Amid the blockbuster news that Alex Palou wasn’t going to join McLaren after all, and the lawsuit that followed, McLaren’s scramble for a replacement IndyCar signing and the choice it eventually made may have gone somewhat under the radar.
McLaren was very complimentary about its 22-year-old pick David Malukas, who has two years of IndyCar experience despite his age and a pair of podiums with Dale Coyne Racing - the team that catapulted Palou himself to the Chip Ganassi seat he has won two titles in three years with.
However, no matter how complimentary, any way you dissect this move, it’s a story of McLaren not getting the original driver it wanted, and ending up with a back-up option or a 'Plan B'.
That doesn’t matter to Malukas, though. He's ready to fight and defend this seat with every fibre of his being.
“They're not really making me feel like I was just kind of like some sort of last-minute option, or that I don't belong there,” Malukas tells The Race, fresh off being dropped in at the deep end with his new team.
He’s been embedded at the factory and drove James Hunt's and Bruce McLaren's Formula 1 cars at the McLaren-backed Velocity event at Sonoma last month around his settling-in period.
The real trouble in trying to evaluate Malukas or how he will fare at McLaren is that his impressive rookie campaign was followed up by a Coyne team finally feeling the brunt of years of its best talents - its best drivers, mechanics and engineers - being plundered.
It was almost rudderless to start 2023 and while it improved through the season, that really meant - along with Malukas having a poorly performing rookie team-mate in Sting Ray Robb - that it’s hard to get a read on where Malukas is at and how he might perform in his big opportunity.
On the exterior, Malukas is the happiest of beings, always ready to have fun and enjoy every aspect of his life as an elite racing driver. It’s no surprise to see McLaren has heavily leaned into that already and is making use of its young star - a gaming aficionado with a social media output that reflects his jovial spirit.
All David wanted was this moment. 🧡🍫 pic.twitter.com/wBKeS7kjFo— Arrow McLaren IndyCar Team (@ArrowMcLaren) November 1, 2023
I do wonder if that will mean Malukas is underestimated or not taken as seriously as other drivers because of this. It’s something Lando Norris had to manage in his early years in F1, and there are certainly parallels between the two starting out and how they were/are.
Norris is an excellent blueprint as he’s perhaps toned down the frivolity but still shows plenty of personality in a manner that never calls his focus or concentration into question.
However, like with Norris, there’s a steely determination and a desire in Malukas - perhaps even a thirst - for knowledge and understanding. Malukas is from Chicago but is moving to Indianapolis to be close to the McLaren shop and has pledged to be there all hours in his quest to adapt.
He’s been blown away by the “unlimited resources” as one of the first things you note when joining McLaren, but he’s already got a plan there: to use the team’s new sporting director Tony Kanaan to shortcut getting the most out of a vast team with endless amounts of information.
Another reason why it’s hard to assess how Malukas will fare is because outgoing driver Felix Rosenqvist joined McLaren as a well-respected talent with a diverse resume, but it took him a long time to deliver the kind of performance expected - even then he couldn't do it constantly enough to beat team leader Pato O'Ward.
A newcomer like Malukas could struggle with a car that maybe isn’t the easiest to handle on the grid and with a switch from Honda to Chevrolet power to boot.
That’s before you factor in his team-mates O’Ward and Alexander Rossi, who it seems apt to describe as polar opposites in how they want their cars set up. In a typically Malukas way, he sees that as a positive rather than a negative.
“It's perfect, because I get to look at both of their data and kind of add it to my style and to learn to get better,” Malukas says.
“Because at the end of the day, I'm still 22 and have a lot to learn. So from my side, it's been really good. And I think from a car standpoint, we're right about there, where we want the set-up to be.”
That’s after McLaren already threw Malukas into a crucial IndyCar hybrid runout, where he felt almost immediately at home in the car.
The road courses and street circuits will be the big test. There have been so many examples of Malukas qualifying or racing well on road and street circuits but whether it’s strategy, pitstops, bad luck or the odd mistake, his results don’t reflect the speed he has been capable of.
That - coupled with an almost-immediate knack for ovals - has fuelled the (I’d argue) misconception that Malukas isn’t as good on road and street circuits. But he’s already identified all of this, predictably, and knows what exactly it is he needs to improve.
“Ovals, I've managed to kind of click with them and find them out,” Malukas adds.
“I think from road courses, the actual performances of the races have been good.
“It's the qualifying that's kind of been lacking from my side, just trying to extract the absolute maximum out of the car just with the short time that you really have on alternates [the softer tyre compound] and just trying to time that one lap, make sure pressures are there and brake temps are there and just getting it all down for that one lap.
“I think that's where it's been originating from. So that's the one area that I really want to work on.”
Luckily for Arrow McLaren, it knows Rossi is at least a solid back-up to O’Ward - maybe after getting his first season under his belt at the team, Rossi can do more in 2024 - so the pressure on Malukas is a bit lesser than it could have been.
Certainly he’ll start the season as the third driver with the focus of adapting as quickly as possible and not to worry too much about his results.
But by the halfway mark, typically the silly season will be in full swing and Malukas's future will no doubt be part of the discussion, given the team had been willing to shell out for a (now) double series champion before settling on a relatively inexperienced and, certainly compared to Palou, unproven fallback.
Malukas officially joined McLaren on a multi-year deal, but it strains credulity to suggest the team - which had all the leverage in signing him - wouldn't have had inserted some performance-related clauses in there to give itself a potential 2025 get-out.
Pressure, therefore, is inevitable. How will Malukas deal with that - and what does he think will be enough to stick around for the long term?
“At Arrow McLaren obviously the main goal is we need to be competitive, and they need to be at the top. The main goal right now and looking at previous seasons is trying to compete with Penske and Ganassi, and I'm very much going to be involved in that.
“And yeah, we need to win. We need to secure championships and we need to be there. And for my side, it's going to obviously be a very tough ask and a tough goal, but that's kind of what it's going to have to be, being a part of this team.
"And I'm very excited because it has always been my goal ever since I joined the IndyCar paddock and to be a part of Arrow McLaren, the team that also has the same goals, we can both work together on achieving that. So it [the target] is very high.
“It's the kind of goals that we need to hit and coming from a McLaren team standpoint, I think that would obviously very clearly show that if the competitiveness is there, and I can compete, that'll be very much enough to keep the seat.”
Given that O’Ward and the team went winless in 2023, it would be a lot to expect Malukas to start racking wins up.
But he’s already fought with O’Ward while at Coyne in the two Gateway oval races and, with some tweaks in road and street course qualifying, he’ll hope and need to be scoring regularly and giving Rossi a hard time when it’s possible.
For now, there’s plenty to admire about Malukas. Judge him as a goofy joker at your peril, because underneath that there’s an intelligent driver who has realistic expectations and is driven by that fight-or-flight instinct when it comes to wanting to protect his place in a frontrunning McLaren outfit.
Whether he can do that or not is going to be a huge topic in the 2024 IndyCar season, but he's making the right noises and approaching this as a learning experience, which is the best way to tackle it.