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Formula 1

Eight reasons IndyCar pair’s McLaren F1 FP1 runs matter

by Matt Beer, Jack Benyon, Scott Mitchell-Malm
11 min read

IndyCar stars Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward’s debuts in Formula 1 practice sessions with McLaren are unlikely to be precursors to grand prix racing moves for either of them, at least in the short term.

Ultimately this is McLaren fulfilling the obligation to run rookies on some F1 Fridays in a particularly interesting way by dipping into its wider pool.

With Lando Norris committed for the long term and Oscar Piastri only just arriving, there’s no room in McLaren’s F1 racing line-up for a while.

But while this isn’t a case of O’Ward or Palou auditioning for a place on the 2023 F1 grid, their Friday appearances still have wider implications for their careers and others’.

IndyCar’s chance to prove a point

Josef Newgarden IndyCar IMS

It’s now 14 years since a driver from the IndyCar scene got an F1 seat, and four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais’ Toro Rosso chance did not go well.

In fact, as we recently discussed, even the most successful IndyCar-to-F1 transitions of recent decades had messy endings.

O’Ward and Palou’s chances come in a year when how seriously F1 takes the US single-seater racing scene has become particularly topical, initially because of the cool reception the Andretti team’s interest in an F1 project received from the paddock and then when AlphaTauri’s abandonment of its bid to sign Colton Herta underlined just how poorly IndyCar success is rewarded in the FIA superlicence points system.

Two Friday practice appearances will probably not be game-changing for F1/IndyCar relations. They may even be impossible to judge given variances in programmes.

But F1 teams have enough ways of knowing how good or bad a driver’s practice performance really is. If either Palou or O’Ward really shines and their speed/feedback/integration prompts a lot of positive conversation, then the rest of the paddock might start to take the IndyCar field even just a tiny bit more seriously in future driver shopping expeditions. That will also give IndyCar teams a better chance of luring drivers who have future F1 ambitions – and many of them end up staying, and thriving, in the US.

Or, conversely, if the paddock judgement is that O’Ward and Palou performed below the level a Formula 2 driver in similar circumstances, or if either has a disaster like an early crash, it’ll be another reason for F1’s IndyCar sceptics to dismiss the series.

Given how much IndyCar-to-F1 moves have been discussed in 2022, it’s a significant time for these practice runs to go either conspicuously well or conspicuously badly. – Matt Beer

No early switch for Piastri

Oscar Piastri Alpine F1

Perhaps it always looked inevitable that a combination of Palou/O’Ward would drive in Friday practice sessions given the effort that went into preparing them with private 2021 car tests.

McLaren had the opportunity to use drivers in its wider roster as no obvious FP1 candidates exist within the F1 part of the organisation already.

However, there was no guarantee either driver would be picked, because McLaren always made it clear they were just evaluations. The implication was if neither was to be trusted or if a better option came along then McLaren would turn elsewhere.

In an ideal world the best candidate would be 2023 driver Piastri. A couple of FP1 outings before the end of the year would be a very helpful headstart.

But this news confirms what we have suspected for a while: McLaren will not get its hands on him before the end of the year.

Swooping for Piastri led to a protracted dispute with Alpine, his current employer, and it never seemed likely Alpine would then just happily release him to McLaren to use whenever it fancied.

Even though Piastri is believed to have been stood down from his Alpine duties, this news indicates that he will not be walking over to McLaren any time soon. – Scott Mitchell-Malm

O’Ward’s opportunity to show his F1 potential

Patricio O'Ward McLaren F1

F1’s initial flirtation with O’Ward could’ve ended any hope he ever had of a European racing career.

After his Indy Lights title and an absolutely stunning IndyCar debut in the 2018 finale, Red Bull picked O’Ward up for its junior programme mid-way through the following year.

But being thrown briefly into F2 (two starts with a best finish of 14th) and Super Formula (three starts with a best finish of sixth) did him no favours and he was then jettisoned, seemingly because Red Bull realised he didn’t have as many superlicence points as it initially believed.

