until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


'Nobody was going to win' - Malukas and McLaren open up on split

by Jack Benyon
10 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Following David Malukas' release from McLaren's IndyCar team because of an injury which robbed him of making a single series start, both Malukas and team principal Gavin Ward address the controversial story in exclusive interviews with The Race.

From Malukas's future plans to the logic behind Ward and McLaren's difficult decision, the team and driver lift the lid on one of IndyCar's biggest stories of 2024.

Malukas has 'no hard feelings'

There was always going to be a mixed reaction from Malukas being released, and inevitably a lot of fans were not happy with McLaren for that decision.

But Malukas isn’t one of those people criticising the team.

“From my side there's no hard feelings,” he says.

“I understand from the whole situation, it's just business is business. But, from both sides, I think both sides were upset with the way things had to go, I think, for the team and I.

“We both wanted to see everything happen in the car, and obviously go out there.

“But I made the injury myself, I made the mistake before the season started and it makes sense from their side that they want to have a consistent driver. Just from the sponsors, from the partners, from everything. From the business side, that's just how things work.

“So we had that clause in there, and then they hit it. So it was no hard feelings from my side. I'm still in talks, they're also still letting me work with a trainer and getting myself built up.

"So for me, I understand why what happened, happened.”

That sort of stunningly self-aware and gracious statement is exactly in-keeping with who David Malukas is and the kind of upbringing he’s had.

McLaren - 'Nobody was going to win'

McLaren hasn’t had much chance to defend itself from the criticism levelled at it after the decision. Inevitably it isn't going to wade into the comments sections on Reddit to justify its actions. 

Team principal Ward gets the chance to at least answer some questions about how the team has handled the situation with The Race.

He called it “among the most difficult decisions” of his career and Sunday at Barber “among the worst days”. Shortly before letting Malukas go, Pato O’Ward and Theo Pourchaire had come together late in the race and Alexander Rossi's wheel fell off in a pitstop, with O’Ward having two other incidents earlier in that race - and having hit Rossi in the Long Beach race the weekend prior.

Although the team inherited a win at St Petersburg after two Penske cars were disqualified, it is not hiding away from how tough this start to the season has been - and losing David is included in that.

“The truth is, this was a situation where nobody was going to win,” explains Ward.

“At the end of the day, we reached a point where we had quite a lot of uncertainty. It's been a huge disruption to our racing, it's materially affected our performance this year.

“We've dedicated an awful lot of time and energy not only to David's recovery, but to finding replacement drivers in a difficult time of year to do that, to try and make sure we take care of our partners that fund our ability to go do what we love, which is go racing, to maintain the competitiveness of the team, to maintain the financial well-being of the team.

“There's people's livelihoods that are based on working here.

“So, I think you can look at it on one hand and say, 'OK, it's callous to let go a driver who was injured', or you could look at it on the other hand and, that injury didn't take place with him racing for us. We have a driver that's employed to drive our race cars and represent the team. And you reach a point where you have to do something to stabilise the operation of the team.

“It's a difficult situation, but there's still quite a lot of uncertainty about when exactly David will be back fighting fit.

“You have to make the decision with the best interests of the team at heart and the end of the day, TK [Tony Kanaan, McLaren sporting director] and I have spoken about this many times, we have to make decisions that we can be comfortable with as human beings.

"And in this case it wasn't fun."

Other factors in the decision included not preventing Malukas from taking another opportunity elsewhere if he was going to be sidelined at McLaren, and paddock sources indicate that there was a legal element to the decision to terminate Malukas’s deal as the Barber race was the first chance it had to do so in his contrac - so if McLaren would have kept him, that could have been held against McLaren if Malukas was axed later down the line.

If there’s one element of the story Malukas wishes had gone differently, it’s for him to have had more notice that the termination was coming - given the team’s messaging before Barber had been in support of Malukas continuing in the #6, and his first indication that wasn’t the case was after the Barber race.

It is fair to say that McLaren was battling an unspecified timeframe for David’s recovery, approaching the busiest month of the season, with David undergoing a procedure in the week leading up to Barber, and with the legal element to consider in all of that, meaning the decision had to come late on.

Again, it's a case of 'there's no winners in this story'.

“There's a lot emotionally invested, financially, time, and trying to make sure David could be as much of a success with us as possible - and to not get the chance to realise that, that the right decision for the team involved not getting a chance to see how that was gonna pan out, is certainly upsetting," adds Ward.

“And it leads to a lot of feelings of what ifs.

“But at the end of the day, I also feel this is a huge opportunity for him. It may seem like a massive setback, but how he responds to this kind of setback, frankly, could define his career.”

Ward added: "I think he still can recover from this and be successful. Maybe that means a future with us, and maybe it doesn't, but at the end of the day, the more important thing for him and his life is that he's contented and happy. 

"I want us to be honest. One of my things - values-driven leadership - is 'what is your why?'. Why do you do what you do?

"I want people to be better people, better versions of themselves, after working with me than they were before. 

