McLaren has 5 seats to fill in IndyCar, Formula 1, Formula E in 2023. Here are the options
Six months ago, could you have dreamed of a 2023 McLaren driver lineup that included Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Alex Palou in IndyCar, Lando Norris and Colton Herta in Formula 1 and Daniel Ricciardo and Felix Rosenqvist in Formula E?
At the moment, the McLaren Racing CEO holds the long-term contracts of O’Ward and Rossi (earmarked for IndyCar), Norris and Ricciardo (in Formula 1), and Palou and Rosenqvist (for McLaren Racing at-large) for 2023 – though the Palou signing is heavily disputed by Chip Ganassi as he announced Tuesday afternoon he had picked up Palou's team option for 2023.
Less than four hours later, Palou stated on Twitter that he didn't approve the quotes CGR attributed to him in that release and that he’d told Ganassi he did not plan to return after this IndyCar season. Within minutes, McLaren announced Palou’s signing with his seat and series to be unveiled later.
A day later, very little has cleared up.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this exercise, that McLaren CEO Zak Brown has amassed this treasure trove of young talent, in official driving roles, testing opportunities or both. How might he spread that talent around so that, as he’s said so many times, he’s doing the best for the organization at-large?
Let’s explore the drivers under the assumption that Rossi (IndyCar) and Norris (F1) are the only two locked in place. It leaves McLaren with two seats in IndyCar and Formula E and a highly-coveted F1 seat.
More:What to know about Palou, as Ganassi, McLaren claim to have signed him
Contract details:Clearly, things are uncertain at the moment. He signed a multi-year deal with CGR in the fall of 2020 through at least the 2022 season. Tuesday, Ganassi indicated they had a team option for 2023, and it’s been reported, though not confirmed by the team, that Ganassi holds the same for 2024. McLaren Racing, on the other hand, believes it has secured Palou’s services after the end of the 2022 IndyCar campaign.
Though McLaren didn’t use the words “multi-year” in its Tuesday night release announcing Palou, one would assume this was a long-term deal, given all the hoops they’ll likely have to jump through to lock him. As noted, Tuesday’s announcement didn’t say which series the 2021 IndyCar champ will compete in.
IndyCar in 2023?: If Palou’s Ganassi contract gives the team a period of time to negotiate exclusively with the driver -- as is usually the case in IndyCar -- then Ganassi holds the upper-hand. It would be incredibly odd for Ganassi to wait until that exclusive window passed to exercise its option and risk losing the defending champ, who sits 4th in the championship.
Palou on rumored McLaren interest:'I'm happy where I am'
If CGR holds the team option they claim to have picked up Tuesday, and Palou and McLaren were negotiating an IndyCar deal anyway – trying to strong-arm his way out like a modern-day NBA star – Ganassi could, at minimum, prevent Palou from running in IndyCar until the terms of that contract are complete. He could potentially sue both sides for tortious interference, too, or Ganassi could require a multi-million dollar buyout.
It would be a surprise for McLaren to go through this to gain two years of running Palou in IndyCar; which is a small series compared to Formula 1. Then again, Brown hired Team Penske’s bright engineering mind Gavin Ward, part of the mastery behind Josef Newgarden’s strong run since 2018, for his IndyCar team, and yet wasn’t able to have Ward at the track until Mid-Ohio (believed to be because of a non-compete clause). Clearly, they’re willing to pay a pretty price and jump through hoops when it comes to acquiring talent. Still, if Palou’s in IndyCar next year, my gut tells me he’s still in a Ganassi car.
Formula 1?: Brown and McLaren F1 team boss Andreas Seidl already have some serious young talent waiting in the wings in O’Ward and (maybe) Herta and putting Palou in F1 would involve Ricciardo being moved aside a year early. But multiple agents within the IndyCar paddock proposed that signing Palou for 2023 is only possible if he races outside IndyCar. What place could that be other than Formula 1, a series Palou dreamed of reaching early in his career but was led to believe wasn’t possible. Such a move would still likely require Ganassi’s blessing, so there’s some part of this equation we still don’t know.
Palou may not be as flashy or as good as O’Ward or Herta, but after his rise to stardom a year ago, you could rightly argue he’s the most consistent top-end driver in the series.
Formula E?: I simply can’t see it, unless McLaren opts to press on with Ricciardo in its second F1 seat for 2023 and Palou can’t contractually run in IndyCar next year. Consider it an opportunity to grab an enormous payday, travel the world and know in a year, you either have a high-paying IndyCar ride or higher-paying Formula 1 ride in front of you. Still, this is one of the longest odds here.
Contract details: Days before the Indianapolis 500, Arrow McLaren SP – not McLaren Racing, and that’s important – announced an extension with O’Ward to run through the end of 2025. Because McLaren owns a majority stake of the IndyCar team, they could move him around its various teams, but for now, O’Ward’s future lies in IndyCar.
IndyCar in 2023?: I believe O’Ward will be in IndyCar next season. The young Mexican driver is the backbone of this program. Brown made clear in February that he won't move a driver without a backup plan that doens't hurt the driver's old team. AMSP losing O’Ward for 2023 would seem to do just that.
