As 32 engines crank up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week, the 2022 NTT IndyCar season somehow has gotten quieter for Pato O’Ward and his Arrow McLaren SP team.
O’Ward will enter this week’s Indy 500 test coming off a fifth-place finish in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach after a 2022 season that started with two disappointing finishes and a plethora of potential distractions.
Slightly over a month ago, O’Ward went public with news that he was testing the IndyCar free agent market. The revelation came just days after McLaren announced a Formula One testing contract with Colton Herta. O’Ward, who shares the same F1 aspirations as his Rolex 24-winning teammate, initially seemed miffed by the news.
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But he put that all aside at Long Beach, overcoming mediocre practice and qualifying sessions for an inspired drive in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet after starting 11th on the street course difficult for passing.
“I definitely had as a goal in Long Beach to try to turn around our championship,” O’Ward told NBC Sports in an interview last Friday. “We started just rough, and things were going wrong, and there was so much noise, and I said, ‘You know what? We will turn it around in Long Beach, and we will start our claw back into the championship hunt because there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in the championship hunt this year.’
“We were last year (finishing third in points), and I think we can do it again this year. Right after Long Beach, I was very satisfied. Obviously, we’re there to win and for more, but in terms of where we were, you can’t just want to swallow the world in one bite. You’ve got to go step by step. I think that was a very good step in the right direction. I think it’s just going to build a great foundation on what we can achieve these next few races.”
The Mexican driver entered the 2022 season as a rising IndyCar star who seemed on the cusp of taking Arrow McLaren SP to the next level of challenging Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport as a 22-year-old championship contender.
But things seemed amiss for O’Ward in the Feb. 27 season opener at St. Petersburg (finishing 12th) and the March 20 race at Texas Motor Speedway (where he placed 15th after a pit miscue). Meanwhile, he faced questions about his contract and his feelings about Herta’s deal.
Team president Taylor Kiel referred to it as “external noise,” and it was notable that O’Ward used a similar term in describing his 2022 start and rededication to keeping the team on point and unified.
So has that “noise” settled down?
“Yeah,” O’Ward said. “I just really want to focus on doing a great season for these guys. Because they deserve it and put so much time and energy into trying to build better and faster and more predicable race cars for us. The best way we can repay them is give them wins. Give them results. So that’s the focus right now.
“Everything else will take its course. It’ll take its time, but I’m so happy with the group of guys I get to work with, and it’s very important to be all-in when you’re doing something, and I’m the type of person that you go 110 percent in anything that you’re doing. And if you’re not, then you’re a 20th in the series. That’s how competitive IndyCar is. If your head isn’t in the game 100 percent, if you’re not 100 percent focused on what is next — that next practice, qualifying, race — you’re not going to extract everything out of what you’ve got.”
The positivity continued to build during Indy 500 testing as a happy O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider that he had a contract offer that he intended to sign
With O’Ward locked into McLaren through at least the 2024 season (and the Associated Press recently reporting the team intends to continue building its future around him), the focus has shifted to improving its race-day performances.
McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist won the pole position at Texas and made the final round of qualifying at Long Beach. But the Swedish driver told NBC Sports that he was hampered by poor first stints in both races with tire degradation being a concern.
“That’s a combination of setup and driving, obviously,” said Rosenqvist, who eventually was sidelined by a mechanical failure at Texas. “It’s something we’re working very hard to capitalize on good starting positions. Because you can’t really afford to start fourth or fifth or first and not finish in the top 10. You should be able to bring it back at least where you started if you finish the race. So yeah, that’s been on our minds, and hopefully with a couple of good races, we’ll get a good flow going.”
The next two races are on road courses (Barber Motorsports Park on May 1, Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 14) before the attention turns to the biggest race of the season on May 29.
Even though he will spend the next two days making laps on the 2.5-mile oval at IMS, O’Ward hopes the Indy 500 test will keep building the team’s momentum.
“I think Long Beach was a great weekend, maybe we didn’t start the best way, but we significantly turned it around, and I think that’s huge,” O’Ward said. “In terms of road courses, we haven’t rolled off the trucks perfectly, but we have found things quickly and efficiently that have turned our weekend around, and I think that’s what we showed in Long Beach.
“So it’ll take time. Not everything is going to be perfect, but we’re definitely on the right track. And I’m excited of continuing to push with the guys and just getting some solid results under our belt and building on our championship to try and win it at the end. Because that’s why we do this, right?”