Race Weekend Central

F1 Midweek: Everybody Signs With McLaren

At this point, nobody is safe from McLaren.

The list for this team keeps getting longer and longer and longer. By my count, no less than 10 drivers have some connection to McLaren now, including test drivers such as Will Stevens and Mercedes-affiliated drivers they can use, such as Stoffel Vandoorne.

Heck, at this rate, they may just sign the hottest free agent in NASCAR — Joe Gibbs Racing may well lose out to a team that once DNQed an Indianapolis 500 because the car was the wrong shade of orange.

OK, OK, just to be clear: no, there is no evidence that Kyle Busch is actually going to be signed by McLaren.

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Kyle Busch: Contract Situation a 'Mess' With 'A Lot of Sleepless Nights'

For all intents and purposes, the multi-time NASCAR Cup Series champion will likely remain in NASCAR next year, or if not, barnstorming around the country at dirt tracks a la Kyle Larson.

But with that being said, the fact that it would not be that surprising at this point if Zak Brown were to work his magic and get the Rowdy One under contract, or if that revelation only came out after JGR announced Busch’s return, speaks volumes as to the last month or so for the orange papaya team.

Let’s begin at a much simpler time: July 12. Chip Ganassi Racing sent out a fairly standard press release announcing the re-signing of the defending series champion Alex Palou. This was written in it:

“’It’s a great feeling knowing I’ll be back with Chip Ganassi Racing next season,’ said Alex Palou. ‘The team welcomed me with open arms from day one, and I’m excited to continue working with Chip, Mike Hull, the folks on the No. 10 NTT DATA car and everyone within the organization. The goals remain the same and we will continue to work relentlessly towards achieving them.'”

But then, less than four hours later, Palou goes on Twitter and pushed back, all but calling the release fake news:

A few minutes later, McLaren Racing announced that Palou will race for them in 2023 and test the 2021 McLaren F1 car (the MCL35M) with Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward. The press release outright said that McLaren would “confirm its full driver lineups across all of its racing series in due course.”

Alex Palou Joining McLaren in 2023

Herta, meanwhile, was testing the MCL55M in Portugal the week while all of this was going on, as the American driver attempts to clear his own unorthodox way into Formula 1.

What has followed since is America’s favorite thing. Not cheeseburgers. Not guns. No, what has followed since has been lawsuits, with all kinds of arguments about names, options and all of that. Palou, for some reason, is still racing for CGR in spite of the team no longer trusting him with certain data that the team generates.

The reality of the situation with Palou is that he’s going to get his way ultimately, because Ganassi doesn’t want him and he doesn’t want to be there. It’s just a question as to how much the lawyers will be paid and how much of a mess either of his contracts are.

Then things got going again last week. Sebastian Vettel announced his retirement from F1 following the 2022 season, and was quickly replaced by Fernando Alonso on Monday, Aug. 1.

Alpine, Alonso’s previous team, found out about the move when we all did: when Aston Martin posted the press release. What came next was supposed to be fairly academic: simply promote reserve driver Oscar Piastri to the seat for 2023.

Just one wee little issue here: Piastri had already made some kind of agreement with McLaren for 2023, as reported by Motorsport.com. Team principal Otmar Szafnauer, already annoyed by the abrupt Alonso exit and his inability to get into contact with the two-time F1 champion, decided to pull the trigger and announce that Piastri would drive for Alpine in 2023.

Guess what happened next?

But what of Daniel Ricciardo, a driver who exists and is currently in that F1 seat? Well, Ricciardo put out a statement last month that stressed that he has no plans to leave the team next year, and the Associated Press reported that the team may not have a choice in the matter:

So, as messed up as this entire situation is, there’s actually one fairly simple line in the Palou press release that actually makes things much easier to understand.

“Alongside his racing duties next year, Palou will also test with the McLaren F1 Team as part of its 2021 MCL35M F1 car testing programme with fellow drivers Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta.”

So let’s look at this sentence for a minute. The tests Palou, O’Ward and Herta will have will occur next year. Note the phrase, “Alongside his racing duties next year.

Maybe McLaren did mean that the tests would come this year. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard to imagine that would be the case with Palou still under contract with CGR this year and considering that we’re now into August and only Herta has turned laps so far.

Regardless of the McLaren clickbait of not announcing their driver lineup until later on, those three were never in the running to replace Ricciardo after all — even if, behind closed doors, Ricciardo has told the team he’s decided to walk away after this year. That’s where things get interesting, because there’s no logical reason for Piastri to burn his bridge with Alpine like that unless he has a McLaren ride for next year in F1.

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And if McLaren loans Piastri out to another F1 team, like the original plan with Piastri seemed to be heading toward anyway, if Alonso came back, well, they can do that, but where to? Williams?

Piastri would really take a gamble on either getting a McLaren seat or a Williams seat instead of Alpine, which is ahead of McLaren in constructor standings? I don’t think so. As illogical as this past month has seemed, there’s really no way that Ricciardo comes back next year if Piastri is already under contract with McLaren. The only other option for the team would be to release Lando Norris after signing him to a big new deal earlier this year, and that would somehow be the worst decision anybody named in this article would make this year.

With that being said, my guess for McLaren’s lineup next year is Palou, O’Ward and either Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist or Ricciardo in IndyCar (with Herta remaining at Andretti Autosport), Piastri and Norris in F1 and either Rossi, Rosenqvist or Ricciardo in Formula E. Maybe Ricciardo decides to simply walk away from the McLaren stable; in which case, well, they have plenty of options evidently.

Heck, maybe they could sign Kyle Busch for that open seat after all.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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