INSIGHT: Making sense of McLaren's Rosenqvist move

INSIGHT: Making sense of McLaren's Rosenqvist move

Felix Rosenqvist has a new McLaren Racing contract extension in hand, but it will be a few months until he knows whether he’ll remain in the NTT IndyCar Series or be deployed to the team’s new FIA Formula E program in 2023.

It’s a positive development — if not slightly confusing — for the Swede who has newfound job security, and after a 30-minute call with McLaren CEO Zak Brown, the situation facing Rosenqvist, along with a number of other topics of interest, were made clear.

“It’s not about Felix,” Brown told RACER. “I’m very comfortable with Felix being a IndyCar or Formula E driver. And the decision has nothing to do with seeing how Felix gets on for the rest of the season, because I think he’s totally found his form this year, and even though some results haven’t fallen his way, his pace has been awesome. Really, the determining factor is I want to put together the best driver lineups across all my racing series. And Felix is in a unique position that he’s a race winner in both IndyCar and Formula E.

“So really, what’s going to drive where he lands is, who his teammate in the other racing series will be. So in other words, what’s the best combination of drivers that puts the best Formula 1, IndyCar, Formula E and Extreme E teams on the grid. And with Felix, I’ve got a guy that I know can win IndyCar races and a guy that I know can win Formula E races. So now what I’m waiting on is who’s the best other Formula E driver I can potentially get; who’s the best other IndyCar driver I can potentially get. And what does the combination of Felix and that other driver look like that gives me the best Formula E and IndyCar driver lineup?”

There are a few drivers who could get the nod to take over Rosenqvist’s No. 7 AMSP Chevy, but as the silly season begins to wind down, the list of intriguing free agents is dwindling rapidly. Considering how popular he’s become since joining the team in 2021, everyone from the top down at AMSP — including president Taylor Kiel — have made their wishes known on who they want to drive alongside Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi next season.

“I have Taylor going, ‘I want Felix next year,’” Brown continued. “And I’ve got Ian James, who is going to run our Formula E team saying, ‘I want Felix Rosenquist next year.’ So, I’m gonna be unpopular with one of my team bosses. And that’s why we chose to make the announcement the way we did, because we don’t yet have clarity on which direction. But one thing was for sure: We love Felix, and are super, super happy to have him in either team. That’s why it was McLaren Racing signing him, to take all the speculation out of the marketplace, and any distraction as to who he might be driving for because the answer now is McLaren.

Rosenqvist is a race-winner in IndyCar and Formula E (at Berlin in 2017, above), and Zak Brown says his priority is to make best use of the Swede’s versatility in deciding where he will compete next year. Sam Bloxham/Motorsport Images

“That just gives me a little bit more time to work through my other scenarios, which will then help me put together the most competitive IndyCar and Formula E team. Because each series is massively important that I put the best driver lineups forward, and Felix happens to be in a unique position where he’s probably the only guy I can think of that’s won in both of those series.”

With the IndyCar season set to conclude on September 11 and the next Formula E championship expected to begin in December, Brown has a finite window to work within and decide on drivers for the all-electric series and who will complete AMSP’s expanded three-car effort.

“I’m gonna say months, not weeks, but not several months until we know on Felix,” he said. “He’s keen to understand where he’ll be driving, obviously. Look at how early we announced Rossi. I believe in stability and preparations, so I’m as keen as everyone to come to the conclusion. But sitting near where I am right now in the silly season, I think we’ll use the summer break in Formula 1, even though this has nothing to do with Formula 1, to get close on the direction we’re headed.”

Brown is known to have recently made runs at two of the top NTT IndyCar Series drivers to see if either were interested or able to step into the No. 7 Chevy. Reigning champion Alex Palou and six-time champion Scott Dixon, both of whom drive for Chip Ganassi Racing, are unavailable for 2023, which could play to Rosenqvist’s favor.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay, another free agent whose talent and fit at AMSP has been discussed with his management team, is contractually unable to negotiate until August 1. After VeeKay — at least within the IndyCar paddock — there are very few drivers who are known to excite McLaren in the short term.

