LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Zak Brown, dressed in the papaya colors of McLaren Racing, made his first appearance at an IndyCar race this season and started Friday by unveiling a special livery series for the Indianapolis 500.
Then the head of McLaren’s multi-series global motorsports program hustled across the paddock at the Grand Prix of Long Beach — the home track for the Los Angeles native — to drive a 1980 Williams FW07 in preparation for this weekend’s Historic F1 Challenge race.
Back and forth all weekend — from car to car, meeting to meeting — as Brown utilized an off weekend in Formula One to check in on his IndyCar program. He was with the McLaren F1 team during IndyCar’s first two races of the season, both nearly won by Pato O’Ward.
Instead, O’Ward settled for second at both the season opener on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, and on the oval at Texas Motor Speedway. Even without the trophies, the strong opening sent O’Ward to Long Beach as the IndyCar points leader headed into Sunday’s race.
It’s a bright spot for Brown when he most needs some inspiration for the motorsports program. The F1 team has not been competitive through the first three races: Lando Norris ranks eighth in the standings and rookie Oscar Piastri is 13th.
But in IndyCar, where Brown expanded the program to three full-time entries this year with the addition of 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, the team is off to a tremendous start. Rossi finished fourth in the season-opener and is ranked ninth in the standings, while Felix Rosenqvist has shown great pace and won the pole at Texas but failed to finish the first two races of the season.
Either way, Brown said the performance in the United States has been a companywide boost.
“The entire McLaren organization loves how we go racing in different series, so it’s definitely great for morale,” Brown said. “While we’ve been off to a slow start in Formula One, we’ve been competitive in Formula E, and then over here we have been very competitive.
“McLaren is built of a bunch of racers, so like me, anytime they can turn on the TV and see a McLaren at the front, they get excited.”
Things are going so well in IndyCar that Brown is now considering adding a fourth full-time entry for 2024. He’s got Tony Kanaan scheduled to run a fourth car for McLaren in the Indy 500, and NASCAR star Kyle Larson will do Indy next year for the team in a two-year agreement in conjunction with Hendrick Motorsports.
But he’s also examining if there’s a way to expand immediately and even keep Rosenqvist. The team has already signed Alex Palou for next season, so Rosenqvist knows he’s out at McLaren unless the team expands.
But even with a fourth car, Brown needs to see consistency to keep Rosenqvist on the roster.
“He needs to hang with Pato and Alex (at the front),” Brown said.
Rosenqvist has made it clear he wants to keep his seat at McLaren.
“The results are going to be a key player in what my situation is going to be,” Rosenqvist said. “Obviously I want to stay with the team. I love the team and I’ve made that clear many times and we’ll see.”
Asked what would happen if another team came calling while McLaren was still deciding if it can expand for next year, Rosenqvist shrugged it off as a hypothetical scenario: “Anything can happen. Elephants can start raining from the sky.”
As for O’Ward, his fast start to the season has been a breakout for the young Mexican driver. He opened last year upset with Brown over his contract and he was mentally distracted through the first two races of the season. He was still struggling when he got to Long Beach and hit the wall in practice and then qualified 11th.
In a conversation with one of his cousin’s in his hotel room later that night, O’Ward decided to let go of the contract situation before he threw away his entire season. It led to a fifth-place finish the next day, and then a win at Barber in the next IndyCar outing.
“I was just flustered and when you are in that, it’s never going to come out well,” O’Ward said. “Whenever you are that on the limit, any little thing is just going to push you over the edge, right? You always need that breathing room to just relax.
“And I guess I was kind of like ‘What the hell am I doing to myself?’ I knew how much value I was and it was a moment where I felt like they weren’t on the same page, so that is when you doubt yourself.”
O’Ward eventually got a new contract — complete with a McLaren to add to his personal vehicle inventory — and won two races. He also finished second in the Indianapolis 500.
Brown says O’Ward’s upward trajectory began on race day at Long Beach a year ago and has helped raise the team to a new level. O’Ward has lost to Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing and Josef Newgarden of Team Penske — the two top teams in IndyCar. McLaren is trying to squeeze into that mix of weekly contenders.
“I think everyone is in a great space. The team is in a great space,” Brown said. “The team is working out, we’ve put a real focus on the whole team being fitness focused. We’ve changed diet for the team, changed the workout regime for the team, and tried to get everyone in a mindset that no matter what you do, you need to be an athlete and it’s early days but its paying dividends.”
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Jenna Fryer, The Associated Press