"It's a difficult decision the team had to make, I think it's the right one, I'm gonna make decisions with the team's best interests at heart. 

"Some of those might be mistakes, I don't know. But I'm gonna try and make the best call and you've got to live with it. So that's kind of where we're at. "

How Malukas’s injury recovery is going

“Literally right when they did the announcement [after Barber], I went to the doctors to get the results from the CT scans and they said everything was healed, at least to 85-90%,” says Malukas, who has been cleared to return to training and is getting the use of his wrist back.

He says he's even found pleasure in doing simple things like cleaning dishes and picking up his backpack!

He asked almost immediately after his termination with McLaren if he could keep working with the team’s trainer Sean Smith, and McLaren was only too happy to oblige.

“Since the beginning of this injury, Sean has been working with David, on his recovery, attending medical appointments and bringing stuff out to the track while he's been travelling the track,” said Ward.

“You want continuity in your rehab care. Why would we, as a team, it's not going to massively hurt us to carry on doing that."

Malukas’s current goal is to be ready to drive a car again by mid-June. That’s not to say logistics and finding a car to test will allow that, but that’s his readiness goal.

How they could team up again

One way McLaren has been looking at trying to support Malukas further after their parting of ways is by trying to field a car for him to do his recovering-driver test, something IndyCar will likely require before clearing Malukas to race again.

Asked about how much he could say on the potential for a test, Ward admitted logistics and timings in a busy season are always problematic but that he “wouldn’t rule it out”, and that it would be up to David if he wanted to.

A test is certainly something David has considered and held initial talks with teams about. But how would he feel about doing it in the #6 car that he will no longer be able to drive. Is it torture, or a nice way to round off the story?

“I mean, you can say it's definitely weird,” Malukas acknowledges.

“But business is business and when it comes down to the people of the #6 crew, and everybody at Arrow McLaren, they're all good people, and I have good relationships with all of them. I had a lot of time to hang out with everybody there. So personally, I think it would be okay. I don't see anything wrong with it.

“And of course, it'd be a big help from their side, because it's a lot of money, the logistical side that comes into doing that test. It's a lot of money and time and people and logistics for them to do that. So it would mean a lot."

While the two have clearly parted ways, the bridge is not burned on either side.

“David has shown that he's got a lot of talent,” adds Ward. “Maybe that [re-joining the team] won't be this year or next year but who's to say?

“I don't feel that it's a good idea in general to burn bridges.

“I would say the same thing about Felix Rosenqvist, even when we parted ways with him, it's not like that's a door closed forever, necessarily.”

Malukas says there’s no “complication” - he’d be willing to rejoin the team. But the biggest block is Malukas getting healthy and the fact McLaren has signed a driver to replace him for the rest of the year in Theo Pourchaire. There’s two stand-ins in the pool of drivers McLaren will consider now with Callum Ilott in the mix, so it's not just Malukas.

But both are open to a reunion if it suits.

Could David end up in another team this year?

That certainly seems the more likely option, although the separation from McLaren is still very raw, and he feels it’s a bit early to go canvassing teams for availability when he isn’t able to race yet.

“As of right now, there's been little talks, but again, it's still a little bit early for when all that kind of talking happens,” Malukas adds.

“If something happens for later this season, maybe, I don't know.

“But we want to make sure, we got to be careful with the ride that we want to do and make sure that it's everything good.

“We're waiting to make sure that my hand is back. Because until then, I go to teams and start talking and it's like, well, 'how's your hand?'

“I’d love to drive but I can't drive yet. So it's a bit tough of a situation. So we're gonna wait till the hand is there and then kind of start going around [the teams].”

Of course, Malukas’s old team Dale Coyne has been a subject of speculation in terms of a return. It really struggled to find an adequate replacement for him and, as of now, still doesn’t have a full-time driver in one of its two cars beyond the Indy 500, having used four drivers in four races so far across two cars.

“I’ve seen the rumours” admits Malukas, but he hasn’t spoken to Coyne or anyone on the team yet for the reason above - that he’s not cleared to race and thus not ready to have those conversations. 

“Could something happen? Maybe,” he reckons.

Again, that will also depend on Coyne, although unless it's able to sign a top driver between now and next year, you’d expect it'd be keen to have a driver of Malukas’s level back.

While Malukas has that June target of being ready to be drive, he hasn’t ruled out waiting to go straight into a full season next year. That’s all still being discussed internally.

What McLaren didn't want to risk

Among McLaren’s principal concerns with Malukas was that - because it was so desperate to have a full-time driver in the #6 - Malukas' recovery would be rushed to make that happen.

“I think there was a huge risk of him coming back too soon and that would be arguably the worst thing for his career,” says Ward.

“Admittedly, the timeline extended a heck of a lot further than we thought with the original injury.

"But our initial thing was 'we want you to come back, we want you to come back when you're ready to do so'.

"Ideally as fast as possible - but I don't think it ever makes sense really [to come back early], if you're not able to perform, it doesn't even give you a fair shake.”

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