With his swashbuckling racing approach and effervescent personality, O’Ward tends to be regarded as either the kind of breath of fresh air F1 really needs or someone who’s actually a much better fit for the IndyCar atmosphere and driving style and who’d therefore be ill-suited to F1.

The initial reports from his McLaren F1 outings so far suggested the team wasn’t wowed enough to want to accelerate him into its F1 driver mix, though it’s made sure it’s tied him down for the long term in IndyCar. Which rather supports the ‘superb IndyCar driver, wouldn’t work in F1’ narrative.

O’Ward has a very sensible attitude to F1: he certainly won’t say no to it, but he’s also very happy in IndyCar. Even if that’s where he stays for his whole career, given his previous F1 disappointments it would surely feel pretty sweet if he starred in Abu Dhabi practice and looked totally at home in the F1 world. – Matt Beer

Ditto for Palou

Alex Palou McLaren F1

Those that covered Palou in his junior single-seater days knew there was a diamond in the rough. Whether you blame an often inconsistent Campos team or Palou maybe not finding his feet at that level quick enough, the pairing combined for a 10th place and then 15th in two seasons of GP3.

From that moment, Palou set the goal of merely becoming a paid professional racing driver. He knew IndyCar was a good opportunity for that, and worked his way towards it the best he could.

The point is, F1 shouldn’t be criticised for missing out on Palou, unlike with some other drivers that have fallen by the wayside. Even he didn’t think it was possible.

His Super Formula season showed his class and even in a tricky rookie IndyCar season he had flashes of brilliance.

The 2021 IndyCar championship proved – regardless of what has happened before – he’s every bit as good as any other driver in contention on the outskirts of F1.

His ability to process information while driving the car has been highlighted as one of his key attributes, while being able to analytically break down parts of the track and identify strengths and weaknesses of the car set-up is another thing that’s impressed those working with him.

Most of all though, how smooth he is in this tantrum-throwing, oversteering IndyCar monster might be the most impressive aspect for Palou. He’s rarely pushing the car beyond its limits in an almost spellbinding display of restraint and pace.

He’s certainly the whole package on and off the track. The only question might be can he summon the raw pace of someone like O’Ward every weekend in a series like F1. There’s no reason to doubt he can, though. – Jack Benyon

The De Vries example

Nyck de Vries Williams F1 Monza

In 2019 Nyck de Vries was the class of the F2 field, but even as early as the mid-way point of the year it was clear nothing would fire him into F1. The fact he’d spent three years in F2 and particularly his disappointing sophomore year with Prema in a stacked grid featuring Alex Albon, Lando Norris and George Russell in 2019 saw to that.

Still, he went to Formula E, got his head down, remained in an F1 support role as a reserve driver and delivered under pressure for Williams as a stand-in this year. No one can tell me that one stand-in race isn’t what ultimately catapulted him into F1 contention, although he deserves so much credit for his post-F1 development.

What says Palou and O’Ward can’t do something similar?

Step one is being a reserve driver, or being in the car for practices, or just around the team generally so that when chances arise, you can capitalise.

Since his junior days Palou has developed his craft magnificently and his analytical and smooth approach is perfect for modern motorsport. He deserves a de Vries-style shot to impress.

And O’Ward has always been an absolutely rapid driver – some of the things I’ve seen him do with an often ill-tempered McLaren-run IndyCar are absolutely astounding.

But even this year he’s also proven he can be more consistent, lead a team and identify where to move forward. He also deserves a de Vries-style chance.

The Dutchman has shown F1 what hard-working drivers – even if they don’t have a perfect F2 resume – can do. – Jack Benyon

Frustrating Herta wait continues

Colton Herta Andretti IndyCar

How many times have we heard Colton Herta’s name mentioned in connection with F1 interest and superlicence points? Yet McLaren has managed to commit two IndyCar drivers to Friday practice outings before Herta even gets a chance – and neither O’Ward or Palou are short-term F1 contenders!

