MEDLAND: McLaren’s Herta move is the right call, even if the team doesn’t benefit

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MEDLAND: McLaren’s Herta move is the right call, even if the team doesn’t benefit

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MEDLAND: McLaren’s Herta move is the right call, even if the team doesn’t benefit

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It should come as no surprise that McLaren is the team that is leading the way when it comes to Formula 1 and IndyCar crossovers, because it is the only team with an entry in both series.

But it’s also not a team willing to rest on its laurels just because it has a presence on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be easy to assume its connections would open doors when it comes to the driver market, but there has been an overwhelming issue that has been blocking American-based drivers from realistically targeting a place on the F1 grid: seat time.

For all the desire for an American driver in F1, or at the very least one that gives the American audience a clear connection to root for, the only American to drive an F1 car during a race weekend in the past seven years is Alexander Rossi. And that highlights the problem.

As good as the IndyCar grid is, and as talented as so many of the drivers are, it is still true that there’s a major difference between the approaches required to drive the DW12 compared to an F1 car. The latter is enormously complex and needs plenty of time to adapt to, but nobody has been giving any U.S.-based drivers a proper chance to learn the ropes.

That is, until recently, when McLaren started getting serious about providing opportunities.

Pato O’Ward was the first IndyCar driver to get a run-out during an organized F1 test since Sebastien Bourdais was racing, and the Frenchman isn’t your typical candidate, having come through the European system and tested an F1 car before his move to Champ Car in the early 2000s.

Prior to that, for drivers that made their Indy debuts before they first raced an F1 car, you’re going back to Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve.

But the fact O’Ward was a McLaren IndyCar driver made it a natural step to provide him with the rookie test outing in Abu Dhabi last year as an incentive for winning his first IndyCar race.

McLaren’s interest in IndyCar talent was underlined by Pato O’Ward’s Formula 1 test in December, but the team’s future F1 plans for the Mexican remain to be seen. Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

Whether that goes any further remains to be seen, because now there’s another name in the McLaren stable: Colton Herta.

Herta’s been linked with an F1 switch since the second half of last year, when Andretti’s interest in purchasing Sauber became public knowledge. Prior to that he was touted as someone who could make the transition, but without any clear pathway for him to do so, nor obvious desire to make it happen other than people making nice comments.

McLaren has now taken advantage of its first opportunity to run an older car for testing purposes, because the 2021 car now falls under the category of a “previous car” due to the differences in the last set of regulations and the new chassis. Previously a two-year-old car was required, but given the introduction of the V6 power units in 2014, McLaren’s struggles with Honda starting a year later and then its relatively short stint with Renault before returning to Mercedes, that had never been possible for the team.

Now it can run last year’s car to evaluate young drivers, and after O’Ward’s appearance in Abu Dhabi it is going to give Herta the chance in a private test at least.

To agree to such a deal suggests an FP1 outing might be on the horizon too, with teams mandated to run rookies on at least two occasions during the season. That’s not yet set in stone for either Herta or O’Ward, but by getting track time in the most recent F1 car possible they are far better placed to run a Friday session as well.

That makes a huge difference, because the Friday outing will be valuable experience and an opportunity to prove themselves, with a much better chance of being successful on the bigger stage courtesy of the earlier tests.

Even if neither gets the opportunity to race for McLaren in F1 in future – and that’s clearly not a guarantee, as Herta’s signing suggests the team hasn’t agreed a specific path for O’Ward – both will have a better platform from which to try and convince other teams on the grid.

Herta could, of course, end up racing for Andretti if it manages to gain an entry, but that is far from set in stone, and while the McLaren experience would benefit any Andretti team, it will also be valuable for any other teams that take an interest, even if there’s no future at McLaren.

Impress in the 2021 car, and surely Herta will get an FP1 outing. Do the same in an official session, and the talent that America already knows is there will be made even more clear to the rest of the F1 grid, making a race seat – even if still a way off – a much more realistic proposition. The same goes for O’Ward if given the chance.

That’s a path that wasn’t available before McLaren’s moves, but hopefully other teams will follow suit. It’s the only way IndyCar drivers are going to get a shot at this stage.

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