IndyCar

What Arrow McLaren, David Malukas split means for Indy 500, 2024 IndyCar season and beyond

What Arrow McLaren, David Malukas split means for Indy 500, 2024 IndyCar season and beyond

LEEDS, Ala. — On Monday, Arrow McLaren cut ties with 22-year-old driver David Malukas.

Malukas missed IndyCar’s first four races after dislocating his left wrist and tearing tendons after flying over his handlebars mountain biking a month before the season-opener.

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Malukas: Arrow McLaren’s ‘Alex Palou bandaid’

What had always been seen as a bit of an odd pairing dates back to last summer, when Alex Palou left Arrow McLaren high-and-dry in August. After spending a large chunk of the 2022 season trying to leave his home at Chip Ganassi Racing, agreeing to stay put for 2023 and then signing a three-year deal with McLaren in October 2022 for 2024-26, Palou’s lawyers communicated to McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown in the lead-in to the August race on the IMS road course the now two-time champ would be staying put for the foreseeable future.

Already well into silly season chaos — the then-current No. 6 Chevy driver Felix Rosenqvist seemed headed to Meyer Shank Racing, Marcus Ericsson had decided to leave Ganassi for Andretti and Linus Lundqvist would soon be confirmed at Ganassi — Arrow McLaren officials’ options were slim. Callum Ilott was tied down by a team option period at Juncos Hollinger Racing, one JHR officials wouldn’t be willing to lift until the end of October, and so plans for the No. 6 soon shifted to Malukas.

Announced on a multi-year deal during the season-finale weekend at Laguna Seca, the reality was this: with multiple top-tier free agent candidates freeing up ahead of 2025 — Josef Newgarden and Christian Lundgaard among them — Malukas would need to earn his chance to stay at Arrow McLaren into 2025, as much if not more than he had earned the opportunity to begin with. His two podiums with Coyne in 2022-23 were no doubt the team’s high points those two campaigns, but better machinery would need to lead to more time running at the front.

In the early months, Malukas won over his new home with his boyish charm, easy-going nature and a fierce desire to learn at a team still on its own come-up of sorts with loads of new faces still finding their way. O’Ward’s at times off-the-wall personality had its match, and the way in which they balanced Rossi’s unique matter-of-factness seemed to be a trio that could bring out the best of each other.

After dislocating his left wrist in a mountain biking accident, Arrow McLaren driver David Malukas has been released by the team after missing the first four events of what was supposed to be his debut season in papaya.

How Malukas’ Arrow McLaren tenure unraveled

And then came Malukas’ mid-February weekend out west, when he still had multiple test days ahead of himself before the arrival of his race debut in papaya. Though not a novice on a mountain bike, Malukas would later admit to mistakenly grabbing the wrong break lever — the front, rather than the rear — which sent himself soaring over the handlebars on what was otherwise a rather bland, easy trail. But the damage was immense: a dislocated left wrist and torn tendons.

He flew home immediately and underwent surgery Feb. 13. Doctors at the time estimated his recovery window to be roughly six weeks from when he could get his stitches removed (Feb. 22), lining up for a return either for the Indy 500 Open Test (April 10-11) or the Long Beach weekend (April 19-21).

At The Thermal Club March 23, Malukas told IndyStar the team was pushing him to recover by Long Beach, then four weeks away, and that pins in his wrist would be out within a week. Soon after, though, something in his recovery seemed to have gone sideways.

After Ilott filled in at St. Pete and Thermal, reigning Formula 2 champion Theo Pourchaire strutted into the Indianapolis International Airport April 2 in what would eventually turn into a month-long stay readying to become Malukas’ stand-in at Long Beach and Barber. All the while, though, Arrow McLaren personnel — most notably sporting director Tony Kanaan — continued, and even intensified, their support of Malukas in hopes of propelling his recovery process along. Simultaneously as Kanaan was traveling to North Carolina to monitor Pourchaire’s initial simulator session at Chevy motorsports headquarters, he was driving Malukas to doctors appointments, loaning him a personal simulator with which he could test his wrist’s strength.

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Initially ushered in to sharpen the race-winning skills of O’Ward and Rossi, mentor a new, young driver like Malukas and run point on Kyle Larson’s Indy 500 debut, Kanaan was being stretched dangerously thin. In the background, the team was even having to consider putting Kanaan himself in the No. 6 for an old fashioned start-and-park at Long Beach; Pourchaire’s deal was only announced roughly 24 hours before cars rolled out on-track at Long Beach.

O’Ward’s runner-up finish at St. Pete — eventually upgraded to the team’s first victory since July 2022 after IndyCar levied penalties to Team Penske related to its push-to-pass scandal — would be the team’s lone bright spot in a three-month span littered with chaos and setbacks. Only one of the team’s three cars advanced into the main event in the $1 Million Challenge. O’Ward ran into the back of Rossi Lap 1 at Long Beach after a dismal day of qualifying 24 hours prior. That Rossi drove himself back to 10th, with the help of the fastest pit crew in the paddock, was one of the best performances of the day, but finishes of 6th (St. Pete), 7th (Thermal) and 10th (Long Beach) is a far cry from the veteran’s expectations in Year 2 of his post-Andretti chapter.

