LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Pato O'Ward controlled his career trajectory at the start of the IndyCar season. Win the championship, the thinking went, and perhaps earn the license he needs to eventually move to Formula One.
Instead, he went into the season-opening race upset over his contract with Arrow McLaren SP and it showed on the track. He was 12th at 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 last week's practice at Long Beach, extending an unwelcome streak of three mistakes in three race weekends that were derailing his season before he even got a chance to get going. Understanding he needed to get out of his own head, O'Ward rallied to a fifth-place finish last weekend that seemed to knock some sense into the personable and popular Mexican driver.
“I know it's not a win, but we've had a very rough start to the year. We will build on momentum,” O'Ward said. “There's 14 races to go, so there's plenty of racing to go. I think we're going to do some good stuff in the next few races.”
Well, he better.
McLaren's high hopes for this season, its first as the majority owner of Arrow McLaren SP, hit an immediate speedbump both in Formula One and IndyCar just as the storied organization attempts to position itself as “America's open-wheel race team."
The McLaren brand has been reinvented over the past few years behind engaging young drivers, aggressive use of marketing and social media, and slick content that gives fans a deeper look at the team, its members and each race weekend.
Fan surveys in both F1 and IndyCar show that McLaren has succeeded in recapturing the audience. McLaren was voted the most popular F1 team and Lando Norris won favorite driver among female fans, as well as all fans aged 25 or younger. In IndyCar, Arrow McLaren SP tied for second 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 domestically and abroad at the start of the year, only for it to quickly unravel. The 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 seeking consistency in his second IndyCar season with the team. Rosenqvist won the pole at Texas and started fourth at Long Beach, but his best finish this season is 11th at Long Beach.
But it's the O'Ward saga that hangs over the organization as McLaren head Zak Brown plots the future of the organization. He acknowledged O'Ward is in a team-friendly contract through 2024.
Brown offered O'Ward a reworked deal but the driver hasn't accepted and he also declined to sign an identical contract to the one Colton Herta signed to test McLaren's F1 cars. O'Ward, who turns 23 next month, wants desperately to move to F1 and wants a significant pay raise that aligns him with the top IndyCar drivers. If McLaren can't make it happen, then he wants to move 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 — winning races, fighting for a championship and helping build the McLaren brand in the U.S. and Mexico.
To do that, Brown said O'Ward needs "to help us become more consistent, and vice versa, the same thing we’ve seen out of Lando in Formula One.
“Just continue to mature as a racing driver,” Brown said. “We all know he’s as fast as anyone on the grid. So now it’s about us, he, Felix working together to raise our average finish. And that’s on us to do as a collective team.”
McLaren ahead of the 2020 season joined IndyCar as a marketing partner for Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson's existing team, but as the majority owner starting this season, Brown wants McLaren's hands all over the organization.
He's planned for a 100,000-square foot shop 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 IndyCar entry next season with new cars and parts already ordered, and hiring for approximately 25 additional employees.
Alexander Rossi is rumored to have signed a contract to leave Andretti Autosport and become McLaren's third driver next season despite conflicting answers 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'd help the organization get its cars where O'Ward and Rosenqvist need them.
Brown is committed to building a championship IndyCar team and O'Ward is very much part of that plan. The driver may be disgruntled but the team does not want to lose him.
“I wouldn’t want Pato to go to any race team and have a void here, certainly wouldn’t be too excited about letting him go to another team and leaving a void here,” Brown said. “We think he’s a championship-caliber guy, so letting him go race somewhere else... we’ve got our guys, we invested in them, we took a chance on them, we’re not about to hand them over without some really good reason. I can’t think of a good one.”
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