There’s a deep divide that tends to separate the top drivers each season in the NTT IndyCar Series championship. The champion might run away and hide in the point standings, or we might have the leading two or three drivers clustered together, but there’s always a cliff of sorts, where someone gets tantalizingly close to the title, but not close enough to be in contention for the championship.
That person was Pato O’Ward in 2020, as his Arrow McLaren SP team rose to prominence behind Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske, and Andretti Autosport in the title chase. Fourth on his full-season debut, the 2018 Indy Lights champion sent notice to the established contenders that he’s ready to vie for IndyCar’s Astor Cup, but to get there, closing the sizable gap to first will be required.
Could the 21-year-old make that giant leap in his second season with AMSP and displace the Scott Dixons, Josef Newgardens, and Colton Hertas who stood in his way last year? The answer is yes, and to get there, the Mexican’s targeted maturity, rather than added aggression, as the pathway to a championship.
“I think that the approach is honestly going to be like last year, because we did a really good job of taking what we could with scoring points,” O’Ward told RACER. “I think what put us finishing fourth and maybe not a little bit higher was that we left a lot of points on the table and made a few mistakes. Every point is gold. We all know that.
“Obviously, we have a full year under our belts — me and Arrow McLaren SP — working together with the engineers. They know what I like. I know more about just the series in general — in and out laps, pit stops, strategy, just everything that goes into the game. But the mentality going into it is very similar to last year, just knowing what to expect a little bit more because we’ve done it one-time around already.”
O’Ward welcomes former Ganassi driver and 2020 race winner Felix Rosenqvist to the team this year. He also has the benefit of a deeper engineering collaboration between AMSP in Indianapolis and the McLaren Racing Formula 1 outfit in England that has resulted in impressive speeds being demonstrated at a number of pre-season tests. Combined with his own increase in experience, the driver of the No. 5 Chevy is surrounded by everything he needs to improve upon that fourth-place finish.
“We sure as heck hope so!” he said with a laugh. “That’s definitely the goal. We’ve been very pretty critical in making the car better in areas where we know that we’re lacking, and we need to be as good as we can starting the season. And we need to be fighting at the front starting the season. I think very different to last year, where we went into the beginning of the year with the mentality of, ‘Let’s take what we can and not be silly.’
“We’re still going to have that on the back of our minds, but I feel like this year, we have a chance to start off the year banging on the door of podiums and wins. That’s a difference which, by the end of the season, should help your championship run because that’s going to allow you to add up more points in the end.”
O’Ward credits the immense effort he’s witnessed at AMSP to hopefully displace a Ganassi, Penske, Andretti — or all three — by the end of the year.
“What we have now is just a group of people that know what area or what path we should go towards heading to a certain track and just building on what we did last year,” he said. “Little details have been improved, and I think that’s what’s been seen in testing. We’ve been quick, but we all know it’s just testing. If we’re not fighting for wins and podiums day in and day out and all those type of tracks that we have on the calendar, I don’t think anybody in the team is going to be happy because too much work has gone into it.”
If there’s a negative for O’Ward to consider at the dawn of a new season, it’s that he’s lost the element of surprise among his rivals. Most knew about his prodigious talent, but O’Ward’s true potential was confirmed as 2020’s breakout IndyCar star. He’s earned a new level of respect from his peers, and at the same time, they also know what to expect from a driver who wants to take what they have.
“I feel like when you think of everything that I went through in 2019 and everything that was just so messy, up into the transfer of being in IndyCar, it’s really humbling to hear that,” he said. “I feel really proud of what the team and I accomplished last year. We definitely surpassed expectations. So this is what I want to hear.
“I want to hear and I want to see that they know that we’re pushing and we’re coming to compete against them. We’re not here to watch them win races and just be happy for them. No, we want to beat them. I want to be their biggest headache.”