McLaren has already had a bumpy road in its entry to full-time IndyCar racing. When it tried to launch an Indy 500 effort for Fernando Alonso in 2017 it ended in tears with a blown engine. 2019 was pure disaster as Fred failed to even qualify for the race. When it joined forces with Arrow Schmidt Peterson for a full-season effort, however, things turned around in a big way. And it’s looking like McLaren boss Zak Brown wants to invest even more into this program.
For 2020, the Papaya Orange team trebled down its efforts and launched a fully-fledged two-car team for the season, hiring Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew to drive, and it didn’t take long for the points and podiums to appear. For 2021 Askew is out, replaced by Felix Rosenqvist. At the very first race of the season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama which took place last weekend, O’Ward popped his Chevy-powered machine on the pole.
Were it not for a race pace deficit, a slow pit stop, and what turned out to be the incorrect strategy for this event, O’Ward could have been in position to take the team’s first win. He ran near the front all race long, and ultimately came home 4th after a late-race charge on fresh soft tires failed to pay dividends. Rosenqvist, in his first race for the team, qualified in the Firestone Fast 6, but was taken out in a lap one incident. It’s clear that McLaren has a fast team this year. Maybe it isn’t Ganassi or Penske perfect, but it’s getting there.
Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson, along with Brown, have been seeking a third full-time driver for the squad since the outset, but will only bring someone else on “if it adds value.” As a two-car team up against the four-car squads of Andretti, Ganassi, and Penske, it’s going to be difficult to take the fight to them long-term without the extra data that another driver might provide. This is particularly true at Indianapolis.
Zak Brown: “Third driver yes, fourth driver… I’m not so sure. I think three is better than two. It’s got to be a driver of Pato’s and Felix’s caliber. We will not do a rent-a-ride scenario. If you look at Roger – that’s probably the best way to do it, three drivers and a fourth at Indy and they’re all championship caliber. Even Chip has had to go to some rent-a-drivers to round out his program. I think Roger’s done it the best.”
I’m not sure who Brown is shitting on with his dig on the Ganassi lineup. It certainly isn’t Scott Dixon, and I would hope it isn’t 7-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson. That leaves the current championship leader Alex Palou, and former F1 driver Marcus Ericsson. Of the four Ericsson has the least claim to greatness on Chip’s team, so I suppose this means Zak Brown is beefing with Marcus Ericsson. You heard it here first.
He continues: “I think the two guys are going to give it all they got every lap. From a mindset standpoint, I think they’re of the same age. Felix has a lot more experience because of the different series he’s been in, but they’re both in their years of IndyCar, so they’re both youthful in that sense, and they’re going to push each other hard, but I think they get along well and they’ve got a ton of respect for one another.”
There’s potential here for McLaren to rise to join IndyCar’s “big three” with a bit of tweaking. Both of the team’s drivers are fast, but the addition of a third championship-caliber teammate could be a boon for all three drivers. Extra data, extra testing, extra sponsorship, and extra effort will help the team excel, and as Rosenqvist’s first-lap crash proved on Sunday, it’s always good to have more than one proverbial bullet in the chamber.
Zak Brown, before the season began, made a bit of a wager with young Pato that if O’Ward wins his first race for McLaren this season, he’ll be given a test in the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One car during the season ender Abu Dhabi test. There as also been a bit of talk about getting McLaren’s F1 stars Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo into an Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet Dallara IR18.
Here’s Brown one more time: “A lot of drivers on the Formula 1 grid would like to drive a road course – not so many the ovals. But I think Daniel and Lando… yeah. They’re laser-focused on F1, they’re in a different part of their career than Fernando was at, but I would say there’s a possibility in the future depending on how everything plays out.”
It’s interesting to think about who could join the McLaren team as a third. Zak Brown is looking for a unicorn.