You might be forgiven for wondering why McLaren has put an engineer – in this case, ex-Red Bull Formula 1 ace and Penske title winner Gavin Ward – in charge as the effective team principal of its IndyCar team.
Especially amid a period where Mattia Binotto’s high-profile Ferrari exit has shone a light on if people from a technical background are really the best fit to lead teams in their quest for success.
At McLaren, previous team boss Taylor Kiel has left to join Chip Ganassi Racing. His stepfather Mike Hull is the managing director there and while Kiel knows his way around the spanners, his business degree sets him up best for a managerial role, as Ganassi faces looming retirements for some of its key leadership team in the coming years.
But you’d be very wrong thinking Ganassi is the only winner in this move.
First off, Binotto wasn’t the problem at Ferrari – it was, and remains, the self-defeatist culture of the team. While he tried to install a no-fear atmosphere, ultimately he’s taken the blame for a season where it was successful in its original long-term goal of becoming a race-winning title contender again in 2022 after years of underperforming.
Luckily, McLaren is a much more flexible organisation which appears to value getting the right people in place – like it has done with Andreas Seidl on the F1 side – and giving them the backing to do their job properly without fear of being replaced haphazardly.
That’s been further reconfirmed this week by the promotion from within to replace the Sauber/Audi-bound Seidl with Andrea Stella – another engineer at his core but someone who provides so much more than that, just like Ward does.
The McLaren IndyCar operation has gone through a transition, since McLaren took over the Schmidt Peterson team for 2020, in trying to understand how best to implement working practices from its F1 team, add personnel and invest in the infrastructure.
Most impressively, it has never bitten off more than it can chew, changed too much or ploughed money into the wrong areas. This has been a relatively slow-burning project where the team has kept big changes mostly to each off-season at the end of the year. It’s had the money to spend big but is aware that money can’t always solve the problems it creates.
Its employees have been empowered to push back if something the team wants to try is wrong, or isn’t working – Pato O’Ward did so outwardly earlier this year. It’s a totally flexible process which, on paper at least, couldn’t look further away from a Ferrari situation.
With Ward – who joined in June last year but has recently been made the team boss – it’s clear what McLaren gets.
He’s an IndyCar championship-winning race engineer, and at Red Bull was an F1 aerodynamicist, control system writer and operator and a race engineer. To be honest, without offending IndyCar, Ward’s ability dictates he should still be in F1, even if he’s loved the IndyCar challenge since coming over to Penske in 2018.
While Ward is fundamentally an ‘engineer’ – a term we have to use loosely with him because he’s done so many different things – he’s come to a realisation about what he should be doing next based on his own experiences.
“It’s funny, I’d say in my career, as time goes on, I’ve gone from probably more technical focused to more and more people focused, that’s kind of my realisation of what makes a difference,” Ward tells The Race in an exclusive interview following his appointment as ‘racing director’ – although that terminology is just to differentiate between the team bosses across McLaren’s many series.
“The more experience I’ve had, I really believe this is a people game. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can’t kind of influence the people around you, or execute on the day, have people work in a productive, cohesive manner, manage emotions, get in the zone, all that sort of stuff, the results don’t really come.
“This [taking the McLaren role] has probably pressed fast-forward in terms of where I maybe thought I’d be in some ways, but I’m ready. I feel ready for it.
“I feel pretty excited for it, it seems to suit kind of that progression.
“I came here with the vision of helping to build a dominant racing team that’s good to its people, grows its people, embraces individuality and diversity, embraces the grind that is going racing and competing week-in and week-out.
“But it has a lot of fun going racing, that’s kind of like the dream team that I know we can build. I showed up here and I felt like that was already the vision here too.”
It’s interesting Ward left when he did, vacating his role as Josef Newgarden’s engineer ahead of the 2022 season in which Newgarden went on to win five races, his team-mate Scott McLaughlin won three and the other Penske car went and won the title, with Will Power.
