McLaren’s arrival could dramatically change IndyCar landscape

INDYCAR Photo by Walter Kuhn
INDYCAR Photo by Walter Kuhn
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A two-car McLaren team is joining the NTT IndyCar Series in 2020, poised to dramatically change the landscape of the series.

It returns one of the world’s most iconic racing brands into North America’s pinnacle of open-wheel racing on a full-time basis for the first time since 1979, and will alter the makeup of manufacturers and drivers.

McLaren announced very early Friday morning that it was aligning with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to create a new team known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP that will field two Chevrolet-powered cars next season.

Arrow SPM team principal Sam Schmidt told NBCSports.com at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago that he had been talking to McLaren officials about this arrangement and would have to switch from Honda to Chevrolet to make it a reality.

Arrow SPM had one more year remaining on its contract with Honda Performance Development, but that deal will conclude at the end of this season. HPD put out a statement shortly after Friday morning’s announcement:

“HPD is proud of its numerous accomplishments in partnership with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which include all seven of the team’s NTT IndyCar Series victories to date, as well as two coveted pole positions for the Indianapolis 500. Although we regret that this partnership will be coming to an end in advance of the 2020 season, HPD has the utmost confidence in the strength and commitment of its remaining partner teams, all of whom have won at least one NTT IndyCar Series race in each of the past two seasons. We look forward to demonstrating that same type of depth across our entire lineup for many years to come.”

Arrow Electronics, which also supports McLaren’s Formula One team, will continue as title sponsor for the new partnership.

“Chevrolet and McLaren have a storied history of racing together, going back to the mid-1960s,” said Jim Campbell, US Vice President, Performance and Motorsports, Chevrolet. “We have always had tremendous respect for Zak Brown and Gil de Ferran, as well as for Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson and Mike Long. We are looking forward to partnering with the entire Arrow McLaren Racing SP team as we prepare for the 2020 IndyCar season.”

Ironically, these two teams are the last two big-name operations that have failed to miss the Indianapolis 500 over the past two years.

SPM’s James Hinchcliffe came up short in 2018, and two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso couldn’t get the McLaren entry into this year’s race. After the latter embarrassment, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown vowed that McLaren would be back.

“IndyCar has been part of McLaren since our early years of racing, and the series today provides not only a commercial platform to continue to grow our brand in North America, but competition with some of the best teams in international motorsport,” Brown said. “This team provides McLaren with the right synergy as a strategic partner for our return to the sport. We believe together we can help each other achieve our mutual ambitions. Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson have built a solid foundation and we look forward to working together to take the team to the next level.

“….We come to IndyCar in full respect of the sport, our competitors, the fans and the task ahead. At our core, we at McLaren are racers and where there’s competition that puts us to the test, we will race. The NTT IndyCar Series provides such a challenge.”

Under the new partnership, the infrastructure of Arrow SPM will continue with McLaren adding technical expertise, commercial experience and marketing strength.

Schmidt and Peterson will continue in their current roles, while McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran will lead his company’s IndyCar program. That will operate from McLaren headquarters in Woking, England but remain independent from its Formula 1 effort.

“IndyCar is a natural fit for McLaren, given our legacy and determination to succeed at the top levels of international motorsport,” De Ferran said. “Our ambition, over time, is to consistently compete for wins and championships. We acknowledge the challenge ahead of us, but McLaren is committed to this partnership and to supporting the team as a whole.”

As for the potential driver lineup, fan favorite James Hinchcliffe – who married his longtime fiancée Becky Dalton last Saturday in Ontario – has a contract with the team through 2020.

The team intends to honor that, and Hinchcliffe has stated that a discussion will have to be had about his current partnership with Honda, which has increased his profile in North America in several ways – including making him a TV pitchman for their annual spring sales.

Swedish rookie Marcus Ericsson has a one-year deal with the team that concludes at the end of this season.

There is also Alonso. In the past, he has said he is not interested in a running a full-time IndyCar Series team, but if he changes his mind, that would be something for the new operation to consider. He has a contractual relationship with McLaren, and if the Spaniard wants to make another attempt at the Indy 500, McLaren would be open to a third car for that race.

One driver that is highly sought after in the paddock is 19-year-old Colton Herta from Harding Steinbrenner Racing. His contract is held by two different teams, including HSR and Andretti Autosport.

McLaren is of the understanding that Herta will not be available for next season, as Michael Andretti continues to solidify the partnership team at HSR.

The arrival of McLaren, however, will not expand the field by two more cars, as both of the current Arrow SPM entries are now part of the new team.

“I’m extremely proud of the team that Ric and I have built and that a legendary brand like McLaren Racing has decided to partner with us to form Arrow McLaren Racing SP to continue our march to the top of IndyCar,” Schmidt said. “Arrow is a tremendous partner which has been integral to our growth as a team since 2015 and to the creation of this new partnership. The combined technical resources and commercial opportunities both McLaren and Arrow bring to the table provide a winning combination.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.