LONG BEACH, CA (AP) – Pato Award dominated the trajectory of his career at the start of the IndyCar season. The thought went to win the championship, and perhaps get the license he needed to eventually move to Formula 1.
Instead, he went to the season opening race upset with his contract with Arrow McLaren SP and appeared on the track. He was in 12th place in St. Petersburg. He returned to Texas as the race winner and took 15th place, while also hitting a crew member on a pit road.
He hit the wall in last week’s training in Long Beach, extending an unwelcome streak of three fouls into three racing weekends that had been derailing his season before he had a chance to start. Realizing he needed to get out of his mind, O’Ward climbed to fifth last weekend which seemed to make some sense for the stylish and popular Mexican driver.
“I know it’s not a win, but we have a very difficult start to the year. We will build on the momentum,” Oward said. “There are 14 races to go, so there are a lot of races to go. I think we’ll do some good things in the next few races.”
Well, it’s better.
McLaren’s high hopes for this season, for the first time as the largest owner of the Arrow McLaren SP, have made an instant jump in both Formula One and IndyCar just as the storied organization is trying to position itself as the “US Open racing team.”
The McLaren brand has been reinvented over the past few years thanks to the involvement of young drivers, extensive use of marketing, social media and witty content that gives fans a deeper look at the team and its members every weekend.
Fan polls for both F1 and IndyCar show McLaren has succeeded in winning back the public. The McLaren team was voted as the most popular F1 team and Lando Norris won the driver of choice among fans, as well as all fans aged 25 and under. In IndyCar, Arrow McLaren SP tied for second place with Andretti Autosport as the second most popular team. O’Ward is the most popular driver among women voters.
So there was buzz surrounding the team both domestically and abroad at the start of the year, only to have it quickly fall apart. Formula 1 cars struggled until Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth last week in Australia, O’Ward was in disarray until last weekend and Felix Rosenqvist still sought consistency in his second season in IndyCar with the team. Rosenqvist won the pole in Texas and started fourth in Long Beach, but his best finish of the season is 11 in Long Beach.
But it’s the O’Ward saga that hangs over the organization as McLaren boss Zak Brown plots the future of the organization. He acknowledged that O’Ward is on a friend contract with the team until 2024.
Brown offered O’Ward a reworked deal but the driver did not accept it and also refused to sign a contract similar to the one Colton Herta signed to test McLaren’s F1 cars. O’Ward, who turns 23 next month, desperately wants to move to F1 and wants a big salary increase that would bring him in line with the best IndyCar drivers. If McLaren can’t make it, he wants to move to an IndyCar team he can steer into the championship.
Even if he gets another offer, Brawn only has to match him by 75% to keep O’Ward in a McLaren. And that’s where his driver wants to be – win races, fight for the championship and help build the McLaren brand in the US and Mexico.
To do this, Brown said O’Ward needed to “help us become more consistent, and vice versa, the same thing we saw from Lando in Formula One.
“Just keep growing as a racing driver,” Brown said. “We all know he’s as fast as anyone on the grid. So it’s about us now, he, Felix are working together to raise our mid-end. And that’s what we have to do as a collegiate team.”
McLaren joined IndyCar ahead of the 2020 season as marketing partner for current Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson team, but as majority owner starting this season, Brown wants to get McLaren’s hands across the organization.
He has planned a 100,000-square-foot store in Indianapolis that will move the team from the Schmidt building to a modern facility built largely around sustainability and renewable energy that will be comparable to the McLaren F1 plant.
Plans are underway to enter IndyCar full-time for the third time next season with new cars and parts already ordered, and hire approximately 25 additional employees.
Alexander Rossi is rumored to have signed a contract to leave Andretti Autosport to become McLaren’s third driver next season despite conflicting answers from all parties involved. At McLaren, Rossi will get a much-needed change of scenery, and as a former Indianapolis 500 champion and seven-race winner, he’s helped the organization get their cars where O’Ward and Rosenqvist need them.
Brown is committed to building an IndyCar Championship team and O’Ward is a big part of that plan. The driver may be indignant but the team doesn’t want to lose him.
“I wouldn’t want Pato to go to any racing team and have a void here, and he certainly wouldn’t be too excited to let him go to another team and leave a void here,” Brown said. “We think he is a man of championship caliber, so letting him go somewhere else… really is a good reason. I can’t think of a good idea.”
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