Is 2023 the breakout season for O’Ward?

Pato O’Ward has been on the cusp of a breakout in the NTT INDYCAR Series the last several years. Some may say that he’s already done so. While I think he’s been close, I don’t think he’s fully submerged himself as a championship front runner just yet.

Part of that is just down to the team he’s driving for. Nothing against either side too. McLaren and O’Ward have done a phenomenal job of immersing themselves as a championship contender. The problem is, they haven’t found enough consistency and speed to beat the teams in front of them.

Those teams?

Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. The two sides have combined to have won every INDYCAR championship over the last decade. Furthermore, if you go back to 2008, this iconic duo has combined to have taken 14 titles in a 15-year span.

Even further to that point, with this Aeroscreen era, they’ve won 72% of the races (33-for-46) too and 100% of the championships.

They just went 1-2-3-4-5-6 in the championship last season.

McLaren has caught up to Andretti Autosport, but can they catch up to the “Big 2?”

That’s what’s holding O’Ward back from fully breaking that bubble. Is 2023 the year to do so?

He’s had two wins in each of the last two seasons. The 23-year-old also has had 9 podiums in that same two-year span (5 in 2021, 4 in 2022). However, out of his 8 Top-5 finishes a year ago, only four of them landed on the podium.

That and not finishing to where he qualified has been the glaring hole that they have to find a way to close.

O’Ward had 13 starts of 7th or better (10 being 5th or better) over the course of the final 14 races in 2022. He only had 4 podiums to show for it.

Another area of improvement has to be on natural road courses too. On them a year ago, he won Barber, was 19th and 12th respectively at Indy, 26th at Road America, 24th in Mid-Ohio, 4th in Portland and 8th in Laguna Seca. As you can see, this is INDYCAR’s bread-and-butter with 41% (7-of-17) races occurring on them.

Pato O’Ward drives out of pit lane last May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

He’s had the pace to qualify well on these tracks, he’s just not finishing. If those two areas improve in 2023, watch out…

“For sure it’s been looked into. We’ve obviously looked for answers,” he said on the opening day of Media Content Days on Tuesday morning. “Have we found them all? I really think, I mean, it’s a hard statement to say because I feel like you can find and analyze reasons of why things might have happened, but you never really know for sure.

“But what I do know is that we want to minimize those. The perfect thing would be to not have those issues, right? It’s possible, for sure. I mean, the first two years I was with the team, I never had a DNF. I had completed almost all the laps all year.

“Last year, I mean, we had the best, like, average qualifying positions that we had during a season. But we had, like, four DNFs. One of those was maybe unlucky, the other ones were just a mishap.

“It’s so hard to say. But for sure it’s possible to make those a lot less than they were last year. Last year was for sure not a fluke, but like I was very surprised because we had never had those issues, at least to that extent.

“So definitely just starting this year with a clean blank, just starting to work off the strong years that we’ve built together.”

McLaren has done their part to help those areas too. They’ve added more than 40 new hires in the process to help leave no stone unturned. They’re trying to match what Penske and Ganassi does, even personnel wise too.

“A lot of new faces. A lot, a lot of new faces. I’m still in the process of learning all the names,” he says.

“It’s so cool to see, we’re all growing. There’s been big steps each year. I feel like in terms of personnel this year, it has been a very big one. One reason being probably because of the third car, just the team is growing.

“It’s great to see. It’s great to see everybody’s enthusiasm. Everybody’s here for that one goal, right? We all put so much time and sacrifice and energy into making these race cars go quicker.

“I feel like it’s been so hard to find people in all departments I feel like. From talking to not just the people in our team, but from other drivers, other friends, they’re like, Man, it’s hard to find people.

“I trust the team. I think the group of people that are in charge, seeing who joins the team, seeing who comes about, I think they know exactly what we need, and I trust they’re going to make the right decisions.

“Honestly, from what I’ve seen, there’s so much talent. There were already so much talent in the group. I feel like so much more has been added on which is just going to help us to really get us where we want to be.

“We as drivers put it into: how can we maximize it? Just really, really excited to get this season underway.”

One of the new hires is a completely new full-time team and Alexander Rossi. Does Rossi help propel them forward or is that too many drivers with something to prove under one roof?

“I’ve been positively surprised,” said Felix Rosenqvist of the early addition of Rossi. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in INDYCAR. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, it’s been super nice, super kind. I think, as I said before, it fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where me and Pato are kind of like, Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

O’Ward agreed.

“He’s been great to have around,” he said of Rossi. “We’ve all really enjoyed the Content Days, the media that we’ve done with the team. I think Felix hit it spot on; he’s in the middle. I think I’m here, Alex is here.

“At the end of the day, INDYCAR, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want rather than like, for example, in Formula 1, this is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car. In INDYCAR it’s very different where you can really tailor and customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I know he likes it to be able to point well. From experience, I wasn’t at Andretti seven years like Alex was, but from my experience, it was an extremely strong car in the rear.

“I feel like our car is very different to that. I’m curious to see what he thinks and how he kind of develops where we can find some more time.

“I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us, right?

“It’s been great. He’s been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

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