November 25th, 2012. That’s the last time McLaren found victory lane in an open-wheel race. Back then it was Jenson Button winning the final round of the 2012 Formula One season, the Brazilian Grand Prix. 3080 days later, young Patricio O’Ward took his Arrow McLaren SP to victory ahead of Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal, despite Scott Dixon having led most of the race. The kid was on fire all night, and his car was seriously hooked up, but it took some real daring passes to get the job done.
Since 2012 McLaren has seen some real dark days. The F1 constructor with eight championships, and twelve additional drivers’ championships with 182 race victories has been in a bit of a slump lately. When Lewis Hamilton left the team in 2012 everything went downhill, and a deal to switch from Mercedes power to Honda power really tanked the team with instant unreliability issues.
While McLaren has been rebuilding in F1 for the last couple of years, the 2021 car really seems to be on the right track. Lando Norris is clearly quite fast, and hopefully Daniel Ricciardo will get familiar with the team and his new car someday soon. The team is currently third in the points on pace after Mercedes and Red Bull, which is a solid glow up from its 9th placed finish in 2017.
In 2020 McLaren doubled its open wheel operations to four cars by joining forces with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the American IndyCar series. After a strong one-off running with support from Andretti at the Indy 500 in 2017 for Fernando Alonso (before his Honda powertrain exploded), and a positively miserable attempt in 2019 with help from Carlin which ended in a DNQ, McLaren did the smart thing and joined the series full-time.
Despite the new joint-venture team doubling down efforts for 2020, the McLaren SP team didn’t quite make it to victory lane. O’Ward managed a trio of runner-up finishes, however, proving just how close he was to getting the job done. Pato came into 2021 showing everyone he was serious by grabbing the first pole award at the season-opening Barber Motorsports Park round. At this weekend’s Texas double-header the 21-year-old Mexican driver pushed hard and brought home the hardware with a third-place finish in the Saturday race, and a strong victory in the Sunday race.
By taking the win on Sunday, O’Ward secured his place in the season-ending Bahrain Formula One young driver test with the McLaren F1 team. Such was the wager that team boss Zak Brown made with the up-and-comer. O’Ward claims he doesn’t want to leave IndyCar, even if he shows F1 promise with the team this fall.
It’s pretty easy to tell that this won’t be the last time McLaren finds victory lane in 2021. The win has vaulted O’Ward into a championship contending spot, just 22 points in arrears of the practically unbeatable Dixon. If McLaren can break the Indy 500 curse that has hung over the Papaya Orange team since Johnny Rutherford’s win there in 1976, Pato could be on his way to a serious championship contender spot as the season carries on.
Good for McLaren for finally getting that monkey off of their back. Here’s hoping we see young Lando nail an F1 victory this season, too. That would be the best turnaround story for the long-enduring legendary open wheel team.