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

IndyCar Pato free agency
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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.”

Starting lineup grid for IMSA Petit Le Mans: Tom Blomqvist puts MSR on pole position

Petit Le Mans lineup

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship contender Tom Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank Racing Acura at the front of the starting lineup for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Road Atlanta.

Blomqvist turned a 1-minute, 8.55-second lap on the 2.54-mile circuit Friday to capture his third pole position for MSR this season. Earl Bamber qualified second in the No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ricky Taylor was third in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which enters Saturday’s season finale with a 19-point lead over the No. 60 of Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis (who will be joined by Helio Castroneves) for the 10-hour race.

PETIT LE MANS STARTING GRID: Click here for the starting lineup l Lineup by car number

PETIT LE MANS: Info on how to watch

With the pole, MSR sliced the deficit to 14 points behind WTR, which will field the trio of Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Brendon Hartley in Saturday’s race.

“We really needed to put the car in this kind of position,” Blomqvist said. “It makes our life a little less stressful tomorrow. It would have given the No. 10 a bit more breathing space. It’s going to be a proper dogfight tomorrow. The guys gave me such a great car. It’s been fantastic this week so far, and it really came alive. I’m hugely thankful to the boys and girls at MSR for giving me the wagon today to execute my job.

“That was a big effort from me. I knew how important it was. It’s just awesome for the guys to give them some sort of reward as well. It’s always nice to be quick. If you do the pole, you know you’ve got a quick car.”

Though WTR has a series-leading four victories with the No. 10, MSR won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and has five runner-up finishes along with its three poles.

The strong performances of the ARX-05s ensure that an Acura will win the final championship in IMSA’s premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) division, which is being rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype in the move to LMDh cars next season.

Taylor qualified third despite sliding into the Turn 5 gravel during the closing minutes of qualifying while pushing to gain points.

“Qualifying was important for points,” Taylor said. “Going into it, if we outqualified the No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura, they had a lot to lose in terms of championship points. So, we were trying to increase the gap over 20 points which would’ve made a big difference for tomorrow. We would have loved to get the pole and qualify ahead of the No. 60, but in the scheme of the points, it didn’t change a whole lot. I’m feeling good since it’s such a long race, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura team does such a good job strategizing and putting us in a good position.

“I’m very confident in our lineup and our team compared to them over the course of 10 hours. I’d put my two teammates up against those guys any day. I think we are all feeling optimistic and strong for tomorrow.”

In other divisions, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports (LMP2), Riley Motorsports (LMP3), VasserSullivan (GTD Pro) and Paul Miller Racing (GTD) captured pole positions.

The broadcast of the 10-hour race will begin Saturday at 12:10-3 p.m. ET on NBC, moving at 7 p.m. to USA Network. Peacock will have flag-to-flag coverage.



Results by class

Fastest lap by driver

Fastest lap by driver after qualifying

Fastest lap by driver and class after qualifying

Fastest lap sequence in qualifying

Best sector times in qualifying

Time cards in qualifying

PRACTICE RESULTS: Session I l Session II l Session III