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Polar-opposite IndyCar superstars are sharing the same F1 fate

by Jack Benyon
6 min read

When it comes to contracts and dealing with things in a manner deemed acceptable to most, it’s hard to imagine two people handling things as differently as Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar team-mates Alex Palou and Scott Dixon.

But ultimately, the end result for both as far as a potential career in Formula 1 is concerned is unmistakably similar, as both Palou and Dixon had to make tough decisions as to where their futures lay.

Palou is currently being sued by McLaren over a deal he allegedly signed for 2024, while Dixon has always conducted his affairs in a much less controversial manner - so that's the first big difference to note.

Dixon got the chance to test with Williams in early 2004, and flirted with the idea of an F1 switch that would have led to him fulfilling a reserve role that year, then being under serious consideration for a seat in 2005.

It's eerie that Palou would have been working to a similar timeline 20 years on, fulfilling a wider reserve role at McLaren in 2024 ahead of hoping to force his way on to the grid for 2025.

Off the back of winning the IndyCar title in 2003, the temptation of a slight F1 chance wasn’t quite enough to get Dixon.

“My wife asks me that, occasionally: ‘Are you sad that you didn’t chase the F1 thing more?’ No, not really [is the answer],” Dixon told Autoweek back in 2020.

“There’s no reflection on, 'did we make a bad choice?', or anything like that.

“I think we made the best choice, absolutely. There’s no denying that.”

Dixon later added: “We just won the championship. Do you go to Formula 1 and be a test driver and be lost forever, or do you continue on racing?”

How realistic was a Dixon F1 deal?

Dixon's manager, ex-F1 driver Stefan Johansson, spoke to The Race in 2020 about Dixon's Williams tests - which Johansson had arranged - and why an F1 chance wasn't pursued any further.

"The Williams test, although it went well and they [Williams] were interested, BMW, in the end, didn’t want a rookie in the car.

"We had a test lined up with Ferrari, we had a few other bits, but to give up everything in the US and go... basically, if Williams made an offer then I’m pretty certain it would have been a no-brainer to do that.

"But as it were, we then had the advantage of renegotiating for a very strong contract, a long-term deal, which we ended up doing, and that was kind of a career decision made there and then.

"Because after that, Formula 1, it would have been too late to go back because he would have been 25, 26 at that point which is obviously- you’re a dinosaur in Formula 1 if you’re 26 years old. It’s strange to say it."

Williams began 2004 with Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher. With both leaving at the end of the season, for McLaren and Toyota respectively, there was at least the possibility of a 2005 race seat for Dixon - unlike Palou, who really had no chance at McLaren for 2024 or the following year once Oscar Piastri got a contract extension during his brilliant 2023 rookie campaign.

Ultimately, Williams signed Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber for 2005, tough drivers for Dixon to usurp coming from another series. Both had F1 experience in spades.

And it probably would have been hard for Williams to get a read on Dixon after tests at Paul Ricard and Barcelona, where he had a range of mechanical issues (and wet weather on one of the Barcelona days).

Ultimately, you’d be hard-pressed to criticise Dixon’s decision or argue he made the wrong one. He’s one title off being the most successful IndyCar driver ever, has a host of series records and has raced on into his forties, set to start the 2024 season with as realistic a chance as ever at the title at the age of 43.

He won two of the last three IndyCar races last season, showing he has lost no speed, and there’s no thought given to any missed F1 opportunities.

Sadly, we can't be as succinct in summing up Palou’s F1 connections.

Perhaps the easiest way to summarise things is that Palou was set to join McLaren, had agreed to be its F1 reserve for late 2023, and had conducted testing in an older car before he decided he had lost faith in any future F1 opportunities at the team and reneged on an apparent agreement to race in IndyCar with McLaren in favour of staying with the Ganassi team he was on course to winning a second championship with.

It looks likely the outcome of the court case involving himself and McLaren won’t be decided anytime soon, dragging on into Palou’s title defence in IndyCar.

Ultimately, both Dixon and Palou were not enthralled by the idea of being F1 reserve drivers.

While in 2004 a reserve role meant more seat time, possibly in a race seat as swaps were more likely for various reasons - especially at Williams after a mid-season injury for Schumacher - Palou probably tried harder to get onto the grid than Dixon, with Palou’s management looking in the second half of 2023 to place him in a seat.

Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri and Williams were all known to be considering their options.

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Both Palou and Dixon, regardless of the journey to get there, decided not to sit on F1’s sideline as IndyCar champions.

It’s very easy to see how Palou could now go on to become a six-time IndyCar champion, smashing records to boot, just as Dixon did after his 2004 snub.

While, of course, those journeys are totally different in how they played out, the fundamentals are remarkably similar and The Race asked Palou about that in the wake of sealing his second title in 2023.

“We spoke about it a little bit and I know that he [Dixon] was actually testing a little bit and he was close to getting a ride," said Palou.

"But then he didn't and he had to decide, 'right, you either commit to IndyCar or you commit to [a] reserve role in F1'."

Oh to be a fly on the wall for that conversation! But Palou insisted knowledge of Dixon’s career didn’t impact any of the decisions he made in terms of F1.

“That didn't affect [me] because I think every situation is so different. Nobody knows exactly what my real options were and I just decided what was best for me,” he added.

Perhaps, unlike for Dixon, an F1 team will come calling for Palou again. Perhaps, again unlike Dixon, Palou’s snubbing of McLaren will have put other F1 teams off giving him a chance.

That would be sad, because where Palou and Dixon do align is that they have both been deserving of an F1 shot - in general but also relative to some of the drivers who did make it to the grand prix grid.

The two IndyCar champions handled their careers very differently, but there are remarkable similarities in how the future is expected to play out for Palou relative to Dixon.

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