To get to the answer of who will drive the No. 7, Brown will need to decide whether to treat 2023 as stop-gap year — possibly to the favor of Rosenqvist – while waiting to get hold of an IndyCar champion for 2024 and beyond, or if he’ll go ahead and hand the keys to the car to a new and intriguing prospect.

Ganassi has managed to keep Palou and Dixon out of McLaren’s reach – so far. Motorsport Images

Overstating the obvious, calls to Palou, Dixon, and others would not have been made if AMSP was settled on Rosenqvist. It’s too early to say whether Brown will make the short or long play in the coming months, but with a deeper pool of high-value targets hitting the market in just over a year’s time, it’s hard to see Rosenqvist being installed as a multi-year solution in IndyCar.

“Getting top-line drivers is never easy, and they’re always in high demand,” Brown said. “And I’ve got to hit a certain caliber of driver that I’m confident that you can win races and win championships, whether it’s an experienced one or one that I think is capable of doing that. There’s guys in IndyCar and then there’s some that have come from outside of IndyCar and do really well. So I’d say it’s a combination of looking at people inside IndyCar and people outside of IndyCar as IndyCar prospects.”

Those who’ve watched Netflix’s Drive To Survive know that as far as contentious relationships go, Mercedes F1’s Toto Wolff and Red Bull Racing’s Christian Horner are less than friendly. If and when IndyCar gets its version of DTS, Brown and Ganassi just might put them to shame.

Within the paddock, their active dislike for each other is not a secret, and despite the frequent fishing expeditions into Ganassi’s driver ranks — which includes taking a run at Dixon in 2018 and signing Rosenqvist away from Ganassi in 2020 – Brown says he isn’t fixated on turning Chip’s drivers into his own.

“He’s got some great drivers,” he said. “So does Roger Penske, so does Michael Andretti. We’re always looking for the best drivers and teams like Ganassi, Penske and Andretti have great drivers, and so do other teams. He’s got great drivers, but so do we, just as he made some big aggressive approaches towards Pato, which I fully expected, and was fair game. There’s a reason why you’ve got to lock down your superstars for the long-term.

“All of us are very competitive. And it’s our jobs as team bosses to have really good relationships with our drivers and protect the drivers that you want long-term. Ganassi went after Pato, which doesn’t surprise me, nor does it offend me. And as we recently announced, we locked down Pato for a long time, just as I did with Lando Norris. When you have superstar drivers, letting them get too close to the end of their contractual period puts you in a vulnerable situation. As I fully expect, whether it’s Penske or Andretti, or Ferrari or Mercedes in Formula 1, they’re looking for the best talent they can get. And that’s why you’ve got to make sure when you have superstars, you keep them off the market as long as you can.”

AMSP’s biggest acquisition during the offseason came with Team Penske race engineer Gavin Ward, the ex-Red Bull engineer who won the 2019 IndyCar championship with Josef Newgarden. Less than pleased with the loss, Penske enforced a lengthy non-compete clause in the Canadian’s contract. With Ward’s ‘gardening leave’ set to expire at the end of June, the surging team will onboard its new technical director while O’Ward (fourth) and Rosenqvist (eighth) make a push for the title as the second half of the season beckons.

“He starts next month,” Brown confirmed.

The final bit of team-related conversation involved AMSP’s next IndyCar driver and whether McLaren, which currently lacks a major factory sports car program, would allow Rossi — part of the overall winning team at the 2021 Rolex 24 At Daytona — to participate in non-conflicting endurance races.

“We’d obviously be sensitive to Alex driving for any direct competitors, but just like Pato did at Daytona this year and Felix has done, we’re always open,” Brown said. “We’re racers we know racers like to race. So as long as we feel the other activities don’t conflict or detract, we’re always open minded to them racing, so if Alex wanted to do Daytona or whatever, and it doesn’t take away from his IndyCar activities, we’d be inclined to let him do it.”