PRUETT: O’Ward, Poole and nature or nurture

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: O’Ward, Poole and nature or nurture

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: O’Ward, Poole and nature or nurture

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NBA hall of famer Reggie Miller has been rather effusive about second-year player Jordan Poole of the Golden State Warriors during the early stages of the playoffs. Poole, the breakout star so far in the Warriors’ matchup against the Denver Nuggets, has been a nightmare on the court with big outbursts on offense and defense, and as Miller has rightly recognized during the broadcasts, the 22-year-old guard’s rapid rise can be credited to the environment where he’s played.

With the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — champions three times over — acting as leaders and active mentors for Poole, the kid from Wisconsin has seen his development skyrocket due to having some of the game’s best players shorten his learning curve in the pros. From the moment he arrived, the Warriors’ Big 3 have coached and tuned and tweaked Poole’s physical and mental game, and in doing so, he’s carved years off of the timeline to reach his full potential.

Miller’s insights brought to mind the similar situations Alex Palou and Colton Herta have found within their respective teams as Scott Dixon, Jimmie Johnson, Marcus Ericsson, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe and others within the Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport camps have accelerated the growth of their young lions.

Palou, a promising but unproven talent after his rookie season with Dale Coyne Racing, was transformed as a sophomore at CGR because of the team’s composition. With his prodigious talent to hone and sharpen, the Spaniard readily credits the influence of his veteran teammates in helping him to hit the fast-forward button on his professional development and become the NTT IndyCar Series champion in only his second year.

Racing alongside established stars helped Colton Herta and Alex Palou to flatten the IndyCar learning curve. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

“I was really lucky to be in that position,” Palou told RACER. “I think that with the same equipment, but without Dixon and Jimmie and Marcus, I wouldn’t be where I am, and I wouldn’t have had as good a year last year. Having somebody like Scott and Jimmie that have been in the sport for more than 15 years and won more than five championships each, it’s insane the amount of experience they have to give.

“Even though Jimmie didn’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, he knew how to manage championships and the mentality of how to handle going for the championship was helping me. And then having Dixon, where I could just comment on stuff or ask him the best way to do something, because he really knows, that was big for me. Dario [Franchitti] was also there and was a huge help. If you have drivers like this who are good teachers, you can learn more in one race than in one year.”

Another benefit Poole, Palou and Herta have experienced is playing and driving in an environment where the pressure and spotlight have been focused on the veterans. Without the need to bear the full weight of the organization’s competitive ambitions — at least before they rose to prominence — the trio were able to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and quickly mature behind the bigger names on the team.

“I think it definitely helped,” Herta said. “The biggest thing that you need in IndyCars is to understand what the car is going to be like in a race, because you can carry a car for a lap — and if you’re fast enough, you can make it in qualifying to the Fast Six with a car that shouldn’t be there — but the problem is, you can’t do that for 90 laps on a Sunday. So having Ryan and Alex and such to learn some things from there — some of the top guys — made things smoother from that aspect while I was getting used to everything.”

Miller’s insights also made me think of Pato O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP where, at the same age as Poole, the young Mexican hasn’t been as fortunate to be surrounded by veteran drivers to act as sounding boards and educators. AMSP is rife with highly experienced managers, engineers and crew chiefs, but on the driver front, O’Ward has been carrying the full weight of the team’s ambitions on his shoulders since he arrived as a 20-year-old in 2020.

Barring the brief influence of 1999 CART IndyCar Series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya as a third driver during the month of May, O’Ward would definitely benefit from the full-time presence of title-winning mentors in the team. And with AMSP’s planned expansion to become a three-car operation in 2023, the opportunity to place O’Ward in an environment like the one that has changed Poole’s development arc exists.

Looking ahead, O’Ward is expected to have a new contract extension completed in the near future, teammate Felix Rosenqvist has been helpful, but he’s in need of a new contract and has rarely outpaced his younger teammate, and then there’s the third-driver situation to finalize.

Could the right teammate with O’Ward (left) and Rosenqvist make AMSP more of a triple threat? Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

So how will the team led by McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown go about finding the right line-up, and where does the choice of teammates who could help O’Ward reach his full potential on a shortened timeline factor into the hiring process?

“I think you look for combinations of drivers that are complementary, but I don’t think it’s so much that you look for a driver to help another driver,” Brown told RACER. “In my case, it’s gonna be the three best drivers I can get my hands on, and you do want them to all be good teammates and learn from each other. I think there’s different types of learning. There’s like the technical learning and then there’s the debrief, kind of how you carry yourself.

“One of the things that I spoke with Pato about way back when Fernando Alonso was driving for us was Fernando didn’t have so much experience in IndyCar that he was going to give a lot of guidance on track, but being around a two-time world champion, you can learn how he operates. So I would like someone who can help that, but specifically finding some like that to put next to Pato is not quite that mindset. And they can also learn from Pato.”

As I’ve written a few times in recent months, few would be surprised if Rossi, Andretti’s top free agent, ends up at AMSP next to O’Ward, and Rosenqvist if he’s retained. The Indy 500 winner, now in his seventh IndyCar season, would bring the veteran driver presence the team lacks while ticking a number of other performance-related boxes that would benefit the team.

Although Brown wouldn’t be drawn on the subject of leading candidates to join AMSP, he did acknowledge his fondness for the kind of driver pairings where younger drivers have veterans to measure themselves against and learn from if they are willing to observe and listen.

“I think it’s the same thing with [McLaren Formula 1 drivers] Lando [Norris] and Daniel [Ricciardo],” he said. “Same thing that [Mercedes F1 boss] Toto [Wolff] has done with George Russell and Lewis [Hamilton] where they tend not to try and have two drivers of the same age group, so to speak, so they can complement each other.

“I think it’s the driver’s responsibility to learn from other drivers as opposed to drivers feeling obligated to mentor or coach their teammate. I think it’s up to the teammate to grab the experience and watch and learn. So coming back to Fernando, he’s not really a mentoring type of guy; he’s very focused on himself. But if you’re paying attention as a driver, you can learn from Fernando without him having to coach you.

“If you stick them in the room and you’re doing a debrief with them, and you see how Fernando debriefs, you can learn from him. That’s the approach I prefer. Drivers need to learn from each other without needing to be coached.”

Will AMSP’s hands-off approach to forming its three-car driver line-up prove to be as successful for O’Ward as the academy-like environments at the Warriors, Andretti and Ganassi have been for Poole, Herta and Palou? I can’t wait to find out 12 months from now.

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