After Pato O’Ward delivered a solid third place finish in the IndyCar drivers' championship last year with two race wins, McLaren boss Zak Brown presented the Mexican driver with an opportunity of a lifetime - to test drive one of their F1 cars in Abu Dhabi after the season ended.
Since then, rumors have circulated and O’Ward has vocalized his boyhood desire to be an F1 driver one day. However, Brown revealed it's a complicated situation and that there are prerequisites set in place that will need to occur should O’Ward make the move from IndyCar to F1 with McLaren.
Speaking to selected media, including The Race during the IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg, Brown discussed O’Ward’s future and possibilities of entering F1 with McLaren.
“Now in F1, for the first time, you’re allowed to test last year’s car because of how big the rule change is, so we want to have a test programme for young drivers like we used to have in the past, so having Pato in the family is natural,” said Brown.
“Right now we don’t have any seats available.
“Lando is under a very long-term contract. So that seat’s done.
“Daniel, we have another couple of years with. So there is no imminent seat available.
With Lando Norris’s contract signed till the end of 2025, and Daniel Ricciardo’s contact till the end of 2023, an open seat will not be available for O ‘Ward until he is at least 24-years old. While the majority of drivers who make the F1 debut are younger, in their early 20’s, Brown is not concerned with the age factor for O’Ward.
“Other than that, I’m not a believer that you have to be 18 to enter Formula 1. Some people believe, OK, [if you’re] 22, you’re getting old. I don’t think that’s case at all, ” Brown stated.
“I think [it makes sense] to just get Pato some seat time because you never know, a driver gets injured or gets COVID, stranger things have happened.
“But what we won’t do is compromise the IndyCar team at all.
“I would never take Pato out of IndyCar to go into F1 without having a great solution. IndyCar is as important, as is Extreme E, as is Formula 1, to being competitive. So this is not a training ground for Formula 1.”
Brown was also asked directly ‘if O’Ward wins the championship this year he’ll stay in IndyCar?’, he answered “definitely”.
The McLaren CEO never one to shy away from speaking his mind, openly criticized the Red Bull F1 team for letting drivers like O’Ward slip through the cracks and for their “brutal” tactics involving a constant turn around of drivers with the exception being the 2021 world champion Max Verstappen.
“He definitely slipped through the cracks,” Brown said in reference to O’Ward’s short time with Red Bull.
“I think Red Bull, while he was there, they only gave him about three races [in F2 and Super Formula]. But if you look at Red Bull’s history other than Max [Verstappen], they have let a handful of great drivers slip through their hands.
“I think they’ve ruined a few that I think had it, but weren’t given enough opportunity. But they won the championship last year, we didn’t, so I can’t say they don’t know what they’re doing.
“But they’re a bit brutal. Carlos [Sainz] is a great example. Daniel had already proven how good he was but he chose to leave.
“[Sebastian] Vettel left. Max is a great story and someone that they found. [Alex] Albon, [Pierre] Gasly. Gasly looks like a hell of a driver.
“They move through a lot of drivers.”
As for O’Ward’s future with the McLaren F1 team that extends past testing opportunities, Brown has made it clear that not only will the Arrow McLaren SP driver have to be consistent like Norris but he will have to prove himself in F1 machinery and not just that of IndyCar.
“To help us become more consistent and vice versa,” said Brown.
“The same thing we’ve seen out of Lando in Formula 1, just continue to mature as a racing driver.
“We all know he’s as fast as anyone on the grid.
“So now it’s about us, he and Felix [Rosenqvist, O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren SP team-mate], working together to raise our average finish. And that’s on us to do as a collective team.
“But the F1 stuff’s more about what they do in the F1 car, because the F1 team, which will ultimately make the decision on the driver line-ups, don’t care what that driver is doing elsewhere.
“All they’re going to be doing is going ‘we tested in Abu Dhabi and we had these three drivers. This is the one that seems to have the best pace and their technical understanding’. They don’t care about St Pete.”