There’s no doubt that Alex Palou deciding not to race for McLaren is a blow for its IndyCar team in the short term, but – and this could be controversial – it might end up being better off in the long term.
Of course, Palou is the best driver in IndyCar right now. He’s 101 points clear of his nearest competition and turning any sign of misfortune or error into wins and podiums. On-track, he appears totally untouchable.
For someone in that form who, 12 months ago, wanted to join McLaren so desperately that some would say he breached his contract trying to join it, it feels like a damning decision to now stick with Ganassi.
However, this decision is so complicated that it’s hard to imagine it came down to Palou not believing in what McLaren is doing.
There are many other possible scenarios – like maybe his contract forced him into an F1 reserve role (only) with McLaren, while being at Ganassi gives him the chance to go to other teams in F1 if an offer comes in. There are a lot of things at play, many that we don’t know about.
It’s also hard to imagine McLaren’s project being the reason not to join. OK, it hasn’t won a race in IndyCar this year, but it should have done, and the progress it is making year-on-year is astronomical.
It took over from Schmidt Peterson in 2020 (pictured above) and has worked endlessly at making its car easier to drive so its drivers can access the highest performance. From such a small team and group of personnel it’s worked wonders already, and the amount of investment going into the team means that while Palou might keep winning in a Ganassi in the short term, but it won’t be long before the Arrow McLarens are a regular thorn in the #10 crew’s side.
Off the track, marketing and media strategies similar what McLaren uses for its F1 team are paying off as it attracts bigger and bigger backers. In the factory, it’s the only squad with a team dedicated to working on development in an F1 factory as it does so in the McLaren Technology Centre back in Woking.
When new team boss Gavin Ward came in last year he reckoned even just in terms of the equipment needed to run an IndyCar team at the track properly, McLaren was years behind the top teams, so investment has been made this year, too.
That’s before you consider the expansion to a third car for 2023, which came with the almost unheard-of feat – in a market where brilliant engineers and mechanics are like gold dust – of McLaren adding 40 people to help run Alexander Rossi’s car. Many of them weren’t from IndyCar but came from places like Boeing.
It might be more of the same next year in terms of McLaren not quite being ready to match the big teams. But if that is the case, Palou likely wouldn’t have made the almighty difference anyway. Finishing second, third or fourth carries little relevance for IndyCar teams.
The bigger prize is the Indy 500 and while it’s a close thing, I think I’d back Pato O’Ward to achieve victory there before Alex Palou in the same car.
Also thinking long-term, is Palou someone you want to build around if he’s likely to get cold feet and decide there’s a better option for him out there?
Do you risk tuning your car to suit his style – which feels absolutely opposite to a flamboyant driver like O’Ward – or gamble giving away secrets, information and data from inside the team that is most different to the others on the grid, especially with its small team working back in Woking with F1-level knowledge and data?
That all seems risky for a driver who has proven himself to be, let’s say, indecisive.
I certainly don’t think Palou made this decision only via assessment of McLaren’s potential.
It feels like it’s already overtaken Ganassi in terms of its strength when it comes to sponsorships and partnerships, which will give it scope to keep on spending when Ganassi has been cautious – with Palou and Marcus Ericsson both up for renewal.
And the best part has been saved for last.
All that it has achieved from 2020-23 has been done in the old Schmidt Peterson factory, which is really more suited to running two full-time cars. McLaren has packed in three and an extra car for the Indy 500 this year.
In 2025, it is set to move into Andretti’s shop – a base that as many as six cars have been run out of, and one that can certainly support four comfortably as evidenced by Andretti’s current set-up.
Without Palou, McLaren now needs to find a stop-gap solution until 2025. But even if that stop-gap is impressive and is kept on, McLaren can comfortably expand to a fourth car – something it was considering for next year – with the new factory.
It could go for a high-profile driver based out of Europe or even go after IndyCar’s biggest names or highest potential drivers.
Josef Newgarden, Christian Lundgaard and Kyle Kirkwood could all be available for 2025 and elevate the programme further.
Of course, having Palou with all the upside we’ve described would also be fantastic, and not having him is a great loss.
We don’t know how or why Palou came to his decision and therefore we shouldn’t criticise.
But it is clear, for those damning McLaren based on it, that while you may be right in the short-term, it’s hard not to predict that McLaren will be right there with the top teams in IndyCar once it gets to its new shop and continues this rate of investment.
I highly doubt Palou’s decision would convince drivers, team personnel or sponsors otherwise.