Figuring out contract for O’Ward help changed dynamic of No. 5 team

LEEDS, Ala — Its amazing what happens with a little bit of mind control and change of heart. I wrote a few months ago that the rough start to the season for Pato O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP was a direct result of the lack of clarity surrounding their contact situation and likely wouldn’t get turned around until they had this figured out. Since they seem to have done so, O’Ward is back in the championship hunt following a 5th place finish a few weeks ago in Long Beach and a win Sunday in Barber.

The sulking stopped and the results got better. It’s not a coincidence.

“I think the shift that we kind of felt was in Long Beach actually,” O’Ward said after scoring his 3rd career win on Sunday in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. “I just think we had a great race there. I think a top-five finish in this series is pretty stellar because it’s so competitive, there’s so many factors that have to go right in order to be up there.

“I just think this weekend was the perfect weekend to do it. I love this place. We had a great car here. No reason why we wouldn’t have had a good car here this weekend, which we just proved that we were the guy to beat. We missed it just by a little bit in qualifying, but I knew I had the pace, I knew the car had the pace. It was just kind of playing a bit of a waiting game.

“Yeah, I feel great, man. I think what last year gave us as a group was kind of that year of fighting for a championship under our belt. We obviously didn’t come out on top, but we fought for it until the end of the season. And that’s huge.

The thing is, he was singing a vastly different tune a couple of months ago. The song he was signing was a heartbreak ballad. He spoke candidly about the topic in March to 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. 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.

They almost did.

Reports were that 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. Back in March, McLaren Racing confirmed that current IndyCar driver Colton Herta, not O’Ward, 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.”

Well, after that announcement, the damage to O’Ward’s ego and trust in his McLaren future appeared to had taken a hit. O’Ward was honest a couple of months ago. 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 prior to the announcement 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.

Is Pato O’Ward really going to be a free agent now? Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

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.

That’s where this friction started. O’Ward was pissed. It was a war within the team O’Ward said. He was going to battle to get himself a future contract with an F1 future.

AMSP wanted O’Ward but more here than overseas. O’Ward wanted them but overseas and if they couldn’t get him there, he wasn’t going to be happy.

It cost them on track results.

Then, a change in philosophy for O’Ward changed. He was sick of running midpack. He was 12th in St. Pete and 15th in Texas and sat 13th in points going to Long Beach. If he didn’t change, then this thing would keep spiraling downwards. So, he decided to change. Enough was enough.

He went out and finished 5th in Long Beach. The dialogue between he and AMSP was back going in a positive direction again and the momentum was starting to turn back to where it was in 2021.

Word was a new contract was on the table that was beneficial to both sides. It helped to turn the results to even more of a positive this weekend in Barber.

O’Ward qualified 2nd. He had a superb final pit stop and passed Rinus VeeKay for the win on Lap 61 in Turn 5.

“We’re in a good place,” Kiel said. “Well, I think just as an entire group of people, certainly Pato and our whole team, I think we’ve kind of hit the reset button. As he said, Long Beach was a catalyst for us to show that we can perform at a high level again after last year to back it up.

“For me, I want to give him the tools to succeed, and the rest is up to him. He takes advantage of it. Certainly when we have a good car to compete at the front, we compete at the front. That’s the goal for us, is to continue to put in the work and put in the effort and make sure we have a car, a team and a group of people that can support Pato. The rest is up to all of us to execute.

“I think today proves that we can do that and we’ll continue to do that. That’s where we’re at.

“I’ve said to him before, the driver in our team, I don’t know how it is with everybody else, is the quarterback, right? As the quarterback goes, the rest of the team goes. As the driver goes, the rest of the team goes. He has such an infectious spirit, such an energy, that it’s impactful to what we do in a very good way.

“I think there’s kind of two things there: he’s a very important part of what we do, but as a team you have to be able to compartmentalize things, too. We’re moving from race to race, different circuit type to different circuit type, testing, racing. We’re doing so many things, we have to focus on what we’re doing today.

“I would say the drivers in our organization are certainly impactful to the general aura of what we’ve got going on. Ultimately us as a team, we have to be able to withstand whatever might happen. That’s kind of where we’re at with that.”

That tune is back to the happy one in the building and in the pit box which is helping O’Ward in the cockpit. The trust seems back and it’s paying dividends.

A happy O’Ward is a dangerous O’Ward to the field. 2 straight top 5 finishes, gaining 25 points in 1 weekend and going from 13th in points to 5th in 2 races.

Watch out.

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