It’s an indication of how Herta should have been handled. If an organisation like Red Bull wanted him it should have just put him in a car and helped rack up extra superlicence points. The same could have gone for Alfa Romeo/Sauber last year.

Instead, those pursuing Herta seemed to just wait for the situation to resolve itself. McLaren has shown here that if you’ve got serious interest in tapping into the IndyCar talent pool… just make it happen? It’s silly that Herta never even got this type of chance when it’s plainly very easy to orchestrate.

Hopefully the faith McLaren has shown in these two IndyCar drivers is a nudge to anyone considering one in the future that there’s really no excuse not to just get on with it. – Scott Mitchell-Malm

Round one of a potential intra-team blockbuster

Patricio O'Ward Alex Palou IndyCar

While all eyes might initially be on Palou – a) because his practice is first, and b) because he’s been embroiled in a massive lawsuit initiated by his own employer, grabbing headlines – I think O’Ward might be the most interesting prospect here.

Firstly, because his contract stand-off put him directly in opposition to his own McLaren team. I don’t think he’s felt the need to make up for that in any way but it certainly makes you wonder how much that relationship was strained in the process.

He won’t want the shiny new thing – Palou – coming in and jumping the queue to F1 either. So there is some pressure on O’Ward to step up.

Palou is almost a perfectly drawn-up driver for F1, too. Analytical, great with feedback, incredibly consistent and ultra-intelligent alongside having the pace to be an IndyCar champion.

O’Ward’s in a different boat, as there’s no doubt Palou’s Ganassi IndyCar is far more refined than the Arrow McLaren SP team’s. But O’Ward’s aggressive approach to make this work gives people the misconception he isn’t as kind on tyres or has a detrimental driving style.

That just isn’t the case, and to me how adaptable O’Ward has been to extracting pace out of this McLaren has been every bit as impressive as Palou’s smoothness. I’m just not sure Palou would have been able to do what O’Ward’s been doing.

O’Ward’s also got the full backing of the crew that works with him – they absolutely love him. And he’s been ballsy enough to step up at periods in his tenure to say when he thinks things can be done better or differently. He’s really evolved into a very strong, dedicated team leader.

So take nothing away from these drivers that both are more complicated than their style might look on-track, and who both have qualities that will endear them to F1. Who can perform the best consistently will be the key.

O’Ward will be motivated by not wanting Palou to jump the queue. Palou knows his Ganassi contract is up next year and that means he’ll be available to McLaren – in IndyCar and potentially beyond.

Let the sparks commence. – Jack Benyon

McLaren empire shows off its leverage

Lando Norris Daniel Ricciardo McLaren F1

Eyebrows were raised when Palou’s legal team vigorously trumpeted the significance of the ‘F1 opportunity’ Ganassi would be denying him if it prevented him from leaving for McLaren.

Given it was swiftly understood that this opportunity only amounted to the old-car tests and an FP1 chance, Palou came across as being naive for being willing to walk out of the team that had taken him to the 2021 IndyCar title for an inconsequential F1 dalliance.

But it was a great demonstration of how McLaren’s expansion across so many parts of the motorsport world allows it to use F1 as bait for the drivers it wants elsewhere.

Though it’s very unlikely we’ll see a McLaren Extreme E signing cropping in F1 Friday practice, it’s very easy to imagine F1 car runs forming part of future McLaren IndyCar driver bids, too.

McLaren’s been caught out when it comes to its first Formula E line-up: Felix Rosenqvist’s determination to stay in IndyCar (and the Palou resolution meaning it needed the Swede there anyway) prevented it from slotting in a proven FE winner who was already in the family. That seat now looks set to go to F2 regular and FE test driver Jake Hughes.

But if McLaren needs to make a big move in a future Formula E silly season, might we see some F1 crossover crop up in a contract offer? Surely.

And other F1 teams with wider expansion in mind – such as Ferrari with its new World Endurance Championship hypercar project for 2023 – may well note how McLaren has been able to use F1 to get what it wanted (eventually) elsewhere too. – Matt Beer

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