Pato O’Ward sits down in a meeting room at the McLaren Technology Centre with a huge grin on his face. It’s his first day at the factory after having arrived in England the night before, but a packed schedule and jet lag is not dampening his enthusiasm.
“I sat in a bunch of cars,” he says. “Oh, man, this 2008 car… when people ask you which car is the one that gave you a massive b**** when you were a kid, that’s what I grew up watching. And then the 2012 car is the first car I saw live in action. And I was like, oh my God…”
The start of our chat goes on like this for a little while, because O’Ward is, in his own words, like a kid in a candy store. But it’s not just because of Formula 1 – ahead of a test in Abu Dhabi in December – that he’s so excited.
“When I arrive here is when I get the feeling of what I’m a part of, because this place is freaking session,” he says. “The team told me ‘Oh, you’re going to have a full day…’ I don’t care! If I’m going to be around here all day, I don’t care!
“It’s just so cool. I feel like in IndyCar we’re slowly shifting into what you get here. Obviously we don’t have headquarters like this, but what makes me know that I’m racing for such a special name is all the engagement with fans and people.
“Not sound like a tool, but a high percentage of fans at (IndyCar) race weekends were Pato fans, and that made me so freakin’ proud. It’s so cool. And they have to be McLaren fans as well, so to see so many people going there and cheering for us – we were also fighting for the championship, so I really hope that was the case! – is just really cool.
“People are very invested into being McLaren fans, and I think that’s what ultimately gives you the feel of ‘damn, you’re part of something pretty cool’.”
He’s not wrong. It has been noticeable in recent years that McLaren has engaged its fanbase in an incredibly successful way, even amid some extremely tough years in Formula 1. Those fans have been rewarded with rapidly-improving performances in F1, and a race-winning set-up in IndyCar.
But it’s not just McLaren fans who are invested. McLaren itself has invested further in its IndyCar team this year, taking greater ownership of Arrow McLaren SP. After a season in which he was fighting for the title until the final round, O’Ward is starting to see its impact.
“As soon as we started the year, it was rule number one, get your first win, get it out of the way as fast as you can, and put it on top of that as many more as you can,” he says.
“We only got one more, in Detroit. Honestly, what was really cool about our wins is that we won them properly. They weren’t handed to us, which was really cool. And we got a superspeedway and a street course. I didn’t want them both to be ovals.
“Another one of our objectives was to continuously fight for poles – we got three this year – and arrive at Long Beach with a shot at winning it. And we did that.
“We checked off all the big boxes that we had. We have now set the bar even higher than what we had set it in 2020, which will always be tough to beat, but next year the only thing we can do is win more races, get more poles and try and get the two big cookies: 500 and the championship.”
“We were no-one’s doormat this year. We stamped on that we were there to compete and to win races, not just have a bunch of fans running around, like we were there to be the show.
“From my part, I proved it to everybody else, just in how we won our races. They were good race wins; we earned them.
“I believe our oval package is as good as anyone’s. There is work to do in road courses, but there’s too many smart people working on it for the answers not to be found. I know we’re going to find them.
“For example, at the end of the year, as soon as we got taken out at Long Beach, honestly, my head just shifted into off-season and we can win next year. So I made a list. I sent two separate emails to the whole team of things we did well this year and then hammered on what we did not well and what we need to find. So hopefully that gives all of us kind of a guide to where to really focus whenever we go to the shaker and all that stuff.
“Things we did well: The pit stops were great all year. They weren’t the best, we didn’t win best overall for the whole year, but we were definitely good everywhere. No mistakes were done. I think our car reliability was mega. Our oval package was very good. We almost won the 500, honestly. I don’t want to say what we needed, but I think people saw what we needed.
“And the things that we didn’t do well is that we were very weak where we weren’t strong, and those results killed us at the end of the championship. And certain focus points on where we were weak. Where on street courses? Where on road courses? Is it braking zone? Is it power down? Where exactly is it?
“But other things we did well is that we truly ticked off every major box we had. We didn’t tick off every box because if we did, it means we would have won the 500 and we would have won the championship. But the major boxes were have a shot at it getting to Long Beach, which we did. Get our first win, get more poles and they were all checked off.”