Zak Brown: 3rd IndyCar driver will be decided by Sept. 30; Palou, Rosenqvist only options

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

SALINAS, Calif – Days after being served with Chip Ganassi Racing’s civil suit, Alex Palou left no questions about where he believed he’d be driving in 2023: “I will be in the McLaren family next year.”

Six weeks later at the IndyCar season-finale weekend, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown and CGR managing director Mike Hull reportedly met in private. Reports emerged that Ganassi’s asking price to release Palou stood at $10 million and Brown emphasized the urgency to decide on Arrow McLaren SP’s third IndyCar driver for next season in less than three weeks. But Palou was curiously less sure about his home next season.

When asked in Victory Lane on the NBC broadcast — after thumping the field by more than 30 seconds for his lone win of his failed title defense — whether it was his last race in the No. 10 Honda, Palou said: “Yeah, things are moving good, so we’ll see what (happens). We’re going to enjoy the moment and see what happens.”

Sep 11, 2022; Salinas, California, USA; Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou (10) of Spain celebrates his race vicotry following the Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

Pressed in the post-race press conference about how that statement compared to his public position on July 28, Palou responded, “They’re waiting to see what happens. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to share. I think everything is moving in the right direction. I don’t know if it’s going to take one day, one week or one month, but hopefully everything is going to be solved soon.”

He also revealed that he and Ganassi spoke in Portland and the morning of the finale.

About 2023?

"Obviously," he replied.

Brown made it clear Sunday at Laguna Seca that his team will be forced to make a decision before the end of the month on their third driver alongside Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi for 2023. Brown said that at the moment, he couldn’t see any scenario where that driver wouldn’t be Palou or incumbent Felix Rosenqvist. Curiously – and no doubt a calculated decision – it was Brown who first uttered the Swede’s name when asked about what he could share about Palou's situation.

“(Alex’s case) is still a work in progress,” Brown said. “But what I would say is I’m very happy with Felix. He’s done an excellent job this year. It’s been a strong year.

“I would be very happy to have Felix in our car again.”

Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar driver Pato O'Ward talks with McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown at the series' 2022 season-opener in St. Pete.

Brown clears up developments on Rosenqvist's future

McLaren’s urgency on finalizing its 2023 IndyCar lineup involves several developments regarding Rosenqvist’s status. On June 23, McLaren Racing issued a release announcing that it had “signed” (important verbiage here, we’ll get to that in a second) a multi-year deal with Rosenqvist. The release went on to explain that Brown would determine at a later date whether Rosenqvist would remain in IndyCar or be shifted to Formula E – where the Swedish driver raced (and won) before his IndyCar tenure.

The announcement was made, Brown said, “to give (Felix) comfort that we were going to keep racing together.” Coming off an initial season with the team where he finished 21st in points and had only recently been able to string together top-10s, there was heavy speculation McLaren could move on from him in IndyCar. The following race in Mid-Ohio, Rosenqvist appeared relieved, and though he hinted at a desire to remain in IndyCar rather than shifting back to the electric racing series, he came off genuinely appreciative that Brown had ensured he’d remain in a high-level car, one way or another.

More coverage of the Palou-Ganassi-McLaren saga:

Then came Ganassi and McLaren’s dueling releases regarding Palou’s future home. The following weekend in Toronto, Rosenqvist tallied his first podium with AMSP and took advantage of his media platform, stating he hoped his result would encourage Brown not to replace him with Palou.

Sam Schmidt with McLaren talks with Arrow McLaren SP driver Felix Rosenqvist (7) before the start of the Gallagher Grand Prix on Saturday, July 30, 2022 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis.

Brown said Sunday that he and Rosenqvist had previously come to a “verbal agreement” on a multi-year deal but no new paperwork had been signed. McLaren still held a team option on Rosenqvist in IndyCar, but it was set to expire Oct. 1. Brown declined Sunday to further explain why the team issued a release saying paperwork had been signed but did say that, at the time of the release, both sides had found an agreeable place to work out the final details of the Swede’s future.

Then, Rosenqvist’s vision for his future changed.

Rather than ensure he stayed within the McLaren Racing family for the foreseeable future, he opted to prioritize an IndyCar future. And with no timeline for a resolution to the Palou saga, Rosenqvist knew there could still be a chance to stay at AMSP as Brown inched closer to potentially losing Palou and Rosenqvist. And if the Swedish driver was replaced, he’d cross that bridge later. Rosenqvist feared he'd never make it back to IndyCar if he left.

“We had an agreement between us, and he was like, ‘I’m happy wherever you put me,’” Brown said of Rosenqvist. “But after that time, he decided he wanted to stay in IndyCar. Instead of me going, ‘This is what we agreed to’; I would never hold a driver back from what they want to do, so I told Felix, ‘I understand. You want to be in IndyCar, so let’s see what happens.’”

“We had an agreement between us, and he was like, ‘I’m happy wherever you put me’,” Brown said of Rosenqvist Sunday. “But after that time, he decided he wanted to stay in IndyCar. Instead of me going, ‘This is what we agreed to’, I would never hold a driver back from what they want to do, so I told Felix, ‘I understand. You want to be in IndyCar, so let’s see what happens.’”

Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O'Ward (5) congratulates teammate Arrow McLaren SP driver Felix Rosenqvist (7) after he secured the pole position Friday, July 29, 2022, during qualifying for the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

'The ball's in (Chip's) court'

Having reached a buyout with current F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo and been granted the rights to rookie Oscar Piastri by F1’s Contract Recognition Board, and with its announcement that Rene Rast will fill one of its two Formula E seats next year, McLaren has whittled down it’s once chaotic list of open seats to two. Brown said Sunday he’s finalizing who’ll race next to Rast, and he all but said it won’t be Rosenqvist.

“It’s 100% certain (staying in IndyCar) is what he wants to do,” Brown said. “I can’t comment on if he didn’t race (at AMSP), whether he would definitely get (an IndyCar ride). I think he would, but I don’t know for sure.”

The reason for McLaren's urgency is because if Palou isn't freed from Ganassi by Sept. 30, it wants to retain Rosenqvist “because I think (Felix) would be picked up by another team (if we don't)," Brown said.

“I think everybody wants a resolution," Brown continued. "We do. Alex does. Ganassi will, so whatever we can do to help make people make decisions, we’re willing to help to a certain extent, but it’s the last race of the year here, and we need to get on with our planning for the next.”

Chip Ganassi talks with Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou (10) Saturday, May 22, 2021, during qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Should Sept. 30 come without a resolution to Palou's future, Brown brushed off the idea they’d consider cutting ties with the Spanish driver and move on from the headache. If he weren’t free to race for AMSP but had been cleared to join McLaren in 2023 in a different capacity, Brown said he’d keep Palou busy with F1 testing and sim work.

But less than three weeks from needing to move forward, Brown said he had no way of guessing how things might pan out.

“It’s hard to tell. Ask Chip,” he said. “The ball’s in his court.

“My ultimate ambition is to have Alex as a McLaren Racing driver, and we have the benefit of having a variety of teams. He’ll have an opportunity that we can provide him in the possibility of F1, and I think that’s what’s attractive to him. Look at how quickly things change in this sport. You have to be responsible and have plans in place for COVID. People get injured. Things happen.”