For all your much-talked-about Alex Palous and Colton Hertas, there’s only one IndyCar driver on the grid in 2024 that has a Formula 1 deal.
McLaren F1 reserve driver (after the IndyCar season finishes anyway) Pato O'Ward has emerged as one of IndyCar’s brightest talents, even if it’s been a rollercoaster ride there.
Remember in 2019 he left Carlin’s IndyCar team to join the Red Bull junior scheme, which dropped him into a weekend of Formula 2 and a few races of Super Formula but realised somewhere along the way that grooming O’Ward for an F1 seat was premature because he didn’t have a shot at a superlicence.
Landing at McLaren’s IndyCar team for 2020 was seemingly the best thing that could have happened to him. He’s had to remain very patient for McLaren to work its magic and to come into line with the rest of the series' top teams - he even had to stomp his feet to get a top-level contract back in 2022 - and now he sits on the precipice of a massive season.
The 2023 campaign was a tricky one for O’Ward, who was robbed of a season-opening victory via a plenum fire at St Petersburg and ultimately failed to win a race at all, after taking two victories the year before. But he almost doubled his podium count in what was fundamentally a more consistent year that added up to more points.
It’s easy to skip over the gains O’Ward made in his consistency, and that’s probably down to three pretty high-profile events that people remember: crashing while fighting for an Indianapolis 500 win, crashing into Scott Dixon and then spinning himself out at Long Beach, and another crash trying to stay on the lead lap in Detroit after a pitstop error dropped him down the order.
He remained bullish in his interpretation of all of these incidents, putting them down to necessary risks needed in the moment to maintain his position or to give himself a chance of achieving a better one down the line. Most drivers would have conceded and apologised.
It’s a fascinating mindset battle. Be the driver that takes the risks for the big rewards, but can fall flat? Or be the more conservative driver who misses out on many big opportunities but makes fewer high-profile blunders?
It’s a topic O’Ward’s particularly eloquent on.
“The more years that I add on to my IndyCar resume, you just realise how costly a risk can be, especially early on in the season, which is a constant battle that you will have your whole career, really,” he said during IndyCar’s pre-season media day.
“It's a constant battle with yourself, of making those split-second decisions. You never know quite how it's going to work out until it works out.”
That prompted The Race to give O’Ward a call and explore that topic in more detail.
“A lot of times you might look like a hero, and the other option is, you might look like an idiot,” O’Ward says.
“There's no in-between when you take those risks, but those are the ones that you're willing to take in order to be part of history. That's what it is.
“Nailing it is obviously the big part because you don't know if you've nailed it or not until you actually get through the action that you're trying to do.
“So it's just a constant battle of: ‘Is it worth it right now? Should I wait? Should I not wait?’
“It's definitely not something that anybody has perfected, in my opinion. Because a lot of people during their seasons have a lot of missed opportunities and a lot of opportunities where it's like, maybe I could have waited? Well, but if you waited, would you have had that opportunity again?”
Part of being able to take those risks is the team behind him.
McLaren is a brand with a history of big characters: Ayrton Senna, Ron Dennis, more recently, Zak Brown and Lando Norris - the list at that team does feel endless.
It’s an outfit that now celebrates individuality as much as it is a team with shared goals, so it’s the perfect place for O’Ward to be. He’s also shown that, while some of his risks haven’t come off, he can also avoid similar jeopardy when he’s deemed it necessary to. There’s an element of trust in his decision making.
Asked if that strategy is possible because he knows he has McLaren’s full backing, O’Ward replies: “I'd expect them to be, because if I've shown something in the last four seasons, it's that I never go halfway, I always give it 100%.
“And even at times where I've had to swallow my ego, multiple times around the year, or else I would have ended up in a crash. They've seen those, they know that a lot of times I'm the one that has to swallow my ego in order to take out a solid points finish.
