Pato O'Ward Proves That IndyCar Is Where He Belongs

Pato O'Ward is IndyCar's first repeat winner in 2021—and one of motorsport's rising stars. What's next for him?

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Pato O’Ward celebrating his second win of the 2021 season at the Detroit Grand Prix.
Pato O’Ward celebrating his second win of the 2021 season at the Detroit Grand Prix.
Photo: Chris Owens / IndyCar Media

“I like to win, and I’m not here to do anything else but win,” Patricio O’Ward, driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team, told Jalopnik in a recent chat ahead of this weekend’s race at Road America. “We’re all race car drivers, and we all want to beat each other. And that’s what drives me.”

It has never been any surprise that O’Ward, who goes by the nickname Pato, has been on hell of an impressive driver. Just look at his Pro Mazda results—seven wins in 16 races in 2016. Look at the year he won the 2018 Indy Lights championship with nine wins in 17 races. Look at his near-perfect streak of wins with Performance Tech in IMSA back in 2017. Here’s a guy that’s killing it.

But 22-year-old O’Ward’s career hasn’t always reflected that on-track success.

“It’s been a rough ride, honestly,” O’Ward told me—something of an understatement, I’d argue. “The hard times in my career or in life, that’s what fuels me to compete. The highs are definitely what continues to drive you, but the fire within someone—in this case me—to truly make something good happen out of people that are doubting you, there’s nothing more rewarding to prove to everyone that you have it and that you’re accomplishing it.”

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O’Ward’s IndyCar debut at Sonoma Raceway in 2018.
O’Ward’s IndyCar debut at Sonoma Raceway in 2018.
Photo: Stephen King / IndyCar Media

Let’s throw it back to just a few years ago. O’Ward’s Indy Lights title guaranteed him a few rides in the following year’s IndyCar series as part of the championship package. His debut at that year’s IndyCar season finale at Sonoma Raceway saw him start fifth and finish ninth with Harding Racing—the team’s best finish that whole season. He signed with Harding in the team’s second full-time entry for 2019. Things seemed good.

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Then there were issues with his sponsorship that saw Harding drop O’Ward. The Mexican driver signed with Carlin, but he left the championship when the Red Bull Racing Junior Team saw O’Ward’s talent and believed it could slot him into the gap in its program. They’d give O’Ward a few Formula 2 drives, but he was on the fast track to the top tier of international motorsport: Formula One.

There was just one problem: O’Ward’s Super License.

In short, a Super License is awarded by the FIA that allows drivers to compete in F1 if they meet certain qualifications. You can earn points toward your Super License by, say, winning an Indy Lights championship—but O’Ward had a problem. Not enough drivers competed in the Indy Lights series the year he won his championship; only seven racers were competing full time. That meant that, while O’Ward would normally have the Super License points required to compete in F1, he had lost some of those points due to a technicality that essentially deemed Indy Lights unfit to be a legitimate international championship.

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To add insult to injury, O’Ward had failed to qualify for the Indy 500 after a rough crash in 2019. He desperately needed to catch a break, but it just didn’t look like it was set to happen.

“It’s been a rough ride, honestly. It’s been tough,” O’Ward said. But he stressed that the split between himself and Red Bull was mutual.

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“Things didn’t really work out because it was out of our control. Red Bull couldn’t use me for what they wanted to use me for, which was basically for a Formula One seat,” O’Ward told me. “They said, you have a great chance with McLaren in IndyCar. It’s your future. We don’t want to stand in the way of that. I said, okay, let’s go our separate ways.”

The way O’Ward tells it, McLaren boss Zak Brown had been scoping him out for a while. Brown was the first call he made within minutes of the Red Bull contract folding.

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“A few days later, [Brown] called me and said, “we can offer this and this and this,’ and we got it signed,” O’Ward said.

He was officially a full-time IndyCar driver.

O’Ward after his first IndyCar victory at Texas Motor Speedway.
O’Ward after his first IndyCar victory at Texas Motor Speedway.
Photo: Chris Owens / IndyCar Media
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As O’Ward kicked off the coronavirus-delayed 2020 season, it was obvious he was going to be successful, but I predicted it would be a year before he really found his footing. In some ways, I was right; O’Ward needed a chance to find his form, but he found it fast. By the end of the year, everyone knew it would only be a matter of time before O’Ward crossed the finish line ahead of the pack. In fact, it was honestly surprising he hadn’t transformed his incredible performances into a win in 2020; he finished the season fourth in the overall championship, having scored four podiums.

Now, O’Ward is the first repeat winner in a highly competitive 2021 season. As of this writing, he’s leading the championship by a single point over Álex Palou. He has a fairly considerable lead over reigning champion Scott Dixon. It’s a testament to the success Arrow McLaren SP and O’Ward have been able to achieve together.

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“They’re like a second family to me,” O’Ward said of his Arrow McLaren SP crew. “The biggest thing I can take away is that everyone in the team knows that I am my biggest critic. The last thing they ever think of adding to my plate is pressure because they know there’s already a lot there, and it’s all coming from me. They understand what it’s like to be in my shoes. They just let me be me.

“That’s really, really nice because then you can really enjoy your time when you’re with them on race weekends or traveling with them on media days or simulators or whatever it may be. I can be myself. I don’t have to be a robot, which ultimately is really nice because people can see me and not some form of me trying to perfect the way I want to portray myself.

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And he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. In fact, O’Ward just looks to be growing stronger.

“Our hard work is showing we’re on the right path to what we want to accomplish this year, but there’s still so much racing to go,” he said.

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“I love competing against legends like Dixon, [Josef] Newgarden, [Will] Power, [Ryan] Hunter-Reay. They’re guys that I respect a lot, that I’ve idolized since I was a kid. It’s really cool to share the race track with them and compete with them,” he said. “It’s one thing to share the race track with them and get spanked, but it’s another thing to be on track with them and actually be competing against them, racing against them, getting wheel to wheel with them. Truly, what we all want to do is give them a hard time. We’re in this for the victories and the wins and the celebrations.”

Image for article titled Pato O'Ward Proves That IndyCar Is Where He Belongs
Photo: Matt Fraver / IndyCar Media (Getty Images)
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As for the future? O’Ward isn’t ready to look that far out.

“I’m very focused on the job at hand here in IndyCar. I want to do a good job for Arrow McLaren SP,” he said.

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He waxed poetic about how nice it would be to race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, saying, “That is definitely a big dream for me, to be able to race in IndyCar in front of my country... It would be a sold out event.”

Many folks have been keen to speculate on his chances outside of IndyCar—specifically within the F1 camp. After all, O’Ward is still young, and a move to the largest stage of motorsport undoubtedly holds some appeal, if not for the competition then simply for the prestige. He’s excited to try out an F1 car, his reward for scoring his first IndyCar win, but his expectations for the event are reasonable.

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“[F1 cars] look ridiculous, especially when they’re low fuel, flying full power, full downforce, all the grip,” he said. They look pretty spectacular. I’m really excited to feel what they’re like. And just working with McLaren and the engineers, trying to help in any way I can.”

But O’Ward wouldn’t elaborate further.

“In the future, if something comes about in either Formula One or something else, we’ll see,” he said. “But right now, I have a job and a job to finish and do well, which is to try to win the IndyCar championship. I know that is as important to the team as their Formula One championship. I’d love to get that together with them.

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“And then we’ll see. We’ll see what the future has in store for me. But right now, I’m really enjoying my time in IndyCar. I’m really enjoying the racing, the competitiveness, the atmosphere. It’s just really nice.”