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Patricio O’Ward’s 2020 Season Proves IndyCar Is Where He Belongs

Patricio O’Ward has found a home with Arrow McLaren SP in 2020, and he’s found his calling in the NTT IndyCar Series.

O’Ward has had a tough time finding a race team to settle down with. Whether he’s been behind the wheel in American open-wheel paddocks or on track to Formula One, the Mexican driver has flexed his muscles and shown his talent—but he’s had just about as many falling outs as he has impressive results.

He made his debut in the Pro Mazda Championship—the lowest rung on the Road to Indy ladder—in 2015. He finished sixth in overall points, and the following year he was absolutely dominant, winning seven races and securing a second place overall with Team Pelfry. 

2017 saw O’Ward focus on sportscar racing, coming home with a Prototype class championship in the IMSA series. When he returned to Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport the year after, he won yet another championship, this time with 13 podium positions and nine wins. It seemed to be a mere matter of time before he’d make his IndyCar debut.

Harding Racing signed Patricio O’Ward for the final race of the 2018 IndyCar season at Sonoma Raceway, where he qualified in fifth position—ahead of the likes of Alexander Rossi, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud

At the time, O’Ward was excited. “I honestly don’t know what to think about it,” he said after getting out of the car. “When I saw that I moved into the Fast Six, I thought [Josef] Newgarden, [Scott] Dixon, [Ryan] Hunter-Reay, [Marco] Andretti, Rossi, such big names, you’ve been looking at them for years and years and years, since I was a kid.”

He went on to finish ninth in the 2018 INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma.

It was the kind of debut that rookies dream about—but it quickly fell apart. Ahead of the 2019 season, Harding Racing joined forces with George Michael Steinbrenner IV. The rebranded Harding Steinbrenner Racing raised eyebrows when it announced it would send a single car to preseason testing at Circuit of the Americas. Four days later, O’Ward confirmed he would be seeking “a new opportunity” with his Indy Lights scholarship money.

Hope came in the form of Carlin, which signed O’Ward for a 12-race deal that included the Indianapolis 500. O’Ward’s best result came in his first race, when he finished eighth at the Circuit of the Americas. It was a downhill spiral after that, which came to a head when O’Ward failed to qualify for the 500.

But the Month of May also came with a surprise: Pato O’Ward would be joining the Red Bull Junior Team, an organization designed to sponsor promising young drivers on their way up to Formula One. The intention for O’Ward in the Red Bull program was that he would become a reserve driver at Toro Rosso, but the FIA didn’t award him the Super License required to pilot an F1 car due to the lesser points awarded to Indy Lights championships as opposed to Formula 2.

Halfway through 2019, Patricio O’Ward seemed to have regressed back to square one. He managed to scrape together a race with Carlin at Road America, and he was asked to compete in Formula 2 in the stead of a driver who had been banned. He competed in both races at the Red Bull Ring in Austria before being shipped off to Super Formula to take over Dan Ticktum‘s ride after the Brit was dropped by the Red Bull program.

Along the way, O’Ward had to concede his IndyCar career was over. There was no way to balance a career in America and Japan, and O’Ward expressed his disappointment. “I’m very excited for Japan. It’s obviously sad to leave the IndyCar community, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t go back,” he said at the time.

“It’s still a huge series that I really respect, and in my opinion one of the most highly competitive series in the world. So I might have some years over here in Europe and maybe in the future I go back and actually challenge for the 500 now!”

His international dreams didn’t last long. He was released from his Red Bull contract in October of 2019. According to Dr. Helmut Marko, head of the Red Bull development program, Patricio O’Ward’s future was with IndyCar.

O’Ward took the Arrow McLaren SP ride, and everything has looked up for him since.

Marko was right—IndyCar is Patricio O’Ward’s future, and his 2020 results thus far have proved that in spades. He currently sits fourth in the overall championship standings, has yet to finish lower than 12th and has already been challenging for a win alongside rookie teammate Oliver Askew. It was difficult to imagine O’Ward taking the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP to victory lane before the season started. Now, it’s just a matter of time until he does.

O’Ward’s European results—19th and 14th place in F2; two 14th places and a 6th in Super Formula—weren’t particularly promising, and the Red Bull Junior Team is notoriously cutthroat. While the extra funding from a big-name sponsor often enables drivers to seek out rides at better teams with solid equipment, it isn’t always a guarantee. Drivers who don’t perform are dropped just as quickly as they arrived.

In a more competitive but relaxed paddock, Patricio O’Ward has thrived. His is an example both of the power of determination and of the rewards a strong driver can accumulate in IndyCar. It may have taken a while to get there, but O’Ward has found the series that will allow him to achieve his utmost in racing.

The 2020 IndyCar season continues Sunday, Aug. 9 with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH. TV information is TBA.

 

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About Elizabeth Blackstock

Elizabeth Blackstock
Elizabeth Blackstock is lead IndyCar writer for Frontstretch, a freelance journalist, and a novelist. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently pursuing a dual MFA/MA degree at Arcadia University. She is in love with her car, a 2013 Mazda 2.