The Alex Palou saga is back in full swing.
But pretending this affair only impacts one driver and a pair of rowing team bosses would be short-sighted indeed.
So who are the winners and losers in the big IndyCar story of the summer?
Here’s what we reckon.
Honda! It’s been forgotten in this
The chiefs at Honda must have spent the last year hoping Palou would get a Formula 1 offer, so that it didn’t have to face him moving to the Chevrolet-powered McLaren squad in IndyCar next year.
Honda has won 10 poles and nine of 14 races this season, but perhaps most importantly recently, has taken a fuel-usage advantage over Chevrolet and furthered that even more through this season. It appears to have made significant gains.
Palou has been a big part of that wider recent Honda success, also bagging the Indianapolis 500 pole for it and playing a big part in the fact it will likely return a manufacturers’ championship for the fifth time in six years.
Last year Honda lost one of its most significant drivers and an American star in Alexander Rossi to Chevy and McLaren, so Palou would have been another great loss.
Palou – he stays in the best car
Congratulations to me, Captain Obvious!
When this ordeal started before the Toronto round last year, Palou was fourth in the points without a win, and it was anyone’s guess as to whether Ganassi, Penske or even McLaren would fight for the title.
Fast forward to now and it’s clear Ganassi has been the best of the best this season. It’s with the prevailing engine manufacturer and has some phenomenal people in place that mastermind its success, including many unsung heroes like Jim Hamilton who was on the Apollo space programme.
The results don’t lie and Palou is a winner because in the short term at least, Ganassi offers the best chance for success.
IndyCar gets drama in a quiet period
While F1 was on a summer break, the Formula E season came to an end and few major championships were grabbing the headlines, IndyCar’s silly season has provided great entertainment alongside a four-run stretch of races offering an oval, street and road course, too.
The Palou news was just a bonus, and while it may be negative publicity in a certain aspect, this is a case of ‘all news is good news’ for IndyCar. It’s the kind of free advertising most series dream of and even if there’s a bit of controversy involved, it’ll certainly help keep interest high until it is resolved.
Another area that it wins in is that quite often fans want to see the best drivers in the best cars, and keeping Palou at Ganassi ensures there are at least two top drivers in every leading team next season.
Ganassi wins for keeping Palou, but gets a warning
There was a scenario where Ganassi entered this off-season having lost its most recent Indy 500 winner and its most recent (soon to be double) champion, in Palou and Marcus Ericsson, with no obvious replacement for either on the market.
Ganassi may back its own approach of finding diamonds in the rough like it did with Palou, but the likelihood of doing that on a frequent basis is slim to none.
There have been warning signs through this process of Palou and Ericsson being out of contract at the same time that Ganassi needs to do more on the business and commercial side to be as strong as the Penskes, Andrettis, McLarens and Rahals of this world.
There’s not a whole lot Ganassi can do to make its cars faster, that’s for sure, so some investment in those areas – after losing some key sponsors – may ensure that if driver salaries continue to rise, it remains competitive.
But that’s a long-term thing and Palou hasn’t exactly painted himself as the long-term kind of driver over the last 12 months.
While Ganassi is certainly the least guilty of any wrongdoing in this love triangle, there are certain things it may do differently in hindsight.
Ganassi’s statement heaped blame on McLaren, but failed to acknowledge Palou’s shortcomings.
Of course, avoiding criticising a driver it wants to keep in its team is understandable, but Palou’s masterminded a large part of this and is surely culpable for some of the key things Ganassi’s taken shots at McLaren over.
Ganassi’s silence through most of this process, and its willingness to find a compromise last year to let Palou get F1 time with McLaren, at least give it the upper hand in the conduct stakes.
And its management never throwing Palou under the bus publicly is one of the reasons the parties have been able to reconcile.
Few teams could initiate legal proceedings with their own driver and then persuade them to stay!
McLaren in the short term
Missing out on the driver over 100 points clear in this year’s championship, someone who is already a champion, clearly one of the best drivers in the series makes this clearly a big, short-term loss for McLaren, which doesn’t have an IndyCar title-winner in its line-up right now.
Pato O’Ward may well be a future champion and Rossi might rekindle that kind of form with more experience at the team, but there’s no doubt Palou would have taken that driver line-up to the next level in the immediate future.
It’s also a bit embarrassing that this coup has failed, and could be viewed as a condemning take on where McLaren stands, competitively at least, in IndyCar at the moment.
That being said, McLaren has achieved an amazing amount in the almost three years in the series, and there’s nothing to suggest it can’t step up again next season.
It’s also miraculous that it hasn’t won a race yet this year. That stat doesn’t represent the progress it has made, again making its car faster and easier to drive than the year before.
Regardless of all the promise around McLaren’s IndyCar programme, this is a clear short-term loss both publicly and internally.
Could another team lose a star driver because of this?
In recent weeks Andretti Autosport has appeared to be the favourite to land Ericsson, the second biggest free agent on the driver market behind Palou.
But with Palou off the board, could McLaren look to step in and grab Ericsson out of Andretti’s clutches?
Andretti already has two of the youngest and fastest drivers in Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood, but a consistent title contender who’s won the Indy 500 would be the perfect accompaniment.
Given that the alternative to Ericsson is to keep Romain Grosjean or bring in another ace youngster like Callum Ilott (and David Malukas is already tipped to replace Devlin DeFrancesco in the team’s fourth entry) the outcome will not be terrible for Andretti.
But the Palou news may just have ruined Andretti’s plan A. If the original plan A wasn’t ‘sign Palou’, as many teams likely tried.
The win out of that could be for Grosjean, who would get a reprieve at least for one season. Leaving Andretti would make finding another IndyCar seat tricky for him, and his performances don’t equate to him being booted out of the series. Far from it.
Palou loses because his reputation takes another blow
It is my opinion that Palou has shown he does not have respect for the contracts he signs, or their expiry dates.
While he personally has not admitted he has a contract with McLaren, his ex-management – Monaco Increase Management – and McLaren have expressed disappointment he won’t join the team in 2024.
Whether he signed a McLaren deal or not it’s clear Palou has handled this whole situation appallingly. You can blame management or advisors, but a driver has to take a certain amount of responsibility over their own destiny.
The fact of the matter is, in modern day sports, the star athletes hold all the cards while they are performing and successful. It gives them a level of impulsiveness to make decisions, often without consequences.
Elite athletes have relatively short careers compared to other sectors and a racing driver might last 20 years in IndyCar if they are lucky.
Even after all this, if Ganassi suddenly announced it wasn’t signing Palou, you can bet every other team in the IndyCar series would be queuing up to sign him and therein lies the problem.
But that’s thinking about IndyCar.
Does an F1 team take the risk on Palou knowing what has happened over the last 12 months? I imagine they would feel confident enough in their own legal teams to make a deal work. But I imagine there’s a level of trepidation there about being involved in similar sagas in the future.
How this has unfolded couldn’t be more opposite to what Palou is like as a person. This whole affair is a far cry from how the affable and charming driver comes across.