How O'Ward earned extension:'Fights aren't enjoyable, but everything's fixable'
Formula 1?: The timing of a move into F1 for 2023 doesn’t make sense. The only caveat comes if O'Ward is head-and-shoulders ahead of Herta and Palou in their respective TPC (testing of a previous car) programs and Brown feels he has no choice but to slot O’Ward in right away.
Formula E?: There’s no scenario in all of this I could imagine that has O’Ward driving in Formula E in 2023. It’s that simple.
Contract details: Last month, McLaren announced it had signed Rosenqvist to a multi-year deal to drive within its wider stable of race teams after this IndyCar season comes to a close. Like Palou’s release this week, it made a point not to state where his future lies – IndyCar or Formula E.
IndyCar in 2023?: If O’Ward and Rossi are running two of AMSP’s three Indy cars next year and Palou available, then Rosenqvist appears to be the team’s best option to join them. The Swede’s shown more consistency, both in race-running and qualifying, than prospective candidate Rinus VeeKay.
Rosenqvist locked up:McLaren confirms Swede will stay in IndyCar or Formula E
On the flipside, if Palou is available and not earmarked for F1, then Rosenqvist’s odds for an AMSP IndyCar ride next year are slim to none.
Formula 1?: McLaren said Rosenqvist’s either headed to IndyCar or Formula E. Of all of Brown’s options for F1 next year, Rosenqivst isn’t one of them.
Formula E?: Brown has two Formula E seats to fill and only one driver -- that we know of -- that’s in the fold and won in the series. That’s why this just seems too likely not to happen. It doesn’t mean Rosenqvist isn’t deserving of continuing his career in IndyCar, which he’s hinted at but hasn’t said is his preference. But Brown has to make several decisions with the entire organization’s best interests in mind. With a startup Formula E program and the only driver to have won there and in IndyCar, it’s hard to imagine Rosenqvist not making the return.
Contract details: As he said on Twitter as recently as Wednesday, Ricciardo is signed with McLaren through the end of 2023 – whether that deal is strictly for Formula 1 or gives Brown the liberty to move the Australian elsewhere within the organization is unknown. Interestingly, though, Brown said in May that McLaren and Ricciardo have “mechanisms in which we’re committed to each other and mechanisms in which we’re not.” That revelation serves as the foundation for McLaren’s potential inter-team shuffle, even though Ricciardo asserted Wednesday on Twitter that he’s “committed to McLaren until the end of next year.”
IndyCar in 2023?: The reason a move to IndyCar would seem unlikely at first glance is the money McLaren would likely be paying Ricciardo – an amount several times higher than even the Scott Dixons of the world make. But this whole shakeup will undoubtedly cost a lot of money, so perhaps that’s something worth weathering in the grand scheme of things.
Though it would be a new car and a season full of new tracks, Ricciardo would instantly become the star and fan-favorite of the paddock, much like Romain Grosjean has over the past 18 months. There’s also reason to think that under less pressure to succeed, the eight-time F1 race-winning driver might find his mojo again.
Formula 1?: McLaren is on the hook to pay Ricciardo, who bagged McLaren’s first F1 victory in nearly a decade in 2021, an F1-sized salary in 2023, and what better place to do that than in … Formula 1. After finishing 45 points and two spots in the rankings (6th vs. 8th) behind teammate Lando Norris in their first year together, Ricciardo has nearly that same deficit (44 points, 7th to 12th) halfway through this season. Both sides may decide its best to see this through and not make any of this messier than it already is.
Formula E?: Though it may seem out of left field, there’s a part of me that could see this fit. Plenty of ex-F1 drivers find their life raft in the international electric open-wheel series. It pays well – believed to be better than IndyCar for the same talent – and you get to travel the world and race at many of the same circuits F1 does. The racing itself isn’t as glamorous, but many use it as a stopgap until something better comes along.
Contract details: In May of 2021, Herta signed a two-year extension with Andretti Autosport in IndyCar, which kicked in at the start of this current season. It’s unknown what options, for the driver or the team, it includes.
IndyCar in 2023?: If Herta’s in IndyCar in 2023, he’s running for Andretti Autosport.
Formula 1?: If he were to finish head and shoulders above Palou and O’Ward in the TPC program and have enough upside over Ricciardo, assuming Brown holds leverage to move him around, then I could Michael Andretti coming to the realization that his F1 dreams simply aren’t happening – at least, not as quickly as he’d hoped.
Herta on two-day McLaren F1 test:'I do think I'm fast enough'
And Mario Andretti said himself back in March that if Herta was given the opportunity to bolt to F1 with McLaren, the elder Andretti wouldn’t blame him. It would put Herta years ahead in terms of being able to compete near the top of F1, compared to jumpstarting Andretti Global in 2024. The IndyCar driver managers I’ve spoken with believe such a move would require Michael Andretti’s blessing, but given his affinity for Herta, if he truly believes his F1 team ownership prospects have hit a wall, he may be forced to make a tough decision.
Formula E?: I can’t imagine any world in which Herta could end up or would leave Andretti for a McLaren Formula E ride for next season.
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.