By JENNA FRYER, author of AP Auto Racing
LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Pato O’Ward controlled his career early in the IndyCar season. Win the championship, he thought, and maybe earn the license he’ll need to eventually make the move to Formula One.
Instead, he went into the season-opening race upset about his contract with Arrow McLaren SP, which showed on the track. He was 12th in St. Petersburg. He returned to Texas as the defending champion of the race, finishing 15th while also meeting a crew member in the pit lane.
He hit the wall in practice at Long Beach last week, extending an unwelcome streak of three penalties over three race weekends that ended his season before he even had a chance to get started. O’Ward understood he had to get out of his own head and rebounded to a fifth place finish last weekend, which seemed to give some meaning to the likeable and popular Mexican rider.
“I know it’s not a win, but we’ve had a very difficult start to the year. We’re going to build on the momentum,” O’Ward said. “There are 14 races left so there are still plenty of races ahead. I think we will do some good things in the next few races.”
McLaren’s high hopes for this season, his first as majority owner of Arrow McLaren SP, were met with an immediate surge of speed in both Formula One and IndyCar as the storied organization attempted to position itself as “America’s open-wheel racing team”.
The McLaren brand has been reinvented in recent years through dedicated young drivers, aggressive use of marketing and social media, and sophisticated content that gives fans a deeper look into the team, its members and each race weekend.
Fan polls in both F1 and IndyCar show that McLaren has managed to win back the audience. McLaren was voted favorite F1 team and Lando Norris became favorite driver among female fans and all fans aged 25 and under. At IndyCar, Arrow McLaren SP placed second with Andretti Autosport as the second most popular team; O’Ward is the most popular driver among voters.
At the beginning of the year there was hype about the team at home and abroad, but it quickly unraveled. The F1 cars struggled until Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth in Australia last week, O’Ward was a mess until last weekend and Felix Rosenqvist is still looking for consistency in his second IndyCar season with the team. Rosenqvist won pole in Texas and started fourth at Long Beach, but his best result this season is 11th at Long Beach.
But it’s the O’Ward saga that hangs over the organization as McLaren boss Zak Brown plans the organization’s future. He conceded that O’Ward has a team-friendly contract until 2024.
Brown offered O’Ward a revised deal but the driver did not accept and he also declined to sign an identical contract that 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 doesn’t succeed, he wants to switch to an IndyCar team that can take him to a championship.
Even if he does get another offer, Brown only has to complete it 75% to keep O’Ward in a McLaren. And that’s exactly where he wants his driver – to win races, fight for a championship and help build the McLaren brand in the US and Mexico.
To do that, Brown said, O’Ward “has to help us become more consistent and vice versa, the same thing we’ve seen Lando do in F1.
“Just keep maturing as a racer,” Brown said. “We all know that he is as fast as everyone else on the grid. So now it’s about us, he, Felix, working together to improve our average score. And that is up to us as a collective team.”
McLaren joined IndyCar ahead of the 2020 season as a marketing partner for the existing team of Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson, but as the majority owner starting this season, Brown wants McLaren to get their hands on the entire organization.
He is planning a 100,000-square-foot store in Indianapolis that will move the team from Schmidt’s building to a state-of-the-art facility that has a strong focus on sustainability and renewable energy and will resemble the McLaren F1 factory.
Plans are underway for a third full-time IndyCar entry next season, with new cars and parts already on order and about 25 additional employees hiring.
Rumor has it that Alexander Rossi has signed a deal to leave Andretti Autosport and become McLaren’s third driver next season, despite conflicting answers from everyone involved. At McLaren, Rossi would get a much-needed change of scene and as a former Indianapolis 500 champion and seven-race winner, he would help the organization get their cars to 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 upset, but the team doesn’t want to lose him.
“I wouldn’t want Pato to go to any race team and have a gap here, I certainly wouldn’t be too keen on having him go to another team and leave a gap here,” Brown said. “We think he’s a championship-caliber guy, so we’re letting him race somewhere else…we’ve got our guys, we’ve invested in them, we’ve given them a chance, we’re not going to give them away without some really good reason.” I can’t think of a good one.”
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