O'Ward's Indy 500 performance made his case as Ricciardo's McLaren replacement

F1

With pressure mounting on a struggling Daniel Ricciardo, Pato O'Ward is going from strength to strength – he'll never be in a better place to take his McLaren F1 chance, writes Damien Smith

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Is O'Ward ready to make the F1 switch?

IndyCar

Marcus Ericsson’s extreme weaving didn’t look like it would be enough to hold back Pato O’Ward from snatching victory in the two-lap shootout at the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. For a moment Ericsson’s Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara appeared on course for a violent meeting with the end of the pitwall before he swerved somewhat alarmingly across the track in his determined bid to break the tow to O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren SP entry.

As they approached Turn 1 for the final time, the Mexican was still hanging in there. He drew alongside, on the outside line, and we held our collective breath in anticipation for the big clincher. Yet it didn’t come. Just as O’Ward looked set to ‘send it’, wheel to wheel with his rival at full blast, he backed out and let Ericsson off the hook. Given his reputation as IndyCar’s exciting young firebrand, such discretion was a surprise in the heat of the moment – but perhaps reflected a growing sense of maturity in a driver who instinctively knew this was a gamble that wasn’t about to pay off. It wasn’t worth what he felt was an inevitable outcome, and even with an Indy 500 victory on the line, he was probably right.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Marcus Ericsson (8) battles Pato O'Ward (5) on the last two laps of the race during the106th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2022, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

McLaren’s young IndyCar gun showed his maturity at the 500

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“He was going to put me in the wall if I’d gone for it,” said a deflated O’Ward in his immediate post-race interview. In such a moment, no red-blooded racing driver would be thinking consciously about banking points as the priority, but the 23-year-old’s instinctive decision-making still showed an admirable sense of responsibility to his team. Double-points were on offer at The Brickyard and O’Ward knew he and his similarly well-placed team-mate Felix Rosenqvist had a job to do beyond pitching for victory. Backing out had everything to do with a grounded sense of reality rather than any macho bull about bottling it.

O’Ward also knew he didn’t quite have the car underneath him to get the job done, and in his moment of intense frustration at the defeat remained just on the right side of diplomacy. He didn’t say the words ‘we didn’t have enough power from Chevrolet’, sparing the blushes of the team’s vital partner, but he was only too clear in his messaging all the same. The team had trimmed out his car as far as it could go to give him the speed to take on Ericsson’s Honda power – but it simply wasn’t enough.

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“Man, I’m so proud of the team and proud of myself,” O’Ward expressed. “We did everything to get it done and we had a massive run on him. We had no wicker [on the rear wing], less downforce and still not enough speed to get by him, even with a massive run. It’s frustrating, it’s bitter-sweet. I’m so proud, but it definitely stings. I feel like the team and I did everything perfectly to get it done and something out of our control was why we’ve struggled in the end.

“I feel like I drove a race to position us there. It’s just a bummer we didn’t have more. We have work to do and we’ll come back next year, with a faster and better race car and go at it again.”

In the circumstances, nicely handled, son.

On the other side of the Atlantic a few hours earlier, Daniel Ricciardo had driven another underwhelming race to finish the Monaco Grand Prix a pointless 13th, as his once-stellar career unfathomably continues to plummet. Drivers rarely pull out of such a tailspin, especially one that is so brutal and hard to understand, for Ricciardo as much as anyone. Expectations are rising as quickly as he is falling that McLaren must find a replacement. So perhaps O’Ward won’t be returning to Indy next year after all for another crack at a race he’s now finished in sixth in 2020, fourth in 2021 and second this time around.

But is he really ready for F1? Why not? Given how young top F1 drivers hit the grid these days, he’ll almost become too old if he doesn’t make the leap in the next couple of years. As we’ve seen, he appears to have the maturity and also a healthy dose of the right stuff when it comes to mental resilience and self-confidence.

McLaren is also well positioned to take a chance on an IndyCar recruit right now. In Lando Norris, the team boasts a driver of the requisite experience and high ability to lead the line, and as it is still falling well short of battling for world championships O’Ward’s inevitable growing pains were he to plunge in would be a cost worth paying – especially if he begins to show potential race-winning calibre. Stick him in for next year and he’d have two seasons to mature before the 2026 powertrain regulation reset kicks in. Perfect timing, whether McLaren is powered by Audi or otherwise, as now seems more likely.

Of all the team chiefs in F1, Zak Brown would surely love to spin the bottle on a talent coming out of the IndyCar leftfield. The American chose to be at Indy on Sunday over Monaco, presumably not only because he knew his team had a more realistic pitch for victory than in the Principality, but also because the 500 is in his blood. What he saw was a driver who gave it everything to win, recognised the limitations of his car, didn’t blow his lines under intense pressure and made the most of what he had beneath him. Brown couldn’t have asked for more.

ricciardo mclaren

Ricciardo spent another weekend struggling in the midfield at Monaco

McLaren

Nothing is easy on this one, of course. O’Ward and Brown have just come out of what was a bruising negotiation to tie the driver to McLaren until 2025, during which time Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta was also signed to a junior deal, further muddying the water. O’Ward was said to have driven a hard bargain, but surely the toughest part has been done and Brown has admitted F1 seat time is likely to be part of that deal anyway. There’s a growing case to argue that amount of time should be more than the odd test and simulator work back in Woking. From where we’re sitting, O’Ward is as ready as he’ll ever be to take the big leap and prove his worth on the toughest stage of them all.