The morning of February 11, 2019 ranks as one of the darker days for the NTT IndyCar Series’ newest race winner. Pato O’Ward awoke and began scrambling to keep his young career from crashing and burning after Harding Steinbrenner Racing released the Indy Lights champion from a contract it couldn’t fulfill.
With HSR’s inability to raise adequate funding for its two-car team of O’Ward and Colton Herta, who’d spent the previous season as Lights teammates at Andretti Autosport, it was the 19-year-old Mexican who found himself out of a ride and wondering how a bright future filled with stability and opportunity had vanished.
That’s where O’Ward’s personality took over. Sulking and feeling sorry for himself was an option, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. Once the divorce was official, the kid who dazzled on his IndyCar debut at Sonoma in 2018 began asking friends for contacts of any and all team owners, team principals, and movers in the sport who might be sympathetic to his plight.
One of the numbers he received was for McLaren F1 CEO Zak Brown, who was working behind the scenes to arrange a new partnership in IndyCar that would eventually lead to the Arrow McLaren SP union. Brown didn’t have anything to offer O’Ward at the time, but the two kept in contact. From that early February outreach to Sunday in Texas where the 21-year-old earned his first victory for AMSP and punched his ticket to a McLaren F1 test later this year, it’s been a strange and circuitous ride for Brown and O’Ward.
“I knew of him from Indy Lights, and Michael and Mario [Andretti] told me he was awesome,” Brown told RACER. “Then he had a great qualifying debut at Sonoma; I think he was P5, so it was very clear how good he was. Tons of energy, tons of natural pace, and of course, once he was free, Red Bull signed him up. I thought we’d missed him. They dropped him into F2, had him do some IndyCar stuff, and then they sent him off to the Super Formula series in Japan.”
Brown kept a private watch on how O’Ward got on within Red Bull’s Young Driver development program.
“So I’m thinking, ‘****, we missed our opportunity with the guy,’ and fortunately, Red Bull gets it right half the time when it comes to their drivers, and then they get it wrong half the time when it comes to their drivers,” he said.
“They released him after a few races. And we already had plans in place for him, subject to him getting his release. But I wasn’t confident he was going to get his release because he’s such a talent. We jumped on the opportunity.”
Thanks to a seven-race program with Carlin Racing in 2019, O’Ward was able to gather enough mileage and make some memorable passes to confirm Brown’s interest was warranted. In partnership with Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson, O’Ward was chosen as the new face for AMSP in 2020 alongside 2019 Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew. It was a bold risk at the time that has been rewarded with O’Ward’s first pole and first win early in the 2021 season.
“Clearly when you go with two drivers that have never completed a full season of IndyCar between them, it wasn’t maybe the typical choice,” Brown said. “But, like in Formula 1, we needed to have a long-term plan. So maybe some other teams wouldn’t have gone the direction we did, thinking they wanted to fight for the championship this year. But we knew last year was about getting everything settled and in place and set up to be competing for the championship and winning races in year two.
“And when you do take a decision to put in a blisteringly quick rookie, you recognize you might end up with a few crashed cars. But Pato didn’t tear things up. You can bring in a veteran and maybe start stronger in year one, but I’m not sure anyone would have been stronger than Pato in the car he was in last year. I think he got the most out of it. So when you’re looking for Pato, it was always about taking a five-year outlook, as opposed to a 12- to 24-month outlook.”
— Zak Brown (@ZBrownCEO) May 2, 2021
Continuing the youthful theme, a battle between O’Ward and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist last year at Road America caught the attention of Brown and AMSP’s leadership. O’Ward came close to winning his first race that afternoon, but was passed late in closing laps by Rosenqvist, who secured his maiden victory. The respect and speed shown by the rivals served as a preview for AMSP’s 2021 lineup as the Swede was signed to replace Askew.
“We were prepared to take the risk of what the consequences could be by adding two rookies in the car last year, and it worked out really well a Pato,” Brown said. “And on Oliver, it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, but I think he’s a solid racecar driver. So for this year, that’s why we then went with Felix as someone that had some experience, but he’s still a young, hard charger.
“We just need to get a little bit of Felix’s bad luck out of this out of the way now. In Texas, we gave them both great race cars and they both delivered, and unfortunately, we let Felix down. But we’ve now got two drivers that can win at any time.
“Pato’s driving on Sunday… I was watching with Lando (Norris, McLaren F1 driver) and man, Pato was on it, the passes he was making. And Felix would have been there, right with him. I think these two guys are just getting started with what they can do.”