LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Pato O’Ward controlled his career trajectory at the start of the IndyCar season. Winning the championship, it was thought, and maybe earning the license he needs to eventually move up to Formula 1.
Instead, he entered the season-opening race upset about his contract with Arrow McLaren SP and it showed on the track. He was 12th in St. Petersburg. He returned to Texas as the defending race winner and finished 15th, while also hitting a crew member on pit road.
He hit the wall in practice last week at Long Beach, extending an unwelcome streak of three mistakes in three race weekends that derailed his season before he even had a chance to get going. Realizing he needed to get out of his head, O’Ward rallied to a fifth-place finish last weekend, which seemed to make sense for the lovable and popular Mexican rider.
“I know it’s not a victory, but we had a very difficult start to the year. We’re going to keep the momentum going,” O’Ward said. “There are 14 races to go, so there are a lot of races to go. I think we are going to do some good things in the next races.
Well, he’s better.
McLaren’s high hopes for this season, its first as majority owner of Arrow McLaren SP, have hit an immediate speed bump in both Formula 1 and IndyCar, just as the legendary organization tries to position itself as ‘the ‘America’s open-wheel racing team’.
The McLaren brand has been reinvented in recent years through the commitment of young drivers, the aggressive use of marketing and social media and clever content that gives fans a deeper insight into the team, its members and each race weekend.
Fan surveys in F1 and IndyCar show that McLaren has managed to win back the public. McLaren was voted the most popular F1 team and Lando Norris won the title of favorite driver for female fans, as well as for all fans aged 25 or 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 female voters.
So there was hype surrounding the team both at home and abroad at the start of the year, only for it to quickly unravel. F1 cars struggled until Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth last week in Australia, O’Ward had been a mess until last weekend and Felix Rosenqvist is still on the hunt for consistency in his second IndyCar season with the team. Rosenqvist took pole at Texas and started fourth at Long Beach, but his best result this season is 11th at Long Beach.
But it is the O’Ward saga that hangs over the organization as McLaren chief Zak Brown charts the future of the organization. He acknowledged that O’Ward was on a team-friendly contract through 2024.
Brown offered O’Ward a reworked deal but the driver didn’t accept and he also refused to sign a contract identical to the one Colton Herta signed to test McLaren’s F1 cars. O’Ward, who turns 23 next month, is desperate to make the move to F1 and wants a significant pay rise that puts him in line with the top IndyCar drivers. If McLaren can’t get there, then he wants to move on to an IndyCar team that can guide him to a championship.
Even if he gets another offer, Brown only has to match it at 75% to keep O’Ward in a McLaren. And that’s where he wants his driver: to win races, fight for a championship and help build the McLaren brand in the United States and Mexico.
To do that, Brown said O’Ward had to “help us become more consistent, and vice versa, the same thing we saw from Lando in Formula 1.
“Just keep maturing as a race car driver,” Brown said. “We all know he’s as quick as anyone on the grid. So now it’s about us, him, Felix working together to raise our average finish. And it’s up to us to do that as a collective team.
McLaren ahead of the 2020 season joined IndyCar as a marketing partner to the existing team of Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson, but as majority owner from this season Brown wants McLaren’s hands across the organization.
He has planned a 100,000 square foot store in Indianapolis that will move the team out of Schmidt’s building and into a state-of-the-art facility built heavily around sustainability and renewable energy that will be similar to McLaren’s F1 factory.
Plans are underway for a third full-time entry into IndyCar next season with new cars and parts already on order, and the hiring of around 25 additional staff.
Alexander Rossi has been rumored to have signed a contract to leave Andretti Autosport to become McLaren’s third driver next season despite conflicting responses from all parties involved. At McLaren, Rossi would get a much-needed change of scenery and, as a former Indianapolis 500 champion and seven-race winner, he would help the organization get its cars where O’Ward and Rosenqvist need them.
Brown is committed to building an IndyCar championship team and O’Ward is an integral part of that plan. The driver may be unhappy but the team doesn’t want to lose him.
“I wouldn’t want Pato to go to a racing team and have a void here, I certainly wouldn’t be too excited about letting him go to another team and leave a void here,” Brown said. “We think he’s a championship caliber guy, so let him go racing somewhere else… we’ve got our guys, we’ve invested in them, we’ve taken a chance, we’re not about to hand them over without a bit really a good reason. I can’t think of a good one.
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