In the hours before the team cut Malukas loose, O’Ward managed to throw away a top-6 start with an error that saw him trundling through a gravel trap two laps in. A couple laps later, he punted Pietro Fittipaldi and earned a drive-thru penalty. Mid-race, Rossi’s pit crew that had starred early in 2024 failed to secure his left-rear tire during an otherwise routine stop, and he got just a few hundred yards beyond pitlane before it began spinning off the rear axle. And on the race’s final lap, all cars running outside the top-20, O’Ward spun Pourchaire, who still managed to log the team’s best finish of the day.

Callum Ilott (right) served as a temporary stand-in for David Malukas (left) as he recovered from a significant wrist injury. With the latter now released from the team, Ilott will likely be leaned on for additional races.

How Arrow McLaren, Malukas, move forward

Malukas’ release Sunday at Barber signals a midseason reset for a team sorely in need of consistency, focus and a long-term plan. Cutting Malukas loose means it’s no longer forced to run one its cars on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis and trying to aid in Malukas’ recovery while simultaneously training his replacements. Without buying out Ilott (WEC) or Pourchaire (Super Formula) from their respective 2024 rides, Arrow McLaren is unlikely to have a single driver it sees suitable to plug in for the entirety of the rest of the IndyCar calendar.

At minimum, though, it can use the coming days to lay out a long-term plan for the next five months it doesn’t have to keep resetting and reevaluating each week. Though Ilott seems the obvious and odds-on choice for the Indy 500 — he ran the Open Test for them earlier this month and has two 500s under his belt already — he’ll be racing at Spa during IndyCar’s Sonsio Grand Prix on the IMS road course May 10-11.

Though Pourchaire let slip at Long Beach his team at Sauber had discussed a two-race stint with Arrow McLaren, a third was likely left to be discussed until Malukas’ release could be finalized. His Super Formula schedule would allow him to race in two weekends at IMS. After his 11th-place debut at Long Beach, there were hopes Pourchaire’s second IndyCar outing might be even better, while racing a permanent, smooth, natural-terrain road course that he saw loads of rising up the junior formula ladder. Even still, the IMS road course is a track several recent ex-F2 challengers (Ilott and Christian Lundgaard among them) have shown strong at early in their careers.

With May complete, the pair could seemingly split the rest of the calendar even with their respective top priorities, though it would require an intro oval test for Pourchaire to get clearance for doubleheaders at Iowa and Milwaukee and the season-finale at Nashville. Both could run Detroit, Mid-Ohio and World Wide Technology Raceway. Pourchaire could tackle Road America, while Ilott readies for Le Mans. Ilott would be free for Laguna Seca, Toronto and Portland.

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Apr 28, 2024; Birmingham, Alabama, USA; Theo Pourchaire (6) of France drives on the front stretch at Barber Motorsports Park. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

There remain other oval-only ringers (Conor Daly and Ryan Hunter-Reay come to mind) who might be able to give Arrow McLaren more trusted performances, though as Kanaan explained in Long Beach, they’d be unlikely to factor into the team’s future beyond 2024. Though he said he’d be open to it while at Long Beach, it’s unclear whether a full-time IndyCar campaign could be seriously under consideration for Pourchaire while currently serving as Sauber’s reserve driver. At the same time, an F1 ride seems a longshot at the F1 outfit, with Nico Hulkenberg already signed for 2025, two different drivers under contract for 2024 and outgoing Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz still a possible target.

Should IndyCar be a possibility for Pourchaire, both team and driver would benefit from getting a couple test runs together on ovals to see how the young Frenchman gets up to speed and whether its a style of racing he enjoys. Getting more chances to run Ilott, too, would give Arrow McLaren as good a chance as ever to see if it sees him a suitable match alongside O’Ward for the future. Ilott, too, would need to feel out the fit for his future while seen as a driver who would be a prized signing for the incoming Prema team and is currently in a competitive top-level sportscar ride.

Arrow McLaren, too, is yet to lock-in a future with Rossi, who is in the final season of a two-year deal. O’Ward, locked-in on a new long-term extension inked this offseason, has delivered Arrow McLaren five wins in four-plus seasons. His various teammates since 2020, on the other hand, have totaled just five podiums in five-plus seasons. It’s what made the prospect of signing Palou so promising in recent years, and partially, too, why Arrow McLaren was willing to cast aside the chaos and uncertainty related to Malukas once it had legal clearance to do so.

Malukas’ future is less-certain. As tough a blow as this may be mentally and emotionally, you could make the argument Arrow McLaren did what was best for the young driver’s future, too, had it already privately decided he would not return for 2025. Rather than fighting to try and hold onto another year in papaya, Malukas now knows he must look elsewhere. Whether his family’s HMD Motorsports program is willing to once again strike a partnership with a midfield team, or even just help fund a ride, will determine what pool of opportunities may be out there.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing would almost certainly need funding, should it look to replace Fittipaldi in the No. 30. The team will be fighting tooth-and-nail in the coming weeks to hold onto Christian Lundgaard for the No. 45, but that already-funded ride could be a possibility, too. Ed Carpenter Racing is in a contract year with Rinus VeeKay and isnt’ known to have committed to Christian Rasmussen beyond this year either. There exist others — Malukas’ old home Dale Coyne Racing has all but one of the remaining 14 races for the No. 51 Honda confirmed for 2024, even. Those options will slowly make themselves known in the coming weeks and months.

A young talent fast enough to wear papaya, even just for a couple test days, remains deserving of an IndyCar ride, but an opportunity the caliber of which many drivers never see in their careers has now ended before it hardly began.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: What Arrow McLaren, David Malukas split means for Indy 500, IndyCar season

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