A young driver dropped from the Red Bull program, partnered with an exciting young rookie talent. Sound familiar?
I could be describing either of McLaren’s Formula 1 or IndyCar driver line-ups, and that’s no coincidence.
The way Arrow McLaren SP went about its U-turn with James Hinchcliffe has rightly grabbed the headlines, but it also means that the exciting pairing of Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew has been somewhat overlooked.
Gil de Ferran is leading the IndyCar project from McLaren’s side, and sees similarities in the way Arrow McLaren SP chose its drivers to the way it landed on Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, even if he insists the subsequent impressive results of its F1 pairing did not play a part in the IndyCar decision.
“Funnily enough, I wouldn’t say the success of the F1 line-up was a huge factor,” de Ferran tells RACER. “You may find that hard to understand, but I guess we looked at it in a different way. Although they are young – and in the case of Oliver, a total rookie – these two guys are very accomplished drivers. They’ve been winning races and championships for many years now, ever since they were young kids. So I would say that it was more the quality and the prospect of having two guys that we think are very accomplished and have hopefully a very bright future ahead of them than anything else.
“Obviously we work hard on having a good relationship with our drivers, as we did in Formula 1, and we intend to do the same thing here. To have a good relationship with the drivers, to hopefully provide an environment where they both can flourish and perform to the best of their abilities… I guess there’s a parallel there.
“It’s an example of the culture and willingness to put faith in talent, regardless of age and experience. And also like I said, to be very focused on creating a good environment, not only so the drivers can flourish and be the best they can be, but also the whole team and all the people that work in the team. I think there are a lot of cultural parallels there that we will try to enhance and develop, whatever program we’re involved in.
“Obviously Carlos and Lando are doing extremely well, and that’s not only thanks to them – who are both doing a very good job – but also a lot of the people in the team. It’s been a good journey on the F1 side, and hopefully this project will gives us an equal or greater amount of satisfaction.”
Arrow McLaren SP has entrusted the project to the last two Indy Lights champions, but the difficult decision to replace Hinchcliffe clearly didn’t come on a whim: negotiations with O’Ward started back in March this year.
“It was Long Beach time,” O’Ward explains to RACER. “It kind of stayed open all year. When I signed with Red Bull it kind of died out a little bit, and then towards the end it was like, ‘Hey, what are you going to be doing for next year? Are you leaving Red Bull? Are you staying with Red Bull?’
“The whole point of me being in Red Bull was getting the super license and moving up to a Toro Rosso seat. That was the purpose of my contract. But we never got the super license, so that’s really where we got into a difficult position. And Helmut [Marko], head of Red Bull’s driver development program] told me ‘this is your future’, so I was scouting out my options. And honestly, my best option was to be in IndyCar with McLaren.
“I have to start a life. I have to start really a career doing this as a job, not doing it as a junior driver or how a junior series operates.”
O’Ward’s availability was confirmed late, and by then Askew had already been lined up. When you consider that Colton Herta was originally top of the team’s list, it should come as no surprise it wanted to opt for youth.
“I’ve known Gil for a long time, three or four years, so we’ve stayed in touch and when this all developed I’d go to see Sam (Schmidt) every once in a while and be in the IndyCar paddock as well,” Askew says. “We kept our options open for a long time, and I think that was really important.
“I think we’ve found a home, and we are surrounded by a lot of really great people, and I think it’s the perfect place for me to grow and learn. That’s the most important thing for my rookie season. I feel pretty lucky to have won the Indy Lights championship, and then you normally just get three or four races and it’s hard to move on from that, because there’s so much more to learn beyond three of four races. So it’s a huge opportunity for me, and I’m really glad it worked out.
“We had quite a few avenues to explore. It definitely gave me confidence, and I think we made the best decision here. To be paired with Pato – who I rate highly – and we have great engineering staff as well and great driver coaching. Robert Wickens is planning to be helping us out on the side, so it’s a great place.”
The last sentiment is one that is shared by O’Ward, and once again provides another parallel to the F1 line-up, where Sainz and Norris have enjoyed a positive relationship despite often being closely-matched on track.
“Of course I’m happy,” O’Ward says. “I’ve known him since karts and I’ve always rated him highly. He’s always been up and competing at the front, and I want the best teammate by my side. I want someone to give me a hard time, I want someone that pushes me. I lived that with Colton, we’re both friends, we get along very well, but we were both really, really pushing each other, and I think having that collaboration within the team, we created a package that was unbeatable.
“So I think it speaks for itself that we’re going to be helping each other. I’m going to help him with as much stuff as I can. I’m very open, because I know if I’m having trouble I’ll be asking him for advice if he’s doing something right.”
It’s a bit strange to say, but O’Ward will be the ‘experienced’ driver of the two, even if he himself still has plenty of learning to do. While he sees the benefits that racing with Hinchcliffe would have brought, the Mexican believes there are advantages to an inexperienced pairing having to develop in tandem.
“I feel like there is definitely an advantage of having a veteran, but when you think about it, everyone has to start somewhere,” he says. “So if two strong rookies can push each other, most likely we’re better off doing that. We can both grow together, push each other, and in my opinion we will grow a lot quicker than having a vet and a rookie, because sometimes the vet really overshadows the rookie in knowledge.
“I have some sort of knowledge and experience that I can bring to the table and I want to help him with, because the goal is to have both cars up there. I want to be up there, he wants to be up there, we both want to beat each other but we both want to be one-two, not one-seven or one-eight, you know? So the team comes first, and I think we’re going to be just fine.
“I think a lot of people emphasize the veteran and the knowledge [that comes with experience]. Yeah it’s a lot, but honestly once you get the fuel saving down and you get the pitstops right, you’re already where they know. They can maybe go through different scenarios a bit quicker, or know what to do in different scenarios a bit better, but other than that, we’re just going to learn as much as we can when we start racing.”
And that’s a formula that has proven successful in F1. While Sainz enjoys significant F1 experience – he celebrated his 100th grand prix in Austin – he has had to step up to the senior member role alongside a teenage rookie. But the pair has flourished, and Askew wants to learn from that scenario ahead of the new IndyCar season.
“We can look up to these guys, too, because it’s a young pairing with not much experience,” Askew says. “Carlos had his 100th GP at COTA, but still they’re growing together and are one of the youngest pairings on the grid. They’re here for the team, it seems like they’re the most respectful pairing on the grid, and I think we can look up to them and learn from them as far as that goes.”
Ultimately, results will help Arrow McLaren SP silence the critics, and a lack of them will leave the team facing louder questions about its handling of the Hinchcliffe situation. But de Ferran isn’t concerned, because he believes the noise surrounding the driver the team replaced is overshadowing the quality of the two it has signed.
“Obviously they’re talented, and over several years they have proven their worth, otherwise, quite frankly, they wouldn’t be driving for us,” he says. “We’re committed to this journey. Wherever we start – and I don’t know where we’re going to start, I hope we start well but at the end of the day I don’t know – the goal is to stay focused and look for those areas where you can improve and work together, and so on and so forth.
“I’m confident that the talent is there, the capability is there, and hopefully will help as a team and as a group to bring these results to the fore.”