“There's definitely times where you get tired of doing that, and especially when a race means so much or when the opportunity is just shouting at your face. You’ve just got to take it sometimes, you can't always be so reserved.”
It’s easy to see why McLaren backs the approach, because it would be unfair to criticise it given that O’Ward does actually often pull himself back, and so often when he doesn’t, he delivers incredible feats of individual brilliance.
You only have to examine his record versus his team-mates to see what he has been able to do at this relatively new team, which has often asked a lot of its drivers - its knife-edge car handling, which has been softened over the last couple of years but still requires incredible skill to extract the maximum from, is an example of that.
Watch an O'Ward qualifying lap and you'll know exactly what we mean.
McLaren will be hoping to make the car less cut-throat again this year for Alexander Rossi and new signing David Malukas.
As well as investing in infrastructure and resources where team boss Gavin Ward felt McLaren behind when he took over, it has a new engineering truck for the track this year that some people have already suggested might trigger a mini-revolution among top IndyCar teams.
“I’m pumped because I saw it, and it's frickin’ super cool,” is O’Ward’s response to that truck, although he doesn’t expect it to change the approach to a weekend too much.
The big area of focus is to improve how the car races, as McLaren has struggled to match some of its impressive qualifying performances with race pace too.
Aside from that, winning the Indy 500 is the big goal for O’Ward especially given he has established himself as one of the best drivers at the Speedway in just five years of racing at a venue it takes some a career to conquer.
“Whether you like it or not, I think it's something that just keeps getting heavier and heavier on your shoulders as the years go on, because you want it that much,” adds O’Ward, who is aiming to try to treat the event more like a normal race in a bid to extract the best from himself in 2024.
He also stresses that the championship is a big goal of his this year, despite expectations often skewing towards the Indy 500 first.
“The Indy 500, when you win that race, whether it was for luck, whether it was because you made the pass at the end, it doesn't matter how you win it, it seems like you're never forgotten,” says O’Ward.
“But I think you cannot say the same about the championship. It's important for people to realise how important the championship actually is as well, not just the Indy 500. But that's the reality that we live in currently.
Once the championship is out of the way, he’ll be heading from Nashville - host of the IndyCar season finale - to Singapore for his F1 duties.
A lot can change in a year. It was Palou who was supposed to head from the IndyCar finale to Singapore last year, only for a contract dispute to trigger him staying at Chip Ganassi Racing for 2024 instead of becoming O’Ward’s McLaren team-mate.
With a contract extending through 2025, O’Ward’s not likely to be in the same position. He'll also be joining a team that, right now, is buoyant from a 2023 rebound in F1 that was pulled off without having most of its new technical leadership team in place.
“It's a wonderful opportunity that the F1 team, along with Zak, Andrea [Stella, team principal], just McLaren Racing as a whole [has given me]. Arrow McLaren being very flexible with that scheduling because, ultimately, as soon as I'm done with Nashville, I think I go straight to Singapore,” explains O’Ward.
“After that, I'm just doing the rest of the season [as F1 reserve].
“So I've got a really, really long season ahead. But I'm ready to be a part of everything and really take advantage of the opportunities because that's just what you've got to do whenever you get those chances because they're not confirmed to come the next year.
“I’m super pumped, looking forward to what the Formula 1 team can do.
“And I'm looking forward to what we can do in IndyCar, it's my priority, I want to take that next step for all of us.
"And hopefully the team as well is on the same boat, that they want to take the next step on their behalf, to help me better my chances, getting the 500, getting the championship, and just truly being a contender until the end and not kind of staying short of a Ganassi or… we weren't really short of a Penske last year, but Ganassi definitely took the cake.”
O’Ward wants more than just a slice of that cake in 2024. A lot of how gluttonous he can be will depend on McLaren taking another leap forward, but you get the feeling it’s edging closer and closer to the elusive IndyCar breakthrough.
When McLaren does make it, it will be O’Ward, more than any of its other drivers, it is relying on to deliver. Risks and all.