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Could IndyCar’s top team lose its standout 2023 drivers?

Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson are riding high for Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar right now, but either or both of them could be racing elsewhere next year.

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda - pit stop

Ganassi heads into this weekend’s halfway IndyCar round at Mid-Ohio holding a 1-2 in points with Palou leading Ericsson by a whopping 74 points. Team Penske's Josef Newgarden is the best non-Ganassi driver, a further seven points behind.

Palou has already equalled his win tally from his title year with CGR in 2021. Meanwhile Ericsson, the winner of the season-opener in St Petersburg, came within less than a tenth of a second of claiming back-to-back Indy 500 wins last month before losing out to Newgarden.

Yet Ganassi might lose them both for 2024 as they have very different contractual scenarios playing out.

Palou is understood to have a McLaren deal in his pocket for 2024 and sees this as his best route to Formula 1, with the added bonus of driving for its burgeoning Arrow-partnered IndyCar team, where he can wait for his opportunity in the biggest league of all.

Last year Ganassi issued a lawsuit against Palou when McLaren issued a press release claiming he’d signed for 2023. That was settled with the Spaniard staying on at CGR in IndyCar for the final year of his current contract in 2023 but also allowed for a test and reserve role with McLaren’s F1 team.

His latest test was at the Hungaroring earlier this month, alongside race driver Oscar Piastri no less, and he got to run in FP1 at COTA last year – so you can see where his ambitions clearly lie. Plus, McLaren wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t think he was the real deal…

“It's been working so far – I love it,” he said when Autosport asked if his F1 running has been helping his development as a driver. “They are very picky about the way you drive obviously.

“They are pushing you on how to drive, which is really good in terms of driver development honestly. It's like you go there and they are teaching you how to brake.

“It's great, especially not being too familiar with the car, I'm still learning how to drive it properly. It's great for pushing myself.”

Palou has had F1 test mileage for McLaren and has a race drive in his sights

Palou has had F1 test mileage for McLaren and has a race drive in his sights

Photo by: Monaco Increase Management

Palou stayed classy throughout this awkward contractual situation, and he’s reaping the benefit with another championship-challenging run that’s cementing his position as IndyCar’s premier performer.

His unflappable off-track demeanour, coupled with doubtless speed and resilience on it, all point to him being well worthy of an F1 shot. And there’s always a chance that another team might come calling to make that happen sooner rather than later…

Paddock gossip also suggests that Ganassi has counter-offered Palou with a healthy seven-figure salary to stay put. And one could argue that’s a better bet for ensuring further short-term success than moving to Arrow McLaren’s still-growing IndyCar team.

Motorsport.com asked him this week when he’ll be able to tell us where he’s racing next year, and he replied: “I don't know, honestly, I don't know. But, yeah, that day will come.

“That day will come maybe two months, three, four. I don't know. Maybe once the season is over, maybe later. We'll see.

“Yeah, that day will come. It will be exciting, I guess.”

On the subject of gunning for titles and winning lots of races in IndyCar versus battling to make a name for himself in F1, he added: “I would just say that the beauty of IndyCar is that everybody can win because you have the same tools as everybody. In F1, maybe the beauty, it's different.

“It's just that you are in the pinnacle of motorsport, you're developing a car together with a big factory. It's just a different mentality, I would say. I wouldn't say one there's more satisfaction than the other.”

Ericsson won the Indy 500 for Ganassi last season, but wants to have a drive without worrying about sponsorship

Ericsson won the Indy 500 for Ganassi last season, but wants to have a drive without worrying about sponsorship

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Contrast that scenario to CGR’s other hot property, Ericsson. His F1 itch has already been scratched with five seasons with Caterham and Sauber/Alfa Romeo, and his Indy 500 victory last year is backed up by two consecutive top-six IndyCar Championship finishes.

Ericsson believes it’s time for him to be offered the kind of salary that the other frontrunners enjoy, rather than the nominal payment that is more than offset by the backing he brings via Swedish billionaire Finn Rausing.

But it seems Chip Ganassi is torn over that, saying ahead of the Indy 500 that “Marcus has a big future in the sport and I want it to be on this team” before adding “we just need to finalise some sponsorship”.

When asked by Autosport what Ganassi meant by that latter remark, Ericsson replied: “Yeah, it’s a good question. But I don’t think it’s a question for me, really.

“I’ve said a few times now that I want to be treated as a top driver because that’s what I am in this series. It’s where I wanna be and hopefully, we’ll get to that point with Ganassi. I feel like I deserve that.”

Nothing seems to have moved in that situation, in fact, it sounds like it’s deteriorated further as Ericsson vented to NBC’s Kevin Lee at Road America.

“It feels like we are quite a way away,” Ericsson told him. “I see things one way. The team thinks that I should pay to be there and I feel like I should get paid.

“I am frustrated. There are at least 15 drivers that don't bring a budget — and I'd like to think I am one of those with the performance — but the team thinks otherwise. So that's why we're quite far apart.

“I've tried to play nice and make it clear I want to stay here. I don't understand and it's frustrating.”

Ericsson has been vocal in his frustrations and says the two negotiation teams are currently far apart

Ericsson has been vocal in his frustrations and says the two negotiation teams are currently far apart

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Ericsson claims his phone has been busy recently, and there will come a time in the next few months when he’ll be able to officially negotiate with rival teams. So keep an eye out for developments on this front too.

This bizarre situation facing Ganassi is eased somewhat by the indefatigable Scott Dixon’s continued presence and unquestioned performance levels. If it loses both Palou and Ericsson, it could trim back to three cars next year and promote either (or both) of the drivers that share its #11 car – F2 graduate Marcus Armstrong, who has been racing the road courses, or two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, who has been doing the ovals.

There’s also the prospect of it developing a young American talent, with David Malukas showing flashes of eye-catching form for Dale Coyne Racing – where Ganassi signed Palou from for 2021. Or it could effectively swap out Palou with McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist, who raced for CGR in 2019 and 2020 before being replaced by Palou.

One thing is for sure, if there really are two Ganassi rides going, this is going to be an intrigue-packed IndyCar silly season.

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