” adds Kanaan.

“As far as a team, we've been fully, fully, 100% supportive of David, for him to get back, but I'm being blatantly honest with him.

“I said, ‘Look, man, right now we're doing everything we can and I think you can see by the way we're acting towards you, the way we're moving people around to take care of you’.

“He has a contract with us and we have all the intentions. 'When are you coming back?' We don't know."

Who'll be in the car next?

Theo Pourchaire McLaren Barber IndyCar 2024

Reigning Formula 2 champion Pourchaire impressed greatly with 11th on his debut with the team and in the series last weekend in Long Beach. He has qualified 24th for Sunday’s Barber Motorsports Park race.

Next up are the Indianapolis road course race - which Malukas has admitted he's "very unlikely" to be ready for - then the 500.

Kanaan has told Malukas to block out the noise and focus on his recovery.

“It's like going to an oval race and you're worried about ‘is it going to rain tomorrow?’ You can't control that,” he adds.

“So I said ‘the sooner you get better, the sooner you're going to be back in the car’.

“So it's a difficult situation for him to be in and also for us to be right? So it's not pretty for anybody. I think in a way him getting hurt, it did distract us a little bit. We're not making excuses.

“It just hurts, breaks my heart to see the kid going through it.”

In the paddock, there have been rumours that Malukas could be out for as much as the full season, and what The Race understands are incorrect reports that he has significant nerve damage.

As if to underline this, Kanaan says “I think I'm pretty sure David is going to be ready for Indy”, referring to the 500 at the end of May, although the team is doing its best to avoid publicising deadlines to avoid putting any pressure on its driver and because there have been so many changes to the timeline in his recovery so far.

The Race's sources indicate that Ilott will be back in the car for the Indy 500 weeks if Malukas isn’t fit. Ilott has a clash with his World Endurance Championship programme that rules him out of the Indy road course round but nothing in the rest of May.

Pourchaire has a Super Formula clash during Indy 500 qualifying and hasn’t done an oval round - never mind one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - yet.

Kanaan himself couldn't be an Indy 500 stand-in for Malukas, because he is already McLaren’s reserve for its superstar guest driver Kyle Larson if Larson has to leave for the Sunday night NASCAR race at Charlotte if the Indy 500 is delayed in any way.

Ilott starred at last year's 500.

While feeling his main Juncos Hollinger car had an issue - even though it didn’t show up on the data - and after only 14 laps of practice in the back-up car he qualified 28th, avoiding Bump Day.

He went on to finish the 500 in 12th, beaten only by one of McLaren’s four entries.

Ilott did the open test earlier this month in place of Malukas, and doesn’t require any sort of refresher to get straight into Indy 500 practice.

Back to Malukas' future, it’s clear there’s sponsor pressure on the team to ensure it is performing at the top level and to have some semblance of normality return as soon as possible in the #6 car. It’s in the news for the wrong reasons at the moment.

What the team says

Asked about the rumour that McLaren would be able to move on from Malukas, and how it is balancing maintaining the performance of the car with helping Malukas’s recovery, team principal Gavin Ward said: “We're having to make difficult decisions.

“I think there's too much uncertainty to kind of speculate. We're doing our best to try and take care of him, we get all the rehab and physio and medical support we can.

“But at the end of the day, we need to also look after the performance of the team. So it’s hard to know where we are going to be.”

Asked if it was a possibility the team would move on from Malukas, Ward added: “I'm not really going to get into it, I mean, we don't know. Unfortunately, it's a significant injury with an unclear recovery right now.”

It’s perhaps not the most resounding vote of confidence in Malukas, but it certainly doesn’t signal a decision is coming either way in the immediate future. Perhaps in part down to the significant procedure Malukas has just undergone.

For now, assessing action rather than talk is the only way to go, and in that measurement, it’s hard to imagine McLaren could have put anything more behind its 22-year-old new driver and his recovery.

As with any injured driver, there's a difference in public opinion. It’s bad that Malukas isn’t in the car and it’s taking longer than usual to get him back, but getting rid of him mid-injury would be an awful lot worse from a PR perspective and for those sponsors that want the car back with its full-time driver and performing to a high standard.

McLaren had a somewhat similar problem back in 2020 - its first year in IndyCar - when it announced it was letting Oliver Askew go after it became clear he had been racing with a concussion after an Indy 500 crash.

That was nearly four years ago now and naturally a lot of people in the senior management of the team have moved on or taken different roles since. But it is at least something to think back on and reflect.

The team has changed a lot since then.

Ward (pictured above with Zak Brown announcing Malukas's signing) has made fostering an even more people-forward culture in the team one of his mandates when he was signed, and there’s a lot of work going to make sure the team has better mental health support in place alongside other improvements to make sure McLaren is a great place to work for its employees. It knows as one of racing's biggest teams it will be held to account publicly if it doesn’t support an injured driver.

It’s an impossibly delicate balance and at the moment McLaren’s done as well as could be hoped.

The one thing that would solve the issue is the one thing the team can’t control: having Malukas back in the car.

Until then, everyone suffers. 

But the team does have the opportunity to come out of this ordeal stronger as a collective and clearer in the knowledge that it’s committed to its people-first culture.

It's the proverbial 'talk the talk and walk the walk'.

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