But as you might expect, Ward feels like the upside of the role at McLaren was worth foregoing an incredible year with one of IndyCar’s best.
That’s partly because he believes the team is poised to topple the likes of Penske and Ganassi in the future.
“Yeah, Penske had a phenomenal year, Rome wasn’t built in a day. They’re where they are from a long period of stability, sustained investment,” says the Canadian, now living in Indianapolis.
“They do a heck of a lot of things right, and I definitely wouldn’t belittle their achievements. They had a phenomenal year and that group should be really proud of it.
“But for me, this was the opportunity to do something very, very special.
“IndyCar has been dominated by three teams for the past 20 years. I saw this as a chance to be a part of something and build something that could kind of topple that, which was just really exciting, it continues to excite me every day.
“I think also bringing that McLaren name back to the Indy 500 winner’s circle, the chance to add one of our drivers… to sort of immortalise one of our drivers with their face on the BorgWarner. Obviously, [Alexander] Rossi’s already on there [from his time at Andretti], but we can get him another one.
“Those are the things that inspired that move for me. And it’s just a chance to kind of put my imprint on it.
“I’m really grateful for my time at Penske, and at Red Bull, they’ve been huge in my personal development in my career and life in general, but, I kind of want to do it my way now.”
McLaren has been on the ascent, and in 2022 it was able to make its car easier to drive and elevate Felix Rosenqvist up the order – after a woeful 2021 – as Pato O’Ward fell just short of challenging for a title for the second successive year, mainly down to reliability issues which cost him a number of strong results.
As well as improving the team’s street course car, Ward has targeted the team’s side of any reliability weaknesses it had in 2022 alongside “investment in the tools and processes of how we go about racing”, adding that the series’ best teams “have been putting that long-term investment in for a decade or more than that”.
The team will also add a third full-time car for the first time in 2023 with Andretti’s Alexander Rossi joining, which will provide more data over the course of a race weekend, and it will run four cars for the first time when Tony Kanaan joins for the one-off Indy 500.
Besides that, the other area will be continuing to make sure the team is using the best possible methods to achieve results.
Ward provides another upside as he’s worked in an F1 team before and can help balance the team that has a dedicated group working on IndyCar back in Woking alongside the majority of the team in Indianapolis.
“I think we’re starting to get all cylinders firing with that partnership, we’ve got access to just fantastic people and resources on the UK side in the F1 world, that’s just awesome,” adds Ward.
“I think we can’t underestimate how different it is to go racing in IndyCar versus Formula 1.
“I’m sure people that come from either side have a bit of a culture shock to it all. I’ve kind of been through that already.
“I don’t know if translator is the right word, but bridging the gap between the IndyCar world and the Formula 1 world at McLaren itself, because there are not a lot of people that have lived both.
“I think there’s a lot of pros and cons to both worlds.
“So for me, it’s kind of about bringing the best of both together. I think we can all learn from each other. But yeah, it’s been kind of as expected, and I think, just huge potential. But yeah, I’m enjoying that.”
McLaren’s decisive but slow-burning approach to building its IndyCar team pays off with little gains each year, and that’s all it really needs at this point.
It’s clear to me at least that Ward is the right person to take over. Yes, his ability is anchored in his engineering skill, but he’s learned a lot about how a workplace should and shouldn’t be run in his years of experience, and is clearly what many would describe as a ‘people person’ anyway.
This isn’t exactly a promote-from-within scenario as Ward only joined last year, but as many of the big-name hires as McLaren has gone after, it has done plenty of promoting its own personnel as well. Equally, many who didn’t feel IndyCar was for them have moved on to other series with the team.
With O’Ward, Rosenqvist and Rossi signed for next season and Ward at the helm, expectations will go up another level.
It’s hard to see how the team won’t be a fierce proposition in 2023 for both the IndyCar title and the Indy 500 – where it was already runner-up this year.