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Zak Brown could sense cold feet for Alex Palou: ‘It’s pretty surprising how it’s been handled’

IndyCar: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey - Practice 1

Sep 8, 2023; Salinas, California, USA; McLaren Racing chief executive officer Zak Brown speaks to announce driver David Malukas (18) move to Arrow McLaren Racing for the 2024 season before free practice at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown says he hasn’t talked to Alex Palou since being informed the driver was staying at Chip Ganassi Racing (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

MONTEREY, Calif. – Just as Chip Ganassi had a feeling Alex Palou might decide to stay, Zak Brown had the same vibe Palou might spurn his team well before it was official.

“I had my suspicions; I’m pretty good at reading body language,” Brown told a small group of reporters Saturday morning at Arrow McLaren hospitality. “I started having questions around the month of May in my own mind.”

It would be three months later during the Music City Grand Prix weekend in Nashville, Tennessee, that it became abundantly obvious Palou was reneging on his commitment to join McLaren for the 2024 season. A week later, Brown made the bombshell announcement to his team (which prompted an unusual public response from a bellicose Ganassi).

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During a Friday interview before the 2023 season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Ganassi disclosed a conversation with Palou a year ago after his dominant victory at the track that gave the team owner hope of retaining the now two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion.

Brown gave his side of the story Saturday, and the McLaren Racing CEO said his gut feeling didn’t necessarily correlate to Palou’s charge to a second title beginning in mid-May with an emphatic victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the Indy 500 pole position the next week.

“No, not after anything specific,” Brown said. “Just body language. Conversations. I don’t think it was until much closer to Nashville that I then thought, ‘Hmmm.’ Because I think anytime you get into your instinct, you can kind of question yourself, so I wasn’t there in May. I’d just say that’s when my antenna went up a little bit.

“It wasn’t really until Nashville that it confirmed my suspicions.”

Brown said he checked in multiple times with Palou, who has been testing and driving F1 cars for McLaren since last year, to ensure he had no cold feet.

“I was assured on multiple occasions, including the week of Nashville, that everything was good, and we were going to announce Friday in Laguna Seca,” Brown said.

Palou was slated to be McLaren’s F1 reserve driver for the rest of the Formula One season starting with the Sept. 17 race in Singapore.

“He’s still our reserve driver, but that’s changed, because I don’t think he’s going to show up in Singapore, which he’s obligated to,” Brown said. “But we have had a couple of different reserve drivers during the year, so we’re now going to have to extend that.”

One possible candidate is Pato O’Ward, who is trying to earn an FIA Superlicense based on his IndyCar championship finish this year. O’Ward already was under consideration to run Friday practice sessions for McLaren (which he and Palou did last year). Brown said McLaren F1 team principal Andrea Stella would have the final decision on the reserve and FP1 drivers.

Though Brown joked that McLaren still had a hotel room booked in Singapore for Palou, the lack of communication is no laughing matter

“I’ve not heard a single word from him personally since this all happened,” Brown said. “It’s pretty surprising how it’s been handled. There’s kind of what’s happened, but then there’s also how it’s been handled, and that’s probably as surprising as anything.”

The saga could have one last twist with McLaren having filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Palou in U.K. commercial court. Ganassi refused to address that case when asked Friday, and Brown also was reticent.

“I’m not going to get into a running commentary,” Brown said. “I’ll let the court and the facts when they surface allow people to come to their own conclusions as to Alex’s character.”

In the meantime, Brown and Arrow McLaren racing director Gavin Ward are happy to sing the praises of new hire David Malukas, who will take the No. 6 Dallara-Chevrolet ride that had been earmarked for Palou.

“I don’t know David that well yet,” Brown said. “I talked to (McLaren F1 driver) Oscar Piastri quite a bit about him because they raced together. I did a lot of homework. He looks very strong on ovals, keeps it on the island, beats his teammates.

“He’s confident, young. A lot of energy and enthusiasm, so that’s kind of what I saw out of Pato. I had more awareness of Pato before we signed him; had a longer look at him, but I definitely see similarities and differences.”

Ward said a deep dive into the IndyCar free agent market produced analytics that identified Malukas as the best prospect, especially because of his oval prowess.

“You had to quickly come up with a game plan, and obviously it’s very much an in-demand seat,” Ward said. “So we’re really happy where we got to there. One thing I want this team to be is a team that makes drivers better. A place where they can grow and succeed. This is a great opportunity with someone who is still pretty fresh. With Tony Kanaan’s mentorship, we can build a bit of a system with a team where we put the whole package together and really lean into the strengths of the individual and let them grow. I’m excited about that.”

Brown said O’Ward and Alexander Rossi both identified Malukas as their top choice before they were aware of the team’s decision.

“I felt them out about different drivers, and they both gravitated toward Malukas,” Brown said. “They don’t know him super well but think he’s very fast, and they like him. I think the combination of the three. Rossi, Pato and Malukas is a nice combination because everyone is at a different experience level and different personalities that are complementary.

“If you had three of any one of those drivers, all identical, it’s not the right combination. It’s no different than you wouldn’t want three Zaks around.”