Is it time to panic yet for O’Ward? His thoughts heading into Texas this weekend on his season and his future

Pato O’Ward isn’t panicking. Not yet at least. See, O’Ward wasn’t too thrilled to be sitting 12th in points after the opening race of the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season after a ho-hum weekend on the streets of St. Pete. He knows just how important each and every race is. Heck, it’s not just every race, it’s every session. It starts before you even get to the track.

With testing being so few and far between, plus practice sessions being so short, you have to pretty much roll off the truck with a car capable of winning from the onset. You don’t have the luxury of making changes and seeing if they work or not. You can go down a bad path if the changes you initially make don’t work.

In saying that, if you start off off, you’ll likely remain there for the duration of the weekend. That’s exactly what happened in St. Pete. O’Ward never was a factor and it showed on race day.

That has him in an early hole in points. The guy he was chasing in points last year that ended up winning the title, finished runner-up in the opener. He’s already starting 2022 off behind.

Yes, there’s still 16 races left, but without a top 10 in one race already, you can’t afford many more mulligans.

You need consistency in the form of podiums. You have to turn top 10’s into top fives and when you can, turn top fives into podiums. How do you do that in a day and age of parity being so high?

No one won more than three races all last season. Palou was a three time victor. O’Ward and Josef Newgarden each won twice. Scott Dixon won once. The wins are all fairly even. It’s the stats behind to where championships are now won.

In terms of top fives, Palou had 10, O’Ward and Dixon each had nine. Newgarden eight. For top 10’s, it was 13 for Newgarden, 12 for the Ganassi trio and 11 for O’Ward.

All pretty even.

But, look at the podiums.

Newgarden had six. Dixon and O’Ward each had five. Ericsson had three. Palou had eight.

See the difference? That’s what separated these five. What about what separated these five from the rest?

Palou already has one. O’Ward has none. With a sport in which anything can happen, you need to bank them when the best opportunity arises. That’s why O’Ward is somewhat feeling the pressure this weekend.

O’Ward returns to the spot of his 1st INDYCAR win – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

One of Arrow McLaren SP’s strong suits are on ovals, especially for O’Ward. This is the spot to where he picked up his first career INDYCAR victory last year. He was 12th as a rookie in 2020 and third in Race 1 here in 2021.

At Indy, O’Ward has finished sixth and fourth respectively. In Iowa, he was fourth and 12th and that 12th was a top five for most of the night. For World Wide Technology Raceway, he’s finished third, second and second respectively.

That’s 10 oval starts with four top sixes in five superspeedway starts to go along with eight top 10’s in general on ovals. These remarkably enough, his best tracks. His comfort. With a potential of chasing weekend’s later, don’t you need to capitalize on Sunday when he can? Does that add more pressure?

“I’m looking forward to it,” O’Ward said. “First of all, it’s a place that holds a very special place in my heart because I’ve lived in Texas for many years. Honestly if you would have told me that’s where you’re going to get your first INDYCAR win, I would have told you that you’re crazy, but we did it. We did it there last year.

“I think we’ve proven we had an oval package as a team that’s as strong as anybody out there. I feel like this is a great chance for us to capitalize on a good opportunity, kick our way into this 2022 season after having kind of a rough start in St. Pete.”

He said that win last year was big to get the win out of the way.

“It was kind of like a reassuring of ourselves,” he continued. “We just won together. The group of people that were in, engineers, mechanics, driver, everybody together, we just won. It’s like this package can win. It’s proven to be race winners already.

“I think you always believe it, but I feel like once you actually break through it, it’s a fact, it’s a statement, it’s not a belief anymore. That was just huge into I feel like really knowing that we’ve got it, we can bring it to the big guns. I don’t think it’s going to be any different this year.”

The thing is, there’s a lot of noise around O’Ward and his future at AMSP right now too. It’s clear that he’s not happy with his future and where it stands with the team anymore. He wants to be an F1 driver and at one point those plans for him to have a shot inhouse with McLaren was on the horizon. Now, not so much.

