No regrets for Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP on strategy coming up short of Barber win

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Though the strategy play ultimately was wrong, Arrow McLaren SP doesn’t have any regrets about the decision to pit Pato O’Ward three times Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.

“We’ve certainly done all the post-event homework, and we really as a team felt like in that moment, we’re not quite sure we would have done anything different,” team president Taylor Kiel said during a Zoom news conference Wednesday.

After starting on pole position in the No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet, O’Ward led 25 of 90 laps and finished fourth despite having the fastest car all weekend in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. That blinding speed made a three-stop strategy the “primary target,” Kiel said.

But when two early caution flags led to eight of the first 11 laps being run under yellow, the tactical window opened, and Kiel said McLaren considered switching to two stops for O’Ward. Two stops were the call for the top three of Scott Dixon, Will Power and first-time winner Alex Palou, who said he was surprised when the top two starters, O’Ward and Alexander Rossi, pitted within the first 20 laps for the first of their three stops.

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Kiel, though, said there were a few mitigating circumstances in the 2021 season opener that kept the team on a three-stop strategy at Barber for Pato O’Ward.

“One thing we were struggling with, and everybody was struggling with, was a lack of telemetry early on due to some network issues within the facility,” Kiel said, referring to one of multiple power outages over the weekend at Barber that affected connectivity. “So we had no line of sight to anything that was going on from a car or systems point of view. Also, being the first car in line, we were a bit nervous about having any tire damage or punctures driving through a lot of that debris and chaos (from a six-car crash during the first lap) on the run down into Turn 5.

“So we were a bit nervous about that, and then we were receiving some messages that the rear tire life was going away. Factor all those things into play, and our primary car that we were racing was Rossi, and he opted for the three-stop right away, so we decided to cover.”

That early stop also took O’Ward off the tires that had raised doubts, and it allowed the rising star from Mexico to push without conserving fuel over the final 70 laps.

But the extra stop left O’Ward 3.9741 seconds behind Palou at the checkered flag.

“I think at the end of the race, over the full span, the two and three stops were within a couple of seconds of each other; you could throw a blanket over them,” Kiel said. “So we unfortunately weren’t on the right strategy, there’s no doubt about that. But at the moment with the information that we had, I think it was the right decision for the team.”

It was another near-miss for O’Ward, who came close to his first NTT IndyCar Series victory multiple times last year (notably at Road America and Gateway) during his first full season on the circuit.

He stuck an upbeat tone Wednesday, looking forward to Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where O’Ward finished second in his IndyCar debut last year and also won an Indy Lights race in 2018.

“We had a very solid start to the season,” O’Ward, 21, said. “Very, very quick in qualifying. We were the fastest car on track during the race. Unfortunately we didn’t make the perfect call on what strategy to take, but it’s such a tricky situation. When there’s yellows coming out, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I come out of the weekend pleased with how the team was working, how the pit stops went. How we had great pace. I think we salvaged a great result.

“I think it was a great weekend. We showed we’re here to compete and to win races. We showed we’re not here to mess around.”

It isn’t the first time O’Ward has had the fastest car and come away empty-handed.

“It’s happened in Indy Lights, but there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “In Indy Lights, it was someone else punting me off the track. This time, it was not quite making the right call to cover the Ganassi cars on the two-stopper. It’s not like we had a terrible weekend. In IndyCar, it’s such a competitive series, that, like, fourth ain’t bad.

“We’re just going to regroup, and we’ll be ready to hammer down in St. Pete.”