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McLaren hands F2 champion IndyCar debut: Main questions answered

by Jack Benyon
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Arrow McLaren will give reigning Formula 2 champion Theo Pourchaire an IndyCar debut this weekend on the streets of Long Beach.

The 20-year-old is replacing the injured David Malukas, slotting in alongside the Pato O’Ward and double Long Beach winner Alexander Rossi in what will be an up-against-it debut - with only a day in the Chevrolet simulator to prepare Pourchaire for driving an IndyCar for the first time.

The move certainly comes as no surprise as - intentionally or not - Pourchaire’s been posting pictures online tagged with Indy as the location, and it’s been widely reported what he was doing in the region.

But what does this move mean for Malukas, McLaren’s World Endurance Championship indisposed previous stand-in Callum Ilott and for Pourchaire? What challenges will the latter face, and what does this move tell us about McLaren’s driver planning for the future? The Race investigates.

Why is McLaren swapping drivers?

Malukas fell off his mountain bike during pre-season and fractured his hand.

He was expected in the immediate aftermath to miss the first two races - St Petersburg and the non-points Thermal weekend - and return at Long Beach.

We don’t have any updated timeframe for his recovery, but it’s clear there has been a delay.

What's Pourchaire's track record?

Theo Pourchaire, F2

Born in Grasse, near Cannes, in France, 20-year-old Pourchaire is part of Sauber’s Formula 1 junior programme - and has been since 2019.

The year before, he had been a race winner in the French F4 championship in his first year in cars, then won German F4 before doing a season in F3 where he finished second to current McLaren F1 sensation Oscar Piastri.

From 2021 to 2023 Pourchaire competed with ART Grand Prix in F2, finishing fifth, second and then first last year.

He’s moved into the Super Formula championship in Japan this year but has had a nightmare start there, finishing 18th at Suzuka - his generally uncompetitive weekend exacerbated by an off.

What have he and McLaren said about the move?

Theo Pourchaire, McLaren, IndyCar

Pourchaire said he was "sorry that the opportunity came as David continues to recover", and that it's "not going to be an easy task, but I’m ready for it".

He thanked the McLaren bosses for the call-up, as well as Sauber for allowing him to accept it.

“This is an amazing opportunity to drive with such a legendary team in a legendary motorsport series," he said.

"I’ve watched IndyCar since I was a young kid, and the racing is incredible. I was thrilled to get the call from the team.

"It’s not going to be an easy task, but I’m ready for it.”

Team boss Gavin Ward added: "It’s a shame that David’s recovery is longer than we all originally anticipated.

"He’s been working with our team trainer very closely with what rehab and strength exercises are possible at this point, and the team’s been doing a great job in the meantime to work together through the changes they’ve had since his injury.

"Theo may be an unexpected driver in the IndyCar paddock this season, but we’re excited to see what he can do on the track in Long Beach and are thankful for Sauber in working with us to make it happen.

"He has a strong resume, especially for his young age, and he’s eager to work with  us and put his driving to the test this weekend.”

Is he a contender for an F1 seat?

Theo Pourchaire, Alfa Romeo, F1

At the moment, The Race’s paddock sources are not hearing Pourchaire linked with an F1 seat for 2025.

Although Pourchaire jumped up to F2 sooner than most and doesn’t have as many years in cars as some of his rivals, it’s still complicated to convince F1 teams you deserve the chance if it takes three or more seasons to win an F2 title.

It's complicated further by an incredibly talented F2 field this year - which includes Ferrari star stand-in Ollie Bearman and Lewis Hamilton's potential Mercedes replacement, 17-year-old Kimi Antonelli. And that's just the drivers at Prema!

There’s no doubt Pourchaire is talented, but failing to secure an F1 seat for 2024 combined with what looks like it is going to be a very tough Super Formula season means it’s more likely at the moment at least that Pourchaire ends up in the WEC, Formula E or IndyCar.

What this tells us about McLaren’s long-term planning

Zak Brown, Arrow McLaren, IndyCar

As JR Hildebrand raised on this week’s The Race IndyCar Podcast, this feels like a long-term planning move by McLaren.

First off, given that this is Long Beach, a gruelling IndyCar street circuit, there are other drivers McLaren could have chosen who would likely get up to speed quicker than Pourchaire.

McLaren knows that, so this move points to a chance to evaluate Pourchaire for the future. Dropping him into the frying pan to see how he deals with it.

It’s likely McLaren will have to stick at three cars for next year as its current shop isn’t big enough to house more, and the team won’t move until getting ready for 2026. But O’Ward is believed to be the only driver nailed on to race at McLaren next year, with Rossi and the yet-to-race Malukas each hoping to hold on to their seats.

Having Ilott and Pourchaire fully benchmarked against Rossi and O’Ward will be priceless in terms of making a decision, whether it’s for 2025 or 2026.