“I think it’s not a secret, right? This passion that I have for motorsports, it started with Formula 1,” O’Ward said. “Of course, I’d be interested to be in Formula 1. But if the right opportunity arises and if I was able to extract the extra things that Formula 1 offers you as a professional, as an individual.

“I love INDYCAR. I love INDYCAR racing. I think the series is on a constant rise. I think it’s going to keep getting bigger and bigger. My job right now is to try and help that in getting it bigger, specifically in the Latin market. I think we’ve done a good job so far but I think it can still grow a lot.

“What I think people need to understand is, yes, I get it, Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsports. In terms of competition there is nothing harder than INDYCAR because everything is closer to each other. We’ll see how the F1 unravels with the new regulation this year, all that stuff.

“There’s very limited seats. Many of the times, as we’ve seen in other forms of motorsports, it’s not about can you do it, but is there a seat available, is there someone that wants to put you in that seat.”

Last Saturday, McLaren Racing confirmed that current IndyCar driver Colton Herta will test for the McLaren F1 Team as part of its 2021 MCL35M car testing program in 2022.

The opportunity for Herta comes with the new Formula 1 sporting regulations, which enable teams to now test one-year-old cars, under the Testing of Previous Cars (TPC) provision. The McLaren F1 TPC program provides an opportunity for the team to test potential drivers and evaluate young talent for the future. 

“Colton is a proven talent in IndyCar and we will be interested to see how he adapts to a Formula 1 car,” said McLaren F1 Team Principal, Andreas Seidl. We believe this testing program will provide him with valuable experience while demonstrating the benefit of expanding previous car testing to showcase promising drivers for the future.”

In saying that, I think we all just assumed that this was a two-fold option. It could have been Brown giving friend Michael Andretti a favor in the sense that having Herta do this gets him super license points for Herta to drive for Andretti’s new F1 team that’s as long as they get approval, will take to the F1 grid in 2024. It also allows Brown and McLaren a look at Herta too in the process.

However, it just seemed like maybe Herta and O’Ward would get the same treatment with O’Ward still having the top opportunity to take a future seat within that program. Wouldn’t Herta make the most sense for Andretti’s top driver in 2024?

Well, after that announcement, the damage to O’Ward’s ego and trust in his McLaren future may have taken a hit. He was honest. Surprisingly honest to say the least. O’Ward, said that plans have changed and that he may not have the same practice opportunity that Herta has with them now. It’s an entirely different deal and that he found out a couple of weeks ago that Herta, not himself, would be represented.

Did he like that?

His avoidance of answer that part of the question was telling.

Here’s the full exchange.

Q. Pato, you’ve made no secret about wanting to be in F1 and race there. Did you know about the Colton Herta news? What was your reaction to it? Were you disappointed you weren’t selected to be part of that program?

PATO O’WARD: I knew a couple weeks back, yeah.

Q. We were told they were going to be looking at putting other drivers testing cars. Is there still movement that could happen there?

PATO O’WARD: I mean, I guess if there’s a possibility, I think anything could be a possibility. As of now, I’m not aware that I’m part of that.

Last Fall/winter, it appeared the most likely destination was for O’Ward to end up in F1 with McLaren. Now, it appears shaky at best.

“My group of people is just scouting out what my future is going to look like,” O’Ward said of his contract situation. “Yeah, that’s pretty much as much as I’ve got right now for you.”

O’Ward is technically under contract with AMSP for 2023 but he’s also still free to look elsewhere. Think of it like a restricted free agent in NFL. They can shop and can accept offers but the current team they are on has a chance to match it.

That’s O’Ward’s situation now.

“I am currently under contract with McLaren,” he said. “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.”

When asked if he’d be allowed to solicit other offers and McLaren probably match?

“Oh, man. You’re good (smiling). Bingo.”

