LONG BEACH, Calif — Is Arrow McLaren SP officially here? Have they already arrived on the scene as one of the heavyweights in the NTT IndyCar Series now? We asked this question earlier this season on the topic if they had closed the gap from this being a series of the “Big 3” and have forged their ways into making this now a “Big 4.” 29 races in, we have to wonder how much did they actually eat into that “Big 3” already? Are they really ready for the top this early?
“I think we broke through one of the biggest walls that you go through whenever you’re not a race winner yet, I guess you could say. I feel like the team and I have grown a lot,” O’Ward said. “We haven’t had the most perfect season. No season will be perfect, but I think we’ve maximized the package that we have in very multiple occasions.”
Alex Palou’s August struggles allowed AMSP driver Pato O’Ward to not only close the gap in pursuit of his first career NTT IndyCar Series championship, but also allowed him to take over the top spot in the standings with three races remaining too. Heading out to the west coast swing, O’Ward led Palou by 10 points. After the last two races and heading into the season finale, the lead has evaporated due to that Lap 51 caution in Portland which saw O’Ward go from the drivers seat to the one chasing again.
Can O’Ward rebound in Long Beach? He’s 35 points out and almost needs a miracle.
“Yeah, it’s a really cool opportunity, I guess, that we have, and yeah, last time in the position to fight for a championship was in 2018, but nowhere near the magnitude of what this championship would mean to me, the team and my family and everybody around,” he said.
“Yeah, like I said, it would be cool if it was maybe a little bit tighter, kind of in the same boat where Josef is at. I know he’s a little further. But yeah, all I can do is just try and maximize what I can out of the car that I’m given and then see where everything else falls, I guess.
“I feel like all you can do is just try and maximize what you can control because I can’t control where Josef finishes, I can’t control where Alex finishes, I can’t control anything else that’s kind of out of my hands. I can just try and maximize what I can do and then let everything else fall where it will fall.
“But yeah, I don’t know, man. Obviously it’s better to be on the other end of it because you’ve got some breathing room, but I’m not angry about the position that I’m in. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team this year. So yeah, we’re just treating it as another weekend and trying to maximize and end the year in a strong note.”
Both he and Palou are second year drivers and each are trying to stave off the winners of the last four series championships.
See, O’Ward also only has one teammate on the grid with Newgarden and Palou having three other teammates at their disposal. Does this help or hurt O’Ward?
“I mean, yeah, they have more cars, I guess, but at the end of the day I feel like we’re racing against — I think the bigger thing is that we’re racing against teams that have won multiple championships, talking about Ganassi and Penske, and yeah, I think that’s our biggest battle right now. I think the guys in the series are respectful and they know — at least kind of what Josef said, if I was in a position to screw someone up that’s fighting for a championship, I would get out of the way because I wouldn’t because fighting for a championship is pretty big, and if I was in that position I wouldn’t want someone to get in the way forcefully. I hope everybody plays clean, I guess. I don’t know what to expect.”
Plus, O’Ward has a few things working against him in a sense that no one at his age has won a championship. He just turned 22 this past spring. Sam Hornish Jr.’s title in 2001 at the age of 22 years, 3 months, 4 days is the youngest champion ever. He won a year later at 23 years, 2 months and 13 days in 2002.
Speaking of 2002, that’s the last time a team other than Penske, Ganassi or Andretti won a title. Hornish did so with Panther.
The last second year driver to win a championship was Jacques Villeneuve in 1995 at 24 years, 5 months and 1 day.
Can O’Ward stave off a fight from three Ganassi drivers and a Penske member to earn his first career championship in just his second season and in AMSP’s second full season foray?
Are they exceeding expectations?
O’Ward has won twice this year to go along with five podiums, nine top five results and 11 top 10’s. Palou has had three wins as well as eight podiums, nine top five finishes and 11 top 10’s. Newgarden too has two wins, five podiums, seven top fives and 12 top 10’s.
See where this is won or lost right now for O’Ward? It’s the top fives vs. podiums? He trails Palou by one win and three podiums but equals him in top fives. Newgarden has the same podiums as him as well but less wins and less top fives.
“Yeah, what I learned was that you have to beat the master of consistency at his own game in order to win the championship,” O’Ward told me on how to win a championship over someone like Dixon. “I think that’s the best way to put it. We just need to outscore him as much as we can every weekend. I think that’s the best thing we can do in order to have a shot at the championship at Long Beach.”
O’Ward says that it may be even tougher to win the championship in 2021 than it was a year ago in 2020.
“Man, it’s so tight this year that I feel like the field is stacked,” he continued. “It’s full of many very talented drivers. I don’t think it’s ever been harder. I don’t think it’s ever been this competitive from a driver’s standpoint. This is a true driver’s championship. I don’t think there’s anything harder in the world.
“Whoever is most consistent and most consistently in the podiums and in the top 5s is going to take it at the end of the year.”
He’s done just that. He called his own shot and it may pay off. With Arrow now locking into the team through 2028 and McLaren taking on a larger role starting in 2022, this is still just the ground floor on what can become a powerhouse in the new future.