McLaren CEO Zak Brown will be at Long Beach, and on-hand to evaluate Pourchaire and continue the team’s planning for its next major driver moves after missing out on Alex Palou in instantly-infamous circumstances.

Between Ilott and Pourchaire, one of the two could compete at all of the remaining IndyCar races without clashes in their respective primary series, so there are plenty of options whether Malukas is declared fit tomorrow or later in the year, or anywhere in between.

How tough is the adaptation?

Theo Pourchaire, Alfa Romeo, F1

This list of challenges is as long as a papyrus scroll.

Pourchaire hasn’t driven the car before, that’s one. It can be tail-happy with a dose of mid-corner understeer to keep you honest, so at a street circuit the walls can really catch you out.

The tyre is new and different to what Pourchaire will have used before.

Each series’ pitstops are slightly different - although refuelling is done in Super Formula, too - and just getting used to all of the buttons and tools in the cockpit over two hours and 15 minutes of practice will be a big ask.

It’s also the third race of the season for most of the rest of the field, so not only have most of them raced at Long Beach before, they are 'match-sharp', also given there's been more testing than usual by this point in the season.

It's extremely rare that a driver gets an IndyCar race outing without doing even the smallest of test days first.

Is McLaren good at Long Beach?

Pato O'Ward, Arrow McLaren, IndyCar

This was the scene of O’Ward’s infamous crash with Scott Dixon last year.

The team has had pace here but has made mistakes and got caught up in incidents, so its average finish is 14.57. Not a happy hunting ground traditionally, but Pourchaire won’t be bothered about the exact result anyway.

He's here to impress the team with how he approaches and moves through the weekend - it won't be looking at the result as the ultimate gauge of how well he's done.

What do other F2 driver outings tell us about Pourchaire’s chances?

Christian Lundgaard, RLL, IndyCar

A former F2 team-mate of Pourchaire's, Christian Lundgaard is a race winner in IndyCar after Toronto last year and might be the hottest free agent going into 2025.

Ilott, who left F2 the year before Pourchaire's arrival, impressed in his IndyCar stint at Juncos even though that didn’t end well, and Marcus Armstrong (a three-season F2 driver like Pourchaire) was last year’s rookie of the year.

The record of those drivers is strong, and none of them were F2 champions, although you’d certainly put all three in Pourchaire’s category in terms of ability. For Lundgaard and Ilott, I’d place them in a higher tier, but in Pourchaire’s defence he doesn’t have the sheer length of resume they do - and he did have Lundgaard comprehensively beaten, 140 points to 50, in their season as F2 team-mates.

What will happen at Barber?

Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren, IndyCar

McLaren has not ruled Malukas out of the Barber race next weekend yet, but a week seems tight in the context of him already missing Long Beach.

In its press release announcing Pourchaire, the team stated: "As David’s recovery timeline extends beyond the originally anticipated six weeks, the team will continue to evaluate his health with his medical care team. Confirmation on the driver for the No. 6 NTT DATA Arrow McLaren Chevrolet for the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix will come in due course."

Ilott has been the regular stand-in and could get back from the WEC at Imola - clashing with Long Beach - in time to race at Barber. That would be a strong option for McLaren at a track where Ilott has impressed in the past.

However, the team may elect to use this as an opportunity to evaluate Pourchaire further. He will have had a weekend of learning at Long Beach before heading into a track that is a lot more European in style compared to many others in IndyCar.

It might also just be easier for the team logistically with things like the seat and set-up to keep Pourchaire in, although that won’t be a deciding factor.

Giving Pourchaire a more typical weekend he’d be used to at Barber seems like a fair exchange for the ‘drinking from the firehose’ baptism he’ll get this weekend in Long Beach.

What happens after Barber

David Malukas and Callum Ilott, Arrow McLaren, IndyCar

McLaren’s awkward driver triangle will only be solved once Malukas’s injury timeline is confirmed.

Hopefully Malukas is fully fit and ready to return, if not for Barber then either at the Indianapolis road course on May 4 or the following week, to qualify for the Indy 500. But these are all tight timeframes for an injury recovery that has already been delayed.

And anything short of 100% fitness would be an issue for an event as big as the 500.

The next six of Ilott's scheduled WEC outings this season all clash with various IndyCar races (Pourchaire is in theory available for all of these).

If Malukas did miss the Indy road course, Pourchaire is available with Ilott at Spa for WEC. For the 500, should it come to that, you’d expect Ilott to get the nod.

There’s basically zero chance McLaren would put Pourchaire in for that race when a) Pourchaire hasn’t done any oval testing and b) two-time 500 starter Ilott is available. Presumably the team’s sporting director Tony Kanaan - the 2013 500 winner - could even step in although he retired from IndyCar following last year’s event.

Hopefully, none of that has to happen as a speedy Malukas return makes it a moot point - but with the delays in his recovery McLaren would be remiss not to evaluate alternatives.

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