The long contractual saga surrounding IndyCar championship leader Alex Palou took another wild twist Friday when the head of McLaren Racing told his team the Spaniard has "no intention of honoring his contract" with the team next year.
In a letter sent to the Arrow McLaren Racing employees by boss Zak Brown, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Brown wrote that Palou had given him multiple assurances he'd be wearing papaya in 2024 and has already received an advance on his salary.
The letter was sent to McLaren employees shortly after Friday's final IndyCar Series on-track session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Palou holds an 84-point lead over Josef Newgarden in the standings with four races remaining this season.
Palou starts eighth on Saturday on the Indianapolis road course.
Palou last July upended the free agent market when he publicly rebuked Chip Ganassi Racing's attempt to pick up the option Ganassi held on him for 2023. Palou said he instead was joining both McLaren's IndyCar program and had a Formula One contract.
Palou went public with the Ganassi dispute in a series of social media posts and wrote "as I have recently informed CGR, for personal reasons, I do not intend to continue with the team after 2022."
McLaren then immediately announced Palou's hiring with its own social media post that began: "¡Hola Alex!"
The social media posts became a bit of a joke in the racing world as drivers from other series began using Palou's wording to update their own free agent status.
Ganassi, though, wasn't laughing.
He fought the defection and the sides settled through mediation with Palou remaining in IndyCar with Ganassi this year, but testing as a reserve driver for McLaren on his off weekends. He was slated to join McLaren full-time at the end of this IndyCar season, and was in full McLaren papaya-colored gear at the Miami Grand Prix in May.
Brown's letter to his team did not indicate what Palou plans to do in 2024, when he is already contractually bound to McLaren. Brown and Ganassi are bitter rivals, and Ganassi initially gloated to The Associated Press over Palou's change of mind.
"We don't comment on driver contracts. You know that," Ganassi then told AP. "We as a team work on wins and championships."
Palou is currently closing in on his second IndyCar title in three years driving for Ganassi. The 26-year-old Spaniard is in his fourth season of IndyCar - three with Ganassi - but has long held F1 ambitions.
"This is incredibly disappointing considering the commitment he has made to us both directly and publicly and our significant investment in him based on that commitment," Brown wrote to his employees.
"We dedicated a lot of time, money and resources preparing to welcome Alex into our team because we believed in him and were looking forward to IndyCar wins with him. Coming out of his team dispute last fall, we were assured by Alex of his commitment to Arrow McLaren reflected in the contract he entered into with us."
Brown said he has been reassured by Palou multiple times since this year's Indianapolis 500 in May that he would be with McLaren next year. Because of those promises, Brown wrote "we have paid him a significant first payment toward his 2024 season in addition to the millions of dollars toward developing him in our Formula 1 testing program and in his reserve driver role with a potential drive in F1 in the future."
Brown wrote that the McLaren expects Palou to honor his contract with the team, but will pursue 2024 driver lineup possibilities as the dispute is settled. McLaren currently fields IndyCar teams for Pato O'Ward, Felix Rosenqvist and Alexander Rossi.
"Unfortunately, it now appears our belief, commitment, investment and trust in Alex was misplaced as it is not being reciprocated," said Brown, who will confer with his IndyCar team leadership on its future plans.
The team was in discussion of adding a fourth car once Palou joined in order to keep Rosenqvist on the roster. Rosenqvist has lived in limbo the past year as his future with McLaren has rested with Palou's decisions.
"We have made clear to Alex that we expect him to honor and perform under his contract with us. However, the leadership team and I are focused on addressing our 2024 driver lineup in order to be prepared if Alex does not do so."