He’s not guaranteed to be part of McLaren’s plans for INDYCAR or F1 past 2022 now and it seems like maybe the road to F1 with them has gotten longer. So, O’Ward naturally would be open to look elsewhere. Why not? He’s going to be 23 in May and already has two wins, four poles, 322 laps led and points finishes of fourth and third respectively in just 39 career INDYCAR starts.

Obviously ASMP wouldn’t want to lose him but they also know what his main immediate and future goals are and that’s to win an Indy 500 and an INDYCAR championship this year and be in F1 in the next few years. If they can’t give him that confidence that he will be an F1 driver, he has no other option than to look around.

When he looks, he’ll have attention from likely everyone inside the INDYCAR paddock. You know Team Penske would absolutely love to have someone like O’Ward with them and has the capability and capital to sign him to a fourth car. What about Ganassi? They’d take a look.

The best route may be in fact back to Andretti. He started off there in Indy Lights and with them fielding an F1 team for 2024, wouldn’t going back to Andretti Autosport in 2023 give him the best opportunity to stay here for another year or two and have a better shot at F1?

That’s where this all gets really intriguing because O’Ward, Herta and even Alexander Rossi now factor largely into silly season.

“Honestly, it’s a lot of the things that I can’t really control. What I can control is trying to position myself in a place where I can see a future, in a place where my best chances, whether it’s in INDYCAR or in Formula 1. Right now, to be fairly honest, INDYCAR is where I’m at. I need to see what my best positioning is for what I want to achieve. Everybody in the sport wants to achieve the exact same thing, right? We want to win championships, races, 500s.

“Like I’ve mentioned many times, I love the people that I get to work with at Arrow McLaren SP, great group of people, really smart people, people that I know that believe in me, believe that me driving the 5 car, the car that they have built, the car they have set up, they know every time I go in it’s always going to be more than 100%. I will extract everything that it has to offer.

“When we make a mistake, it’s together. It takes a team to win championships and to win races. It’s not just the driver. I think for me right now, I really don’t know what’s in store for me. I feel like a lot of things can shift.

“As quick as it might come, it can go away. It’s a moving puzzle in a way. So I think right now the most important thing for me is to focus on my season and kind of let everything else fall into their place, see what comes of it.”

This could be a huge distraction, as can the fact that this team performed so poorly in St. Pete. They need to rebound this weekend on a track they’ve been so good at but have this hanging over their heads too.

Adversity is striking for this team early.

“Look, it’s a blip on the radar, in my opinion,” said Taylor Kiel. “We’ve already addressed any of the rumors or otherwise with the team internally. I’ve got full confidence that everybody is focused and ready to perform at Texas. That’s really what’s important to me, that we’re ready to go. Everybody is here to win, everybody is here to do the job.

“Certainly internally we’re in a good place. I think that’s really all that matters to me. 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.”

O’Ward kept it clear too that he’s not going to allow this to affect him as he’s extremely happy with the guys on his team and everyone around it. He wants to go out and perform for them. It’s just the contract part and the one that he wants to win a title that’s hanging over his head at the moment.

“I truly am kind of in the same place you guys are at. There’s just a lot of noise right now,” he said. “I want to do a great season for the team that has been behind me for these past couple years. I think we’ve had a great 2020. We had an even better 2021. I want to raise the bar even again for 2022.

“We’ve been close to the big cookie, so I don’t know why we can’t do it, right? We need to keep working just like the Ganassis and Penskes and Andrettis are doing. You have to continuously develop and find new ways because we are a spec-ish series. You need to find every little detail you can to get an edge over your competitors.

“Right now it’s just full fledge into trying to get everything we can out of analysis that we might have seen, races we might have had last year where we struggled, try and just make those better.

“There’s not a lot of things to say we need to win every race. It’s impossible in INDYCAR. That’s just not possible. But you can certainly bring your 16th place horrendous finishes to eighth or ninth. That’s what we need to do.”

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