Pato O’Ward exploring IndyCar free agency, but McLaren holds options on his future

IndyCar Pato free agency
Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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A year after his first career NTT IndyCar Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway earned him a Formula One test with McLaren, Pato O’Ward is testing the market of free agency.

Now as he returns to his de facto home track for Sunday’s race, O’Ward’s bright future has suddenly become very cloudy. He’s got a contract with Arrow McLaren SP that runs through the 2024, but the young Mexican driver admitted he is actively scouring the job market — essentially as a restricted free agent who can solicit offers from other teams but that McLaren holds the rights to match.

“To be fairly honest with you, I’m fully focused in what I’m doing right now, which is driving and trying to do the best season that I can,” O’Ward, 22, told The Associated Press when asked Wednesday about his future. “My group of people is just scouting out what my future is going to look like. Yeah, that’s pretty much as much as I’ve got right now for you.”

The rising IndyCar star was vague when asked what had changed in the love affair with McLaren – “that’s a great question,” he said – but his sudden interest in the free-agent market seems odd. The race at Texas on Sunday is just the second in a 17-race season in which O’Ward is expected to be a championship contender (though he finished a disappointing 12th in the Feb. 27 season opener at St. Petersburg).

He’s been with McLaren since the team snagged him late in 2020 after Red Bull Racing released O’Ward from its junior driver program. The hiring was a steal for McLaren boss Zak Brown, who dumped popular veteran James Hinchcliffe to give O’Ward a seat with its IndyCar team.

In two full seasons, O’Ward has helped Arrow McLaren SP elevate its program to compete with IndyCar’s elite teams. O’Ward, who splits his time between Monterrey, Mexico, and San Antonio, last year won a pair of races and finished third in the championship standings.

But O’Ward openly covets an F1 ride, and McLaren ultimately can get him into motorsports’ top series. Yet the team last weekend signed American driver Colton Herta to its testing program.

Herta and O’Ward are friends, former teammates and current rivals for the IndyCar championship. And maybe now rivals for F1 seat time with McLaren.

Is that what has soured O’Ward on his current deal?

“I think we’re all going to have to wait and see what that answer is, to be honest with you. I don’t want to lie to you,” he said. “I don’t want to lie to everybody and say, `No, no, no,’ or, `Yes, yes, yes.’ We’ll see how things shape out. I think it’s too early in the season to truly see what’s happening.”

The signing of Herta did not move him ahead of O’Ward in McLaren’s testing program, and Brown said at the season-opening IndyCar race last month that he wants to evaluate several young drivers, potentially trying O’Ward in Formula One practices in 2022 and allowing him to test the older cars as Herta will do. He also said he would not use O’Ward in F1 at the detriment to the IndyCar program.

“What we won’t do is compromise the IndyCar team at all,” Brown said at St. Pete. “I would never take Pato out of IndyCar into F1 without having a great solution because IndyCar is as important as is Extreme as is Formula One. This is not a training ground for Formula One.”

Brown had promised O’Ward an F1 test when he won his first IndyCar race, and the Texas victory last May earned him a day in the car in Abu Dhabi last December. O’Ward doesn’t have a contract to do anything more with the F1 team, and McLaren has the right to match any offer O’Ward might receive from another team.

But there are no current IndyCar teams that offer a path to F1 and only a handful that consistently race for wins and championships. O’Ward said Wednesday he is unsure where he fits in the puzzle.

“I think anything could be a possibility. As of now, I’m not aware that I’m part of that,” he said of the McLaren test program. “I am currently under contract with McLaren. Just like anything, there are scenarios that I could stay where I’m at, or there could be scenarios where I could be in a different place.”

O’Ward can theoretically move to another team as early as next season should McLaren choose not to match any potential offers. But McLaren also could hold him through his 2024 existing deal, and the team wants to extend his current contract.

Either way, O’Ward’s current posturing and unhappiness can’t be great for a potential run at the IndyCar title.

Taylor Kiel, president of the IndyCar team and O’Ward’s race day strategist, said Wednesday they will work through the conflict.

“Look, it’s a blip on the radar, in my opinion,” Kiel said. “We’ve already addressed any of the rumors or otherwise with the team internally. The external noise, everything that surrounds situations like this, it is what it is. It’s part of the sport. It’s on us to make sure we have our house in order, when news needs to come out, it comes out from us and we go from there.”

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”