We’re only one race into the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season and Silly Season is already a topic of conversation. That’s expected though when the list of high profile jobs as well as rides that are available make up that list.
One of them is Pato O’Ward. He spoke candidly about the topic on Wednesday which opened up our eyes some on something more in depth than I honestly expected.
See, O’Ward hasn’t been shy on the fact that his dream is to become a Formula One driver in the very near future. He said that he hoped to be in F1 before he got to 24-25 because if you wait much later, it’s never going to happen.
That said dream got one step closer to a reality when he won at the Texas Motor Speedway last year which happens to be the site of this weekend’s NTT INDYCAR Series race on Sunday. See, with that win, McLaren boss Zak Brown promised an F1 test on O’Ward’s first INDYCAR triumph.
He made good on his promise back in December in Abu Dhabi. That only strengthened O’Ward’s his hunger to race one of those cars full-time. He was very open on that fact and made it clear that if all went to his plan, his next contract would either be in F1 or one that leads to an F1 seat.
“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.”
Luckily, he was with the right team, right? Arrow McLaren SP has an INDYCAR as well as an F1 team. So, running well in INDYCAR could lead to a promotion to F1. It made the most sense. AMSP knows O’Ward’s value and with him being at such a young age, why potentially risk losing him? You never let a driver of his magnitude walk.
Now, they may have no choice which brings this Silly Season to a head already.
Reports are, the initial plan was to have O’Ward maybe make some FP1 appearances with the F1 side of things to help him get enough superlicense points. That and another top three finish in INDYCAR points could be just enough for what he needs.
Plus, with AMSP and O’Ward having what we thought was a contract in place for 2023 as well as Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris locked into contracts for next season too, it made the most sense to groom O’Ward to take over Ricciardo’s seat whenever his contract expired.
However, those plans may have taken a drastically taken a different path now. 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.
So is the fact that he’s making it clear without having to use his words that he’s not entirely happy about this new situation that he’s found himself in. 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.
“I truly am kind of in the same place you guys are at. There’s just a lot